Step 1. Creating a monitoring system – The rapid spread of disinformation often uses many information channels – news outlets, social media, publishing, etc.[i] There is diversity not only in the methods used to disseminate this information, the points that are being made are also everchanging, there have been numerous false claims about the vaccine from varying degrees of details and absurdity.[ii] It is important that there is a monitoring system that looks over all new instances of disinformation in order to effectively stop all attempts at misleading the general public. This monitoring can be done by state officials, NGOs, members of civil society. If there are several actors that engage in such activities, it would be beneficial if they work together and coordinate their efforts in order to achieve better results.[iii] The activities they carry out can encompass the following efforts:
- Monitoring news websites and the information they share as well as the sources behind them. Special attention should be given to sites with large audiences or those known for spreading dubious information;
- Keeping track of social media posts with a lot of traction and attention. The tagging system of platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc should be used in order to pinpoint posts concerning topics such as “COVID-19”, “vaccines”, “health”, etc.;
- Following individuals that have a strong influence on public opinion and comment on topics relating to COVID-19 and the vaccine. These can be politicians or public commentators and other similar individuals that have a tendency to share their positions on these questions;
- Overlooking sites, pages, groups and forums where people discuss the topics of COVID-19 and the vaccine and/or share information on the aforementioned issues.
- Individuals should feel as if they are part of a larger group, which would make them willing to listen and discuss, share truthful information, try to help officials and professionals in combating disinformation. The feeling of belonging is considered as a strong incentive for sharing and listening;
- Individuals should be informed how to flag posts, signal officials when they spot dubious information and how to carry out their own fact-checking activities before they accept a certain position as truthful;
- Individuals should be willing to share their knowledge and good practices with their friends and family and try to compel them to be more responsible and critical when consuming information.
Step 2. Fact checking dubious information – All information should be fact-checked through comparison of information from other reputable sources. Ideas should not be shut down based on preconceived notions on the topic but must pass a thorough examination and critical thinking. Information based on scientific research should have passed peer-review and must be able to meet academic standards. Information that does not have a solid ground should be legitimised through accounts from experts in the scientific community. If information cannot pass such a rigorous system of checks, then it must be presumed that it is unreliable.
Step 3. Communicating discrepancies with the general public – It is of paramount importance to effectively communicate information about the vaccine against COVID-19 with the public.[iv] When certain dubious information proves to be unreliable, the audience of the disinformation should be notified. This should be done in a clear and comprehensive way – with non-technical and accessible wording. There must be links and/or sources to prove the alternative information being given.
It is very important to ensure that the audience does not feel as if it is perceived as less informed, gullible, etc. While communicating discrepancies, the author should not sound patronising, moreover they must always show respect towards the audience.
Step 4. Create a sense of community – These questions should always be assessed through discussions, it would be detrimental if society feels as if there are two sides in a constant conflict. Individuals should not identify excessively with their position, but must be opened to discuss, communicate, educate themselves and those around them. Combating fake news and disinformation is not only a process of sharing information, the end goal is rather creating a society of culture and awareness where individuals know how to inform themselves efficiently and how to avoid manipulative tactics.
More useful sources on this topic:
[i] An interesting study found that most false information about the COVID-19 vaccines can be traced back to 12 primary sources, before it spreads to multiple other channels. More on this can be found in: Center for countering digital hate, "The disinformation dozen," available at: https://252f2edd-1c8b-49f5-9bb2-cb57bb47e4ba.files..., last accessed 15th August 2022.
[ii] Many have pinpointed numerous of these claims in order to refute them. For example, more can be found at: Sharma R, “5 of the biggest fake claims about the Covid vaccine – and why we know they’re definitely wrong”, iNews, 25 November 2020, available at: https://inews.co.uk/news/technology/covid-vaccine-fake-claims-debunked-why-know-wrong-770600, last accessed: 10 February 2022; Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, “Fact Check: 7 Myths about COVID-19 Vaccines”, 9 December 2021, available at: https://www.mskcc.org/coronavirus/myths-about-covid-19-vaccines, last accessed 10 February 2022; Factcheck.com, “Issues: vaccines”, available at: https://www.factcheck.org/issue/vaccines/, last accessed 15th August 2022.
[iii] European Commission, “COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS Tackling online disinformation: a European Approach” 26 April 2018, COM/2018/236 final
[iv] WHO, Regional officer for Europe, “Vaccine Safety Events: managing the communications response”, A Guide for Ministry of Health EPI Managers and Health Promotion Units, available at: https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/187171/Vaccine-Safety-Events-managing-the-communications-response.pdf, last accessed: 15th August 2022.