Microchips, dangerous nanoparticles, sterility... these are only some of the elements that have fed the misinformation and mistrust regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. Over the last six months, we have made our own small contribution from ISGlobal to the fight against fake news that have spread across the world through social media.
We have made our own small contribution from ISGlobal to the fight against fake news that have spread across the world through social media
A Unique Project
This contribution has been possible thanks to a rather unique project for ISGlobal –unique not because of the task performed, but because of the target audience: the Catholic community. The project, fruit of the collaboration between Aleteia (the world’s Catholic information network), I.media (press agency specialised in the Vatican) and Verificat (Catalan agency dedicated to verifying information), was one of the 11 selected projects (among 309 applications) for funding by the Google News Initiative, with the goal of combatting disinformation on COVID-19 vaccines and with a special focus on underrepresented audiences. At ISGlobal we worked hand in hand with the Verificat team to reply, with the best scientific evidence available, to the questions, myths or fake news that were circulating on catholic networks (listed in catholicfactchecking). This initiative was obviously driven by the strong support from Pope Francis and the Holy See to vaccination as a “moral duty to respect not only one’s life but that of the others.”
New Disinformation and Some Recycled Fake News
When we started the project, I mentally prepared to deal with an avalanche of disinformation (spread intentionally, with malicious ends) and misinformation on the vaccines, some of them exacerbated by a Catholicism taken to an extreme. At the end of the six month-project, I believe I can say I was wrong. In fact, most of the work consisted in addressing doubts –many of them perfectly valid– on the mechanisms, safety or efficacy of the vaccines.
At ISGlobal we worked hand in hand with the Verificat team to reply, with the best scientific evidence available, to the questions, myths or fake news that were circulating on catholic networks. Verificat.cat
There were obviously the conspiracy theories, claiming that the pandemic was planned, and that the fact that the PCR was already patented, that there were previous studies on the Spike protein, and that all the vaccines had been approved at the same time (which is not the case), were, supposedly, proof of this. And we had to dismantle considerable disinformation regarding the vaccines. Some of these fake news were old antivaccine arguments that had been recycled or eventually adapted to the new technologies. For example, the supposedly “dangerous metals” such as aluminium salts (included in some traditional vaccines as adjuvants) or ethilmercury (included in very few vaccines as preservative) were again mentioned, but were quickly replaced by microchips, liquid crystals and nanoparticles as new secret and/or toxic vaccine ingredients (totally unfounded), together with false demonstrations of “magnetism” as proof.
I mentally prepared to deal with an avalanche of disinformation and misinformation on the vaccines. At the end of the project, I believe I can say I was wrong. In fact, most of the work consisted in addressing doubts on the mechanisms, safety or efficacy of the vaccines
Misinformation Resulting from Lack of Knowledge
Fake news normally feed on a lack of scientific literacy among society. For example, we had to deal several times with misinformation surrounding the coronavirus Spike protein (which is produced by the body upon vaccination with the mRNA and viral vector vaccines), and its supposed capacity to cause COVID, reach the brain and cause clots or neurodegenerative disease, or be transmitted from one vaccinated person to another. Or explain why the mRNA in the vaccine could not integrate into or modify our DNA. Or why pine tree tea is not a remedy against clots. Other fake news originate from the misinterpretation of scientific results and can be even spread by people who claim to be scientists. For example, the assertion that COVID vaccines could cause infertility because of a short, shared aminoacid sequence between the Spike protein and the placental protein syncytin-1 (there is no scientific evidence supporting this).
Fake news normally feed on a lack of scientific literacy among society
However, many of the topics that arrived from Verificat each week originated from doubts –often valid– regarding the safety, efficacy or impact of vaccines that caused mistrust due to the unprecedented speed at which they were developed.
For example, what is the short or long-term risk of suffering serious side effects from vaccination, such as blood clots, Guillain-Barré syndrome, vaginal bleeding or myocarditis? Regarding efficacy, why should a person who already got COVID-19 only receive one vaccine dose unless he or she is aged over 65? Is immunity after infection comparable to the immunity generated by the vaccine? Can vaccines help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses? We also had to explain why, as vaccine coverage increases, it is normal that the percentage of vaccinated people who die of COVID-19 increases (by simple probability, since there are almost no unvaccinated people left), but that the important thing to look at is the total number of deaths (much lower). Another concern was vaccine efficacy against the new viral variants (fortunately, it is still high) and whether vaccines could drive the appearance of new variants (in fact, it’s the opposite).
Many of the topics that arrived from Verificat each week originated from doubts –often valid– regarding the safety, efficacy or impact of vaccines that caused mistrust due to the unprecedented speed at which they were developed
As could be expected, there were some doubts or misleading information more specific to the Catholic community, such as whether the production of these vaccines required the use of cells from aborted foetuses (it is not the case). But now that the project comes to an end, I think we can safely say that disinformation has no religion – it is a universal problem that needs to be tackled with good communication and a better education.
Verificat.cat. Lies threaten health (in Spanish and Catalan).