Healthcare providers are exhausted. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on all aspects of healthcare. Unfortunately, taking care of patients is not enough. Smack in the middle of this public health and infectious disease crisis (Yes, crisis!), misinformation continues to spread. It’s a war within a war!

As a result, healthcare providers are not only dealing with illnesses (COVID-19 and otherwise), they are often also dealing with patients and families who have been misinformed and, in some cases, radicalized to a point of belligerence and disrespect. With your head down on the tasks at hand, you might not be paying a lot of attention to what is happening online (or simply don’t want to deal with the hate there too). But some of what is happening may be helpful to know as you have those frontline conversations, so take this little quiz to check your awareness and find resources for more info:

1. Information from which anti-vaccine group was shared on Twitter more often than either CDC or WHO information during the week of Jan. 10, 2022?

  1. Learn the Risk
  2. Children’s Health Defense
  3. National Vaccine Information Center
  4. Sane Vax

The answer is B. Children’s Health Defense content was shared more than either CDC or WHO content that week according to CoVaxxy, a project that monitors vaccine-related tweets. The project is run by Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media in collaboration with Politecnico di Milano. According to CoVaxxy data, during the week of Jan. 10, 2022, Children’s Health Defense fund information was the third most shared content on Twitter behind Reuters and The Guardian. The group follows a collection of mainstream and “low credibility” sources followed by the project.

2. Which of these famous political families has a member who is an outspoken vaccine critic that uses the family name to raise money for this cause?

  1. Bush
  2. Clinton
  3. Kennedy
  4. Roosevelt

The answer is C. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., started the Children’s Health Defense, and his efforts have caused members of the Kennedy family to speak out publicly against his anti-vaccine efforts. Recently, the Associated Press published an in-depth look at how Kennedy has used the COVID-19 pandemic and his family’s name recognition to promote his anti-vaccine ideologies and raise millions of dollars for his effort. Read, “How a Kennedy built an anti-vaccine juggernaut amid COVID-19,” for a detailed look at Kennedy’s efforts.

3. Research has demonstrated that conspiracy theory communities unrelated to COVID-19 or vaccines have become closer to mainstream parenting communities by what mechanism during the pandemic?

  1. Alternative health communities acting as a bridge
  2. Linking directly to mainstream parenting communities
  3. Mainstream parenting communities linking directly to them
  4. GMO communities acting as a bridge

The answer is A. As links develop between alternative health groups and both conspiracy-based and mainstream-parenting groups, members of both communities will be more likely to see each other’s content and comments. Over time, the blending of conspiracy-related themes, including vaccine-related ones, and repeated exposure can make the narratives more palatable to parents seeking to protect their families. For more information, check out this paper by Restrepo and colleagues, published in IEEEXplore.

4. Restrepo and colleagues identified two ways that misinformation is finding its way into the mainstream. The first was when groups spreading it become closer to mainstream parenting communities, as described in question 3. What was the second?

  1. Building large communities
  2. Building visible communities
  3. Building well-connected communities
  4. Building several high-powered individual communities

The answer is C. Restrepo and colleagues found that “strength in depth” and connectedness was more important than being large and well known. Indeed, the authors pointed out that this finding explains why the social media platforms’ current approach to shut down the most visible spreaders is not causing much to change in terms of the spread of misinformation. They further advised that by only monitoring the content of anti-vaccine communities, and not mainstream groups, to label posts as inaccurate, the information is still able to spread in these other places.

5. Facebook has more than 1,700 COVID denial groups. What is the total membership of these groups?

  1. 1 million people
  2. 1.5 million people
  3. 2 million people
  4. 2.5 million people

The answer is D. According to a report from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), “Facebook and COVID Denial,” about 2.5 million people belong to COVID denial groups on Facebook and these groups are “fertile ground for far-right radicalization.” Further, as described in an interview on the Voices for Vaccines podcast episode, Vax Talk: Social Media and Vaccine Misinformation, one of the report authors, Devin Burghart, describes that as health and schooling issues related to COVID-19 have come into play, the participant makeup of these movements has changed. Whereas historically these groups have been composed primarily of men, some of these groups now boast a membership that includes half women.

The takeaways

While this information can be frustrating, it is important to be aware of not only what is happening online, but also what research is finding as well. In the examples given herein, some questions came from investigative reporting and some came from research. All contained important information to be armed with when speaking to patients and families on the frontlines.

Families should be encouraged to participate on social media with a questioning attitude:

  • Who is saying something?
  • Why are they saying it?
  • What do other sources say about this (not other people in the comments section, but outside of the platform)?

The VEC previously published an article, “Dissecting Social Media: What You Should Know,” in the Parents PACK newsletter with some of these tips. The article is also available as a PDF for easy sharing.

Likewise, fact checkers use a tool called “lateral reading,” which is a process of opening other tabs and looking across various web locations to find out about the person or website being evaluated. Find out more about lateral reading or share these resources with your patients and families:

Finally, check out the IREHR report chapter, “Recommendations,” which describes actions that can be taken by Facebook, government officials, and everyday citizens to address the spread of misinformation through social media.

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.