White Coat, Black Art·The Dose

Confused wading through all the COVID-19 vaccine info? Here's help

There's a lot of confusing information around the COVID-19 vaccines. It's hard to figure out what's accurate and what's misinformation or deliberate disinformation. Infectious diseases expert Tara Moriarty joins host Dr. Brian Goldman to talk tips for spotting misinformation.

Expert tips on how to spot misinformation

A woman waits outside at a mass COVID-19 vaccination site in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, March 22, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Sureya Ibrahim will not get the COVID-19 vaccine — at least any time soon.

She sees a lot of information shared on WhatsApp and it's "almost all bad about the vaccines," including rumours about negative long-term side effects.

"I want to see more studies," she said.

Ibrahim, a community organizer in Toronto's Regent Park neighborhood, says a lot of people in her community share her concerns about the vaccines, despite like many other lower-income communities, being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Sureya Ibrahim is a community organizer at the Centre of Learning & Development, an organization serving Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood. She has concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines. (Submitted by Sureya Ibrahim)

Reliable information around COVID-19 vaccines isn't always easy to find. This is the first global pandemic to coincide with social media and the World Health Organization (WHO) calls it an "infodemic" — an overabundance of information, including misinformation and disinformation — which costs lives, according to WHO. 

On top of that, as the concerns around the AstraZeneca vaccine showed, it can be very difficult to wade through confusing, and sometimes conflicting information, around vaccine efficacy and safety.

Tara Moriarty, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of Toronto, is trying to help people make sense of all this information. She holds nightly Zoom sessions open to the public to answer questions about vaccine safety. Recently, she's fielded a lot of questions about the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Tara Moriarty is an infectious diseases expert and researcher at the University of Toronto. She holds nightly Zoom sessions for the public to answer questions about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"They don't know who to trust. There's massive media coverage of this and people are quite scared, especially because many people are due to be vaccinated quite soon and they're really worried about making a dangerous decision," Moriarty told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of The Dose and White Coat, Black Art.

Three tips for spotting misinformation

Whether it's about the AstraZeneca vaccine or other COVID vaccines, Moriarty has three tips for helping people figure out fact from misinformation.

Red flag #1: If a report says a vaccine "causes" or "may cause" something. 

Moriarty said there isn't "any evidence that these vaccines cause anything other than immunity or protection against COVID-19. So any claim that they cause something is absolutely unsupported by any evidence that we have so far."

Red flag #2: If a claim or a statement does not mention the investigating agency, such as Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, that's involved in examining the data. 

Moriarty said these agencies investigate any reported safety issues so if a report doesn't include these details, think twice about trusting it. 

Red flag #3: If a claim or statement says a vaccine causes long-term side effects. 

Moriarty said vaccine side effects typically occur within the first few days of vaccination and can happen even a couple of months out.

"Any claims that they cause long-term side effects are completely untrue and have not been supported by most studies of other [non-COVID] vaccines as well."

Role of social media — and a potential remedy

Major social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, have committed to various degrees of countering vaccine misinformation.

While there are some bad actors and organized anti-vaccination campaigns on social media, most people aren't maliciously spreading lies, said Moriarty. In fact, they often think they're sharing factual information.

Research published last week in the journal Nature suggests that people might share inaccurate information because they're not checking for accuracy — not because they don't care or can't identify it.

Gordon Pennycook, an assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina and one of the study's authors, said most people who share false or inaccurate information about vaccines or anything else do so unintentionally and a simple nudge about accuracy can greatly reduce the amount of misinformation shared. 

Gordon Pennycook, assistant professor of behavioural science at the University of Regina, is the co-author of a study which suggests people generally want to share accurate information on social media — they just need nudges. (University of Regina Photography Dept)

The study consisted of a number of online experiments. In one experiment, with a sample size of 5,379, people were asked their opinion about the accuracy of a single non-political news headline before they shared any information on Twitter. The goal was to remind people about the concept of accuracy simply by asking about it. 

According to the study results, the quality of the information people shared in the next 24 hours after this nudge was 2.8 times higher. 

"The only really effective way to stop misinformation is to get ahead of it," Pennycook said.

So platforms could provide nudges, such as, a popup survey asking to rate the accuracy of headlines, he suggested.

"It might be that social media distracts us from the truth, but we shouldn't infer that [people] don't care about the truth," Pennycook said.

Watch: Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam on the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine

Tam says benefits of AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh risks

1 year ago
Duration 1:54
Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says the benefits of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine outweigh the rare risks.

Ibrahim agreed, saying most people she sees talking about the vaccines on WhatsApp are trying to help, sharing information they think is accurate.

Part of the problem, she said, is how people with misinformation are often treated by experts and officials.

"Don't treat them as if they are stupid" if they don't have the correct information, she said. 

Despite her own concerns with the COVID-19 vaccines, Ibrahim is helping to organize an online session where community members can ask pharmacists and experts about the vaccines. 

"Good information is empowering," she said.

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