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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 is the first major pandemic in the social media era — offering experts a rare opening to study the relationship between online misinformation and human behavior on a large scale.

Why it matters: As misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines runs rampant, researchers are trying to measure how much memes and messages with false information can alter someone's decision to get vaccinated.

What's happening: Daily COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. have slowed over the past month, and those Americans remaining are less enthusiastic about being vaccinated, suggesting the country is hitting a vaccine wall.

  • "There is mounting evidence that exposure to certain types of media is associated with hesitancy," says Kayla de la Haye, who studies social networks and their impact on health and disease prevention at the University of Southern California.
  • Tech platforms are scrambling to deal with vaccine disinformation, but experts argue they may be too late and misinformation is persisting. Earlier this year, Facebook said it would remove groups and pages that may discourage people from getting vaccines, after initially saying it wouldn't treat vaccine misinformation with as much rigor as regular COVID-19 misinformation.

Details: In a recent Axios-Ipsos poll, "people who either believed misinformation or were unsure whether it was true or false were less likely to get the vaccine than those who knew that it was false," Axios' David Nather reported.

  • Researchers at Indiana University's Observatory on Social Media found states where a higher percentage of discussions on Twitter included low-credibility sources also tended to have a higher percentage of people who are hesitant to take a vaccine.
  • In another study, published earlier this year, knowledge and misinformation emerged as key predictors of whether someone intended to get vaccinated.
  • Exposure to vaccine misinformation "induced a decline in intent" to get vaccinated among people in the U.S. and U.K., according to a study published in February.

Yes, but: It's really hard to connect exposure to misinformation to behaviors, says de la Haye. That's because of "the difficulty of monitoring what an individual gets exposed to online and what they subsequently go and do."

  • "There's a recognition this is a big problem, but it's a problem that's part of a complicated set of factors that influence whether someone gets vaccinated," she says.
  • A person's political affiliation, assessment of their own risk of disease, access to vaccines, technology and transportation, and socioeconomic status are also factors, many of which are interconnected.
  • Matthew DeVerna, a graduate student and collaborator on the CoVaxxy project at Indiana University, says the team is working to tease misinformation out from other factors that may influence vaccination behavior, including poverty, age, the number of COVID-19 deaths in an area and more.

The big picture: One word dominates the reasons people give for being hesitant or resistant to getting a COVID-19 vaccine: trust, says David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer and information science at Northeastern University who, with his collaborators, has conducted dozens of surveys over the past year to study people's attitudes and behaviors during the pandemic.

  • A lack of trust in government, companies or institutions may be why some people accept misinformation and even actively seek it, and why they are skeptical of getting vaccinated, he says.

What to watch ... the roughly 30 million Americans who aren't saying they won't get a vaccine or are waiting but say they'll do it when they can.

  • Some people who refuse the COVID-19 vaccines are heavily entrenched in a well-funded, well-organized anti-vaccine movement, but others who are considered hesitant are trying to make an informed decision while encountering a wave of disinformation, says Samuel Scarpino, a business professor of network science at Northeastern University College of Science.
  • "I’m skeptical that reaching them is by convincing Facebook to remove misinformation and more about taking vaccines out to people and reducing the friction of 'I can’t be bothered,'" Scarpino says, pointing to efforts to vaccinate people on the New York City subway, at baseball games and in churches.

The bottom line: "Even if there isn’t a whole lot we can do about fighting misinformation or backing out its individual contribution to hesitancy, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole lot else we can do," Scarpino says.

Go deeper

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: FDA approves Pfizer boosters for high-risk individuals, people 65 and up — Team USA to mandate vaccine for Winter Olympic hopefuls — U.S. to buy 500 million more Pfizer doses to share with the world.
  2. Health: Some experts see signs of hope as cases fall — WHO: Nearly 1 in 4 Afghan COVID hospitals shut after Taliban takeover — D.C. goes further than area counties with vaccine mandates.
  3. Politics: Bolsonaro isolating after health minister tests positive at UN summit — United Airlines says 97% of U.S. employees fully vaccinated — Mormon Church to mandate masks in temples.
  4. Education: Asymptomatic Florida students exposed to COVID no longer have to quarantine — Education Department investigating Texas mask mandate ban — D.C. schools to require teachers, staff to receive vaccine without testing option.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Aug 20, 2021 - Health

NYPD: Unvaccinated officers must wear masks or face discipline

Photo: Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

Unvaccinated officers at the New York Police Department will be required to wear masks on duty or face disciplinary action, the department confirmed Friday.

Why it matters: Public and private entities are increasingly considering reinstating mask mandates amid a surge in Delta cases. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last month that all city employees, including law enforcement, must get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Aug 20, 2021 - Health

America's patchwork back-to-school plan

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Conflicting policies, fiery political debates and the continued spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 are sowing chaos and uncertainty into the back-to-school season.

Why it matters: This will be the third school year in a row with COVID-related disruptions. Many students have already suffered severe learning loss, and the gap between students could grow even wider, thanks to disparities in vaccinations and rising case counts.