Science

Misinformation campaigns can hit Covid vaccination success: Study

T V Jayan New Delhi | Updated on February 06, 2021

In a study that may have far-reaching implications on success of Covid-19 vaccination campaigns, researchers have found that fewer people will volunteer to take the vaccine that it is required for achieving herd immunity in the US and the UK and misinformation surrounding the vaccine would push these levels further away from herd immunity targets.

In a study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour on Friday, researchers from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) asked 8,000 people in the UK and US about their willingness to accept a potential Covid-19 vaccine when exposed to misinformation.

One of the first authors of the study was Sahil Loomba, who is currently a PhD student at Imperial College London as well as at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

Prior to being exposed to misinformation, 54.1 per cent of those surveyed in the UK said they would ‘definitely’ accept a vaccine, 42.5 per cent in the US. After being shown online misinformation, that number dropped by 6.2 percentage points in the UK and by 6.4 percentage points in the US. India too is struggling to fight vaccine hesitancy among beneficiaries who are turning up in lesser numbers to take the vaccine shot.

It is estimated that a Covid-19 vaccine will need to be accepted by at least 55 per cent of the population to provide herd immunity, and some scientists anticipate even higher numbers. The researchers who conducted the study say the findings can help inform Covid-19 vaccination messaging and engagement strategies to mitigate the negative impacts of misinformation in the UK and US.

Loomba said that expansion of Covid-19 vaccine rollout in various countries, including the UK and the US, is being met with a counterforce of vaccine-related misinformation.

“This study adds to mounting evidence that misinformation can do real harm, and that platforms on which information is shared need to take responsible action. However, as is true for other forms of online misinformation, the reasons for spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation are understandably complex,” Loomba told BusinessLine.

“It also suggests that scientific sounding misinformation is more strongly associated with reducing vaccination intent. Therefore, it is really up to us, the consumers of online information, to check a post for scientific reliability and factual accuracy before believing it or sharing it with others,” he said.

Impact of online information

The research team aimed to quantify the impact of online misinformation on intent to take a Covid-19 vaccine and identify socio-economic groups that are most susceptible to online misinformation and at risk of non-vaccination.

In the study, conducted in September 2020, 3,000 respondents in each country were asked about their intention to accept a vaccine before and after being exposed to misinformation that was widely circulating on social media between June and August 2020. A further 1,000 were shown information about a Covid-19 vaccine that was factual to serve as a randomised control.

In addition to those who ‘definitely would’ take a vaccine before exposure to information, respondents who said they ‘definitely wouldn’t’ take a vaccine accounted for 6 per cent in the UK and 15 per cent in the US, while those that said they were unsure whether they would take a vaccine but leaned towards yes accounted for around 30 per cent of respondents in both countries.

“Covid-19 vaccines will be crucial to helping to end this pandemic and returning our lives to near normal. However, vaccines only work if people take them. Misinformation plays into existing anxieties and uncertainty around new vaccines, as well as the new platforms that are being used to develop them. This threatens to undermine the levels of Covid-19 vaccine acceptance required,” said Heidi Larson, anthropology professor at LSHTM and lead author of the study, in a statement.

Published on February 06, 2021

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