A syringe and a bottle reading "Covid-19 Vaccine" next to the Pfizer company logo in Jerusalem on December 10, 2020.
(Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A syringe and a bottle reading "Covid-19 Vaccine" next to the Pfizer company logo in Jerusalem on December 10, 2020. (Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Q&A: Fighting the war against vaccine misinformation and fear

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According to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 14% of U.S. adults say they will “definitely not” get a Covid-19 vaccine, a number that has held relatively steady since December. Yet public health professionals are urging the public to get vaccinated as the delta variant of Covid spreads and mask mandates come back to the Bay Area.

To understand more about how messaging makes a difference, J. spoke to two experts in the field.

Lori Dorfman is the director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group and an adjunct professor at Berkeley Public Health, which is part of the UC system. She and her BMSG colleague Katherine Schaff, who has a Ph.D. in public health from UC Berkeley and specializes in health inequity issues, research how the media shapes public perception of health and works with health agencies to help them get their messages across to the general public.

J.: You work with a lot of public health agencies. How are they trying to get Covid vaccine rates up?

Katherine Schaff
Katherine Schaff

Katherine Schaff: The role of health departments is getting clear, accurate, concise, jargon-free information out to community members and supporting them when they have questions, so that they can then share [information]. There’s a lot of innovative stuff like youth doing their own campaigns, using social media, translating stuff from language we might use in public health to language with young people. So the work is out there. I mean, it is happening. We just need to continue to resource it and expand it.

But what about the people who don’t want to get vaccinated? How do you reach them?

Lori Dorfman
Lori Dorfman

Lori Dorfman: There’s not like some big campaign that could come out that would suddenly convince people who are on the fence. It would be very convenient if there were.

KS: It’s starting where people are, and not shaming people. There’s a lot of people who have valid questions, who are thinking about what this means for their kids. We in public health have a role to play in listening to and answering those questions.

We really recommend to start with the big picture — that we’re in this together, that what happens to people down the block matters for me and what I do matters for them — and then going into those scientific details.

Tell me about the role of “trusted messengers,” people whose word really counts in terms of convincing people to get vaccinated.

LD: Trusted messengers are absolutely the No. 1 thing, and there’s a whole range of who trusted messengers are.

I think we’re seeing the emergence of a particular type of trusted messenger now with people who didn’t think a vaccine was important and got sick, or a family member got sick. We’re seeing a lot of that regret come through in stories about people who now wish they had had a vaccine. I think those stories are very important. They’re heartbreaking, because the pain could have been prevented, but they’re important.

What are the kinds of things that you absolutely don’t want to see when you’re reading about Covid in the media?  

LD: We’ve seen mistakes in very sophisticated materials that have been produced around Covid where, when people are trying to educate the public about a myth, or something that’s erroneous, they repeat the myth or what’s erroneous, and in so doing, reinforce it.

If you’re concerned about misinformation, and you want to do something about it, don’t repeat the misinformation. When you have to counter the misinformation, do it in a very specific way, so that you “inoculate” your audience from reabsorbing the misinformation.

The hard part comes for the media to explain to people, “How is it that a new variant could infect vaccinated people? What does that really mean?” That’s a hard thing to do given the way the news media veers toward sensationalism. The conversation tends to focus on the breakthrough [infections], kind of the way violence reporting focuses on homicide.

How does social media play into the spread of misinformation?

LD: Misinformation is so disheartening and frustrating. Some of it is mistakes honestly shared. But there are some fingers to point here and some responsibility to take. And I’m glad that Google and Facebook are getting some scrutiny because they have deserved that scrutiny.

The algorithms that are dictating what people are shown on their feeds are a black box. It does seem to be really clear that the more sensational [the] stuff, the more [it] gets shared.

But we don’t want to put the responsibility for avoiding misinformation at the feet of an individual. That’s simply not fair. Facebook and Google have the tools, the resources, the people, the computer scientists to figure this out. It’s completely unfair to hold individuals accountable for misinformation that they didn’t produce, and that is being fed to them by a system that they have no control over.

What about the anger people feel toward the unvaccinated? 

KS: There’s definitely been times personally where I’ve been burnt out or angry or frustrated. But I think the really important part is taking that emotion and channeling it into action. Being angry is not going to get us that far in individual relationships, but directly using that anger to motivate us to call our legislators to understand tech’s role in spreading misinformation, and how they profit from it, is.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.