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Viral Stories About COVID-19 Deaths Drive Misinformation Online

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If you’ve been on social media lately, you might’ve seen a story about someone getting vaccinated for the coronavirus only to die a short while later. They tend to focus on older individuals that are dying from non-COVID-related causes.

These stories are great for getting clicks, but they are also giving people a chance to doubt the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Let’s find out how these stories spread and whether or not they’re true.

Giving Legs to Misleading Stories

Using the social media analytics app NewsWhip, analysts recently discovered that stories about people getting vaccinated for COVID-19 are going viral online. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have been trying to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation throughout the pandemic. It’s well-known that medical studies and high-quality journalism don’t usually get the lion’s share of attention on social media, while think pieces and tabloid-like headlines run wild.

As these companies limit the spread of misinformation, some people seem to be elevating stories that are true but can be used to mislead the public.

In many cases, the story will spotlight an individual that dies shortly after getting their COVID-19 vaccine, but according to recent data from the CDC, you’re more than 3x more likely to get struck by lightning than to die from a vaccine.

In reality, very few people have died after getting vaccinated. The number stands at 0.0018%.

In some cases, health experts say these individuals died of unrelated causes such as heart disease, diabetes, or they may have already been infected with COVID-19 without realizing it. We know that most of the 85 million Americans that have already received at least one shot are older or more at risk of serious disease.

Even though there’s no evidence linking these shots to patient deaths, the stories that have been spreading online don’t say that. They seem to be designed to sow distrust and confusion over the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.

Deen Freelon, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says he would like to see the social media companies do more to stem the spread of misinformation. “It’s a really insidious problem. The social media companies have taken a hard line against disinformation; they have not taken a similarly hard line against fallacies.”

A recent report from NPR shows that these kinds of stories have been going viral online almost every other day since the start of 2021.

One example is an extremely popular story from the South Florida Sun Sentinel about a doctor who died a few weeks after receiving the vaccine. The story was later republished in The Chicago Tribune. It got over 5 million interactions on Facebook and Twitter.

But how do you ban something that’s not exactly untrue?        

“This problem is not theoretical. It’s not hypothetical,” said Sarah Roberts, an information studies professor at UCLA. “This thorny issue directly lands in this gray area of an emergent information crisis that has really clear real-world implications.”

Truth vs. Fiction

Freelon believes it speaks to the way we interpret information as human beings. We generally have a stronger reaction to sad stories and adverse events than sound statistical information. “This is something that we see repeatedly with human cognition. It’s the emphasis on the breathless anecdote and then the discounting of statistics that are much more representative,” he explains.

These pages and profiles on Twitter and Facebook tend to have tens of thousands of “likes” and followers, and it looks like the speed of misinformation may be ramping up as more doses of the vaccine become available. On March 11th, six of the most engaging stories on social media were all about the same Utah woman that died just 4 days after receiving her first shot.

In response to the all interest online, the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner issued a statement saying that “there have been NO DEATHS caused by the COVID-19 vaccines to date in Utah.”

The comment section shows just how much damage these stories can do, with phrases like:

“I’ll pass on the vaccinations. I could care less of anyone’s opinion … this is horrifically sad.”

“Very concerned about those getting the poke.”

In response to the criticism, these companies say there’s only so much they can do to address these so-called “gray areas.”

As Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook head of health, said in a recent op-ed, “Content can’t always be clearly divided into helpful and harmful. It’s hard to draw the line on posts that contain people’s personal experiences with vaccines.”

Russian publications such as RT and Sputnik News have shared more than 100 stories linking vaccines to deaths, according to a new report from Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Bret Schafer, the author of the report, said, “The [social media] platforms look at an individual tweet from RT saying 23 people died in a nursing home after taking the Pfizer vaccine, and they can’t do anything about it because it is technically true, while being wildly misleading,” Schafer said. “That seems to be the new strategy.”

The damage is already being done. Around 30% of Americans say they are still hesitant to get vaccinated, according to a recent poll.

Be on the lookout for similar stories online as you try to keep your patients and loved ones informed.

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