Misinformation on social media can spread hesitancy about vaccines, expert warns

Last week, Facebook announced it would lower its search rankings of groups and pages that promote anti-vaccination content, in an effort to slow the spread of misinformation. We explore how social media is being leveraged to sow doubt about the safety of vaccinations, and hear how it's creating a hesitancy to vaccinate that threatens us all.

Facebook has promised to curb misinformation about vaccines on its platform

University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield says medical professionals should take time to listen to people's individual concerns about vaccinating, because not everyone is worried about the same thing. (Sam Martin/CBC)
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The spread of misinformation about vaccines on social media can have serious ramifications, according to a health expert and researcher.

Tim Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy, and a professor at the University of Alberta, warns that "vaccination-hesitant" Canadians are most vulnerable.

"Just being exposed to that information can create a degree of hesitancy," Caulfield told The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Some studies estimate that 20 to 30 per cent of the Canadian population can be classified as vaccine-hesitant, he said.

By comparison, "hardcore anti-vaxxers are a relatively small cohort. You're looking at — depending on the survey you look at — two to five per cent of the population," he explained.

"And we're probably not going to change their mind."

B.C. confirms 18 measles cases

Several cases of the measles have been confirmed across Canada. (Lukas Schulze/dpa/Associated Press)

Canada is grappling with a measles outbreak in B.C., with 17 cases confirmed in Vancouver, and an 18th, unrelated case confirmed in the province's interior as of Saturday. Other cases have been reported in Ontario and the Northwest Territories.

Experts have called on social media companies to do more to combat anti-vaccination misinformation online. On Thursday, Facebook announced it would reduce the visibility of inaccurate posts and reject ads that include misinformation.

Hesitant for different reasons

Caulfield suggests medical professionals should take the time to listen to patients who may be hesitant about vaccines, and try to understand their individual concerns.

"Not everyone is hesitant for the same reason. There could be access issues with vaccines," he said.

"So, you know, listen to what those concerns are. Tailor the message to that individual's particular values. Use different kinds of strategies. Don't just pour more information on them."

To learn more about the anti-vaccination movement and how social media is playing a role, Chattopadhyay spoke to:

  • Tim Caulfield, Canada research chair in health law and policy, a professor in the faculty of law and School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, and research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta.
  • Fuyuki Kurasawa, director of the Global Digital Citizenship Lab at York University.
  • Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer.

Click 'listen' near the top of the page to hear the full conversation.


With files from CBC News. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Jessica Linzey.

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