Pediatricians who come across information on social media about COVID vaccination that is false or created to do harm may feel the urge to comment or engage the author. Doing so, however, may have unintended consequences, an expert explained during a new AAP webinar series designed to combat vaccine misinformation.
“If you are engaging with a harmful piece of content in any way, you are going to help it spread further,” Kelsey Suter, vice president of the research firm GQR, said during the first webinar COVID Vaccine Disinformation 101: Understanding the Ecosystem. “It’s important not to comment or share any harmful content, even if you are trying to argue against it or debunk it, because you don’t want to expose more people to that piece of content.”
Attempting to stop the spread of such disinformation has become yet another hurdle for health care providers seeking to ensure children are vaccinated against COVID-19.
According to a 2021 Pew Research report on social media use, the most common platforms used by U.S. adults include YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter are popular among those ages 18-29 years.
In the early months of the pandemic, Suter said many mainstream social media platforms implemented policies to mitigate medical myths and disinformation. In recent months, however, many companies have scaled back those policies, allowing inaccurate information to reach users.
“Twitter announced in late November that it was no longer enforcing its policy against misleading information about COVID-19,” Suter said. “Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, is also considering relaxing its policies, citing higher vaccination rates around the world. Their oversight board has not yet issued a ruling, but it seems clear that it is no longer a priority for mainstream platforms. This is still very much a problem. It is helping to fuel vaccine hesitancy, even three years into a pandemic.”
In response, pediatricians who are active on social media may consider creating proactive messages. It also is beneficial to like, comment or share posts you want to move farther into your network. Doing so will “reward and uplift” trusted messengers, Suter said.
A key goal of spreading disinformation is to erode trust in the health care system. Studies have revealed social media “bad actors” often use specific platforms to spread misinformation or promote vaccine hesitancy.
Pediatricians can counter this practice by providing trustworthy information to families and the community. Pediatricians could consider telling their own stories instead of responding to someone else’s.
“You all are those trusted messengers who can best counter the disinformation and the bad actors,” Suter said. “Speaking as a health care professional carries weight. It carries this sense of trust. This is especially important for anyone who is in any of those sort of vulnerable communities or communities who have these big information gaps.”
If a harmful post does require a response, Suter recommends the “truth sandwich” approach as our brains remember what we hear first and most often:
- Positive: Lay some common ground.
- Debunk: Undermine the messenger.
- Positive: Return to the truth and your proactive message.
An example of a “truth sandwich” response is: “Parents and doctors agree kids deserve to be safe and healthy. Anyone holding up one study or statistic to undermine the advice of nearly all pediatricians is painting a misleading picture for their own gain. Instead, let’s support healthy communities by vaccinating children to help their bodies recognize and resist disease.”
The first webinar and its follow-up webinars, COVID Vaccine Disinformation 201: How to Identify and Respond to Specific Threats and Countering COVID Vaccination Disinformation in Hispanic and Latino Communities, are posted with additional resources on the AAP's Communicating with Families and Promoting Vaccine Confidence page at https://bit.ly/3VTXSeS.
The webinar series is funded with support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through the Engaging Pediatric Health Care Providers for Effective COVID-19 Vaccine Conversations sponsored program. Recordings of the webinars are expected to be available to view this summer.
The AAP also has created the Pediatric Digital Response Hub, a newsletter and closed Facebook group where pediatricians can talk about best practices for promoting vaccine information online. Content also includes recent data, online resources and social media content on other children’s health topics that can be shared. Sign up at http://bit.ly/3GlAz71.