Can Social Media Content Hinder COVID-19 Vaccine Campaigns?
How Social Media influences Vaccination Awareness and What can be done?
We live in a virtually connected age: the age of social media and social networking sites. Apart from interacting with the people using the same platforms, liking and sharing memes, for some of us, these social media sites are also a source of information. But the information received from these sources may not always be true, in fact, most of them are biased stories, misinformation, disinformation, and other types of false narratives. A similar thing was observed since the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: social media flooded with false information about the deadly coronavirus.
Now with the news of vaccines rolling out for public use, social networking sites have the mammoth task of combating anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, or posts that fuel ‘vaccine hesitancy’. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine hesitancy is one of the top 10 threats to global health. It refers to delay in acceptance or the refusal of vaccines, despite the availability of vaccination services. This puts not only non vaccinated people at risk but also the overall wider community in general. Hence, it is important that people accept and take vaccination to save lives by preventing the transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Social Media Influencers to Help
Vaccines are useful if only the masses take them! To reverse the growth in vaccine hesitancy around the world, there have been few public stunts (e.g., ‘Union unit,‘ trying to brand AstraZeneca vaccine kit with patriotic livery, at Downing Street); but they may not be of much help like social media themselves. For instance: Many celebrities and influencers with a large number of followers, were hired by governments to encourage people to practice preventive measures, like hand-washing, social distancing, wearing masks, and more. A similar tactic can also be adopted to spread vaccine awareness. This is one of the effective ways where social media channels can help promote positive, accurate vaccine content to a wide audience, and also content to individual communities.
Tarik Jašarević, a spokesperson for the WHO said to Vox Recode, that the organization is working on a comprehensive campaign on immunization and Covid-19 vaccines for 2021. “Also, the value of recruiting influencers depends on the audience, and that it’s not always influencers with a huge online following that have the most value,” Tarik added.
This is not the first time celebrities spoke about vaccines. King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley had taken the polio vaccine on The Ed Sullivan Show to urge young people to do the same.
Social Networking Sites to Fight False Info
Trust in government is at an all-time low, while pharmaceutical companies cannot directly advertise to people. Subsequent polls highlight the oscillating opinion of people wanting to get vaccinated against COVID-19. For instance, an Ipsos Mori poll in the UK found 28% of 18- to 34-year-olds would not take a vaccine if offered one. In another December survey, Pew Research Center found about 60% of people would probably or definitely get the COVID-19 vaccine.
So, it will be crucial if social networking sites took the initiative in reducing the disinformation that has already penetrated the networking world. This is because there is a high probability that people who are genuinely interested in getting vaccinated or are looking for further information either on COVID-19, or vaccines, etc., may get discouraged if they come across such misleading information.
Facebook has already announced that it will step up its efforts to eliminate vaccine misinformation, which has the potential to undermine public health efforts. Even Twitter has announced that it is updating its approach to how it combats vaccine misinformation, in order to help ensure optimal take-up, and get society back to normal as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, TikTok has teamed up with fact-checkers like Politifact, Lead Stories, SciVerify, and the AFP to help assess the accuracy of the content.
Either of these social networking sites has acted as a medium of huge false information since the news about coronavirus broke last year. Though recently, Facebook booted a large private group dedicated to anti-vaccine content, many groups dedicated to railing against vaccines are still are large.
Even on Youtube, false claims were made about the vaccines containing microchip implants. Fortunately, in October, YouTube updated its policies to include removing videos that contain misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, such as any claims that go against expert consensus from local health officials or the World Health Organization.
Further, Governments must hold social media companies accountable by mandating them to remove false anti-vaccination content, irrespective of its source.
Beyond Social Media
Recently, researchers from Washington State University (WSU) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) built an algorithm that identifies for vaccination the people that have the maximum reachability into the social network, by using a synthetic social contact network of residents of Portland, Oregon. By identifying influential actors in a network, the algorithm can optimize vaccine distribution, perhaps leading to around a seven-fold reduction in the number of infected persons. This algorithm can also help in maximizing an ad campaign’s influence. WSU researchers used the Summit supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where employing Summit’s CPU-GPU nodes, researchers were able to reduce the time to solution from hours to minutes.
Such initiatives and tech-powered algorithms can also help in maximizing advocacy about the vaccines, in the offline world.