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'Significant and growing public health challenge,' Twitter cracks down on COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/16/2020 Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY

With coronavirus vaccine misinformation spreading via social media at an alarming rate, Twitter said it would remove claims that vaccines intentionally cause harm or are unnecessary as well as debunked conspiracy theories about the adverse effects of vaccines.

The policy shift, slated to begin next week, comes as immunizations begin in the United States.

Researchers warn that opposition to the vaccines is resonating, not just with fringe anti-vaccine communities but with swaths of mainstream America, whose faith in science and government has been badly shaken by the pandemic.

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“In the context of a global pandemic, vaccine misinformation presents a significant and growing public health challenge,” Twitter said in a blog post. “Starting next week, we will prioritize the removal of the most harmful misleading information, and during the coming weeks, begin to label Tweets that contain potentially misleading information about the vaccines.”

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Facebook and Google’s YouTube have also said they would remove false claims about the vaccines. Twitter already labels misinformation about the coronavirus.

Starting next year, the company will add warning labels to tweets that advance “unsubstantiated rumors, disputed claims, as well as incomplete or out-of-context information about vaccines.” The tweets may link to authoritative public health information.

“I am deeply concerned because the same information campaign which initially downplayed the severity of COVID-19, downplayed the number of cases, then downplayed the number of deaths is now shifting to focus on the vaccine,” Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media" told USA TODAY.

According to a survey by Acxiom of 5,000 U.S. consumers from Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, conspiracy theories are shaping people's perceptions of the vaccine. Some 44% of respondents said there's some truth to the unfounded claim that the death rate from COVID-19 has been deliberately exaggerated and half of those, 22%, said it is “definitely true.” Even worse, 41% of respondents believe the coronavirus was either probably or definitely created and spread by powerful forces or people.

“Prior to this year, day to day, people generally didn’t think about vaccines. They were not reading content about vaccines. It wasn't part of their daily intake,” said Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, who studies the anti-vaccine movement. “Today, I feel like most people can't go a whole day without hearing something COVID-related or vaccine-related.”

a man talking on a cell phone: Beaumont Health Internal Medicine Physician Dr. Ghadi Ghorayeb has a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine administered by Carolyn Wilson as part of a "high priority group" of health care workers to receive the first doses of the vaccine at the Beaumont Service Center in Southfield on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. Beaumont Health is not mandating the vaccine for workers but strongly encouraging them to get vaccinated. © Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press Beaumont Health Internal Medicine Physician Dr. Ghadi Ghorayeb has a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine administered by Carolyn Wilson as part of a "high priority group" of health care workers to receive the first doses of the vaccine at the Beaumont Service Center in Southfield on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. Beaumont Health is not mandating the vaccine for workers but strongly encouraging them to get vaccinated.

The volume of COVID-19 vaccine theories peddled by anti-vaccination groups large and small and hucksters looking to make a quick buck off people’s fears with bogus health remedies is increasing, researchers say. It's already so vast they warn that social media platforms may be powerless to stanch it. 

What’s more, this “infodemic” is only going to accelerate as more vaccines are approved, says Lisa Kaplan, founder of Alethea Group, which works on disinformation and misinformation threats.

If Americans are fooled by falsehoods masquerading as facts and don’t get the vaccine, they will be putting themselves and their communities at risk and delaying the nation's return to normal, Kaplan said.

“That’s how we need to look at the severity of this,” she said. “We are talking about people’s lives, their jobs, their health and the health of their families. This is extremely high-stakes.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Significant and growing public health challenge,' Twitter cracks down on COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

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