State officials concerned about vaccine misinformation on social media

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Capital News Service 

LANSING State officials say they’re concerned about misinformation on coronavirus vaccines on social media as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Michigan. 

Vaccination misinformation on social media can range from unfounded concerns that the vaccine affects fertility to more interesting takes, such as that 5G cell phone towers can exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms.

Michigan has the nation’s highest COVID-19 rate, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. 

“We’re very concerned about the recent increase in cases, announcing over 5,000 new cases a day,” said Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive and chief deputy director of the department. 

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of rumors and misinformation going around about the vaccine,” she said. “The vaccine is safe.” 

Attorney General Dana Nessel said people who otherwise would have gotten vaccinated may decide not to due to misinformation spread on social media.

“The request that we would make, and that we have made, to the social media outlets is if you see information that you know is factually inaccurate about the vaccine, to remove it from your platform when asked to do so,” Nessel said. “And certainly not to engage in the process of helping to disseminate it.

“You can’t scream ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. That’s not your First Amendment right. I don’t believe you should be able to willfully, knowingly disseminate misinformation about the vaccine because you are contributing to people dying,” Nessel said.

Research has shown that exposure to misinformation about vaccines is correlated with lower vaccination rates, said Young Anna Argyris, an assistant professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University. 

 She said although there is an apparent correlation between anti-vaccination messages and people’s decisions not to get the shots, researchers haven’t proven a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

However there are technologies that can be used to identify vaccine misinformation.

“Technically, it’s a really, really complicated task,” Argyris said. “Think about the number of posts that contain misinformation that are posted every day. Literally millions. We cannot screen them manually.”

She said she’s developed an algorithm — a set of mathematical processes or rules — that is 96% accurate in detecting misinformation.

Even so, the other 4% equals millions of posts that can “cause genuine harm,” Argyris said. Detecting misinformation becomes even more difficult when it comes to images and video.

Those who post misinformation about the vaccine may use different spellings of words, such as “vaccine” or “COVID-19,” to evade detection. 

Khaldun said COVID-19 cases have been rising in Michigan, in part due to “pandemic fatigue,” or people simply being tired of social distancing, as well as misinformation about the virus.

Misinformation about potential side effects could keep people from getting vaccinated, although most side effects are minor, she said. 

“They tend to primarily be mild pain at the injection site, low-grade fever, chills, particularly in younger individuals,” Khaldun said. “And that’s actually to be expected as a result of your body getting primed to be able fight the real virus if they come into contact with it.”

Khaldun said vaccines have proven effective despite misinformation.

“The vaccines are still more than 95% effective in preventing COVID-19,” she said. “And even if you do get COVID-19 after you’ve been fully vaccinated, your likelihood of getting hospitalized or losing your life is extremely low.”

“But I think it’s just really important in that we get appropriate facts out there so that people can learn and understand,” she said. 

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