OSU Researcher Studying Ways To Combat COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation

a gloved hand holding a vial that reads 'COVID-19 vaccine'
Ohio has started distributing vaccines to healthcare workers and at-risk populations. [PalSand / Shutterstock]
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An Ohio State University researcher is looking into ways news media can address the spread of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, with a boost from a $450,000 grant as part of Google’s work to create resources for covering the pandemic.

The general public has better access to health information and is more informed overall than during previous pandemics and major disease outbreaks, OSU Political Science Assistant Professor Thomas Wood said. But that hasn’t stopped the spread of misinformation.

“We are quite concerned that some of the problems that other researchers have run into correcting misinformation around, say, the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, might be apparent when we go to redress misinformation about the COVID vaccine,” Wood said.

The research will deal with viral claims, such as the falsehood that vaccines contain microchips to be used by the government. And it will include data collected both in the United States and abroad – in countries where resources for vaccinations are smaller and the rollout won’t happen for months.

The COVID-19 vaccine has been politicized already, Wood said, making it difficult to tell what methods of combating misinformation will work based on previous research.

“We’ve never been in an environment before where the accurate position is so politically charged, the accurate health position,” Wood said.

Previous research has shown the general public is willing to be corrected about political figures, Wood said. That idea seems counterintuitive looking at online comment sections, Wood said, but it’s important to remember that a majority of people are not connecting so strongly to politics.

“They’re the people at home who, politics is their sport,” Wood said. “That’s not a good analog for the typical person walking around Central and Northern Ohio this afternoon.”

The research will focus more on people for whom politics is a low-stakes game, Wood said. Previous research has found the stakes are higher when it comes to personal health, he said, and even as misinformation is corrected, people will be less likely to vaccinate.

“Whilst it’s improved people’s factual understanding, it’s driven down their willingness to get a vaccine for their child, to have confidence in pharmaceutical companies, have confidences in national health institutions and such things,” Wood said.

Generally, support for vaccines from family doctors, government officials and celebrities can effectively combat misinformation, Wood said. So can including the falsehoods in reporting around accurate information, he said.

“When you are reporting, it’s definitely worthwhile to repeat the salacious claim so that people in the audience who have heard the claim can say, ‘Well, hey! I had thought that before,’” Wood said. “To repeat the claim that we’re going to assail with more accurate information turns out to be a very good strategy to helping people become more factually informed.”

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