The change has been particularly evident over the past six weeks. According to an analysis by Zignal, election misinformation peaked on November 4 with 375,000 mentions in cable TV, social media, print and online media. As of December 3, that number had fallen to 60,000 mentions. But disinformation about coronaviruses has steadily increased during this period, rising to 46,100 mentions on December 3, from 17,900 mentions on November 8.
NewsGuard, a start-up that fights against false stories, said that of the 145 websites of its Election Disinformation Tracking Center, a database of sites that publish fake election information, 60% of them have also published false information about the coronavirus pandemic. This includes right-wing media such as Breitbart, Newsmax and One America News Network, which distributed inaccurate articles about the election and now also publish misleading articles on vaccines.
John Gregory, deputy health editor for NewsGuard, said the change should not be taken lightly because false information about vaccines leads to real-world damage. In Britain in the early 2000s, he said, an unfounded link between the measles vaccine and autism prompted people not to take the vaccine. This resulted in death and serious permanent injuries, he said.
“Misinformation creates fear and uncertainty around the vaccine and can reduce the number of people willing to take it,” said Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington who has been monitoring the pandemic.
Dr Shira Doron, epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said the consequences of not using Covid-19 vaccines due to misinformation would be catastrophic. Vaccines are “the key to ending the pandemic,” she said. “We won’t get there any other way.”
Ms Powell did not respond to a request for comment.
To deal with misinformation about vaccines, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites have expanded their policies to verify the facts and demote these posts. Facebook and YouTube have said they will remove bogus vaccine claims, while Twitter has said it is directing people to credible public health sources.
The flow of vaccine lies has started to increase in recent weeks as it became clear that coronavirus vaccines would soon be approved and available. Disinformation spreaders watched on interviews by health experts and started tweaking them.