In his final official briefing to the nation, Dr. Anthony Fauci urged Americans to get vaccinated and boosted in preparation for the upcoming holidays and cold weather gatherings. Nevertheless, only one eighth of area residents are currently up to date with COVID-19 booster shots.
Two reasons to support Dr. Fauci’s advice easily come to mind. First, many of us, acting out of empathy, want to slow the spread of COVID-19 among people whose immune systems are weakened. While there is no guarantee that staying caught up with COVID-19 vaccinations will keep us from testing positive, we do know that vaccines tend to reduce COVID-19’s duration, severity and our chance of reinfection. Getting boosted makes each of us less likely to spread the virus to others.
Second, since being up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations tends to shorten the time that we carry the infection, we hope to slow the evolution of the virus into dangerous new variants. The fewer days that people are infected, the less time there is for the virus to go through replication cycles where its DNA is repeatedly copied. Occasional random copying errors are what enable dangerous variant mutations to develop.
In spite of these considerations, why are so many of us not up to date with vaccinations and boosters?
Let’s look back over the nearly three years of our COVID-19 experience. The early days of this pandemic were filled with mixed messages, many of which were amplified through electronic social media. Initially, the then-President played down the seriousness of COVID-19, predicting that it would go away by springtime. There were even claims that the disease was a hoax. With vaccines yet to be developed and tested, and with a shortage in the early days of high-quality face masks, leading health officials gave the public mixed messages, at first playing down the importance of masking, and then within weeks, reversing themselves.
So, when very safe vaccines became available for free one year into the pandemic, barely half of us locally ever got the initial two dose regimen. By now, we have learned that the immunity conferred by initial vaccine doses tends to wane after several months, while in the same time span, COVID-19 often mutates into new, more infectious variants.
With the COVID-19 fatigue that we all feel at this point, people seek a compass that will help them get on with their lives. And so, it has become popular for many of us to find strength in maintaining an autonomous skepticism toward any political or medical authorities.
How much of this skepticism can be traced to the spread of disinformation? By disinformation, we mean inaccurate information, sometimes involving scapegoats and conspiracy theories, that is spread with the deliberate intention to deceive.
Many profitable social media sites on the Internet can be exploited to spread disinformation. Unlike telephone, radio, and television services, their content is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Also, it is easy to argue that restricting what people post could limit individual rights to free speech. Social media users can easily amplify disinformation by copying unverified posts to friends, thereby entering a “filter bubble,” where like-minded people echo and encourage negative emotions in each other’s posts.
The Internet platform Twitter responded in early 2020 by enacting a COVID-19 misinformation policy. It suspended over 11,000 accounts and removed almost 100,000 posts that it deemed to be harmful. But now, following its recent purchase by Elon Musk who himself had spread misleading COVID-19 claims on Twitter, Twitter has taken a big step backward. It announced that it has stopped enforcing its policy against COVID-19 misinformation, as was reported in this newspaper on November 30.
How can we improve our skill at spotting socially shared disinformation? A short video game, goviralgame.com, offers a playful, harmless way to get a feel for how to gain Internet popularity and power by spreading falsehoods. After experiencing how to do it, the game left me with a better understanding of how I can size up disinformation when I run into it. What I learned was that sending negative emotional messages made me a hero. And quoting fake experts is effective.
Here are several well-known ways to identify false information:
- Check facts using websites such as snopes.org, politifact.com, or by googling CoronaVirusFacts Alliance.
- Think twice about messages that appeal to emotions.
- Don’t spread falsehoods by sharing them even with a correction. If they’re from someone you know, reach out to that person privately.
- Consider whether a source shows the ability and humility to change over time when presented with new evidence.
Public trust builds when authorities are open about the limitations of their current knowledge. As for social media, let’s strive for accuracy rather than clicks and profit.
Ross Hemmendinger is a registered nurse and a former teacher.