Misinformation: What it is and how to identify it
"A report just came out recently that showed that 65% of vaccine misinformation comes from 12 people on social media."
It's not just false information on vaccines that make the rounds online, nothing is truly spared from being the victim of misinformation. From politics to pizza shops, and sometimes a combination of both, misinformation, or the spread of false information perceived as truth, has been around for decades.
"Misinformation is anything that's designed to try to put doubt in people's minds about the truth."
David Elder is a professor at Morningside University and specialized in misinformation and propaganda. “I teach a class about propaganda,” he said, “and propaganda is just purposeful manipulation of a large group of people. And usually what you see in misinformation, is it will include some hint of truth and then skew it to fit a certain agenda.”
Teaching about misinformation isn’t just looking at how it spreads, but how to identify it. One surefire way to know the information is factual is by verifying that it is from a credible source.
"And so, to have a credible source you need to make sure that there's an author,” Elder said. “You need to make sure that they have the right background in order to have some sort of opinion on this thing."
A credible source doesn’t necessarily mean someone with a familiar name. It’s important that they have the right background to be speaking on the topic.
“There are epidemiologists who are on Facebook, trying to tell us what is true and what is not true. But oftentimes, those aren't the people that we recognize,” Elder said. “Just because you recognize someone via your family member your friend or even some pundit on TV that you watch every night. Just because you recognize them doesn't mean they always have the correct information. So, going to a source that has a scientific background can be a great way to stop that spread.”
Misinformation has taken on a new meaning in the age of COVID-19. From the virus itself to mitigation measures and vaccines, the spread of false information now can have deadly consequences.
"The spread of misinformation may be used to be something about, ‘oh this celebrity is dating that celebrity’ and there's not that much of a consequence,” Elder said, “but now it's misinformation about things that can save your life, and can save your neighbor's life and your friends, your family."
Now, you may be thinking what exactly is considered misinformation?
"Anything that tries to undermine the sort of the veracity or the trust that people have in that kind of information would be considered misinformation.” Elder says misinformation has been around for a long time, “I think the biggest thing is to be aware of, sort of the erosion of trust in expertise, over the last 30 years, maybe longer."
But as social media grows in popularity, the spread of false information ignites faster than a wildfire, with posts about COVID-19 garnishing thousands of shares in a matter of minutes.
"Sadly, I'm not sure it's grown during the pandemic because the spread of misinformation on social media, happens all the time,” Elder said. “I think what we're seeing now is that there are more dire consequences."
"This is literally life and death for people."
But what can you do to combat misinformation? There are a few things:
SEE THE VIDEO
Misinformation: What is immunology and how vaccines work with your immune system
The immune system has been making headlines the last 18 months as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, but what exactly is the immune system and how does it work?
"The human being is a very complicated system and immunology essentially looks at how different parts of the immune system fight bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi, how they keep you healthy overall."
Dr. Anni Moore is a microbiologist and teaches immunology at Morningside University. Part of that involves vaccines, their development and how they work.
"The short answer here is vaccines essentially stimulate your immune system," Dr. Moore says, "that gives your immune system the tools to target that specific organism, such as the Coronavirus or the flu virus, and essentially stimulate your immune system to fight it."
Just like there are many different types of organisms that can attack an immune system, there are also many different types of vaccines in development even before they are needed.
"Vaccine development itself is pretty complicated," Dr. Moore said. "However, because we have been doing that for about 200 years now, we do have the tools. We know what goes into it, and it's a much more seamless process, even when we don't have these pandemics going on."
"There is a lot of research going into vaccine developments all throughout the world."
With scientists around the globe working on vaccine development every day, creating vaccines to fight a global pandemic in a year isn't a surprise because much of the science behind it was already there. The development of vaccines to fight coronaviruses have been in the works for decades, as described in this report from the Journal of Biomedical Science.
Dr. Moore says there are many different types of vaccines being created, but the baseline is the same. "It all starts with identifying, of course, the target, the virus, in this case, the Coronavirus and looking at target proteins, for example, that your body would recognize as a foreign."
When creating a vaccine to target a specific virus, like COVID-19, scientists need to identify the spike protein in the virus that your immune system fights off. Dr. Moore says a vaccine can use the identified spike protein itself or the gene from that protein, such as mRNA vaccines, and give your immune system the tools it needs for battle before you become infected.
"Essentially, it tries to get those into your body to activate your immune system that would then recognize that protein as foreign and start building up the immune arsenal, such as your T cells, such as your antibodies, against that particular protein," Dr. Moore says about the vaccine's job inside a person's body. "So they would identify that virus, or the bacteria, in some cases, by that antigen, we call that, the identifying protein."
One of the biggest debates surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines is their lack of full FDA approval, but the medicine behind the vaccines has been approved with the emergency use authorization. The full FDA approval, Dr. Moore says, involves everything else.
"We are out of phase three trial, we have been vaccinating with these emergency approved vaccines for months now, and all the data says medically everything is solid," Dr. Moore says. The medicine behind the vaccine has been given the green light.
"Now, what else goes into the FDA approval process, complete approval process, is not just the medical stuff, it's everything aside from that. So things that deal with production and storage, and, and, and. So it's all the non-medical stuff that also goes into the FDA approval."
"So to say that these vaccines are sort of iffy because they don't have full approval is somewhat short-sighted because the data is there that medically, these vaccines are definitely solid." What about vaccine immunity versus natural immunity? For those who have had COVID-19, your natural immunity may not be as strong as you think.
"So, when you get the vaccine, you have a controlled dose. You have an X number of molecules or viral particles that are given to you." When you get sick naturally with the Coronavirus, Dr. Moore says, "then you don't know how much you've got and you don't know how much your body can handle how much your body could. What kind of proportional response, your body is going to get to that Coronavirus dose that you got naturally."
The new Delta variant has brought the topic of 'breakthrough cases' into the spotlight with skeptics saying that the vaccines aren't working when someone who has been inoculated tests positive for COVID-19.
But no vaccine is 100% effective and has never been touted as such. The flu vaccine each year is typically between 40%-60% effective against the flu strain. The COVID-19 vaccines are between 60%-95% effective, depending on which one you look at.
"Whether the virus has mutated a little bit so it sort of slipped past your immune system," Dr. Moore says. "There are always these cases. But what seems to be the overall data right now is that the vaccines, even if they don't 100% prevent you from getting COVID, it will prevent you from getting very, very sick and they prevent hospitalizations."
Want to learn more about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines against the Delta variant? Read this article from the New England Journal of Medicine.
Dr. Moore says that, in spite of the impact this pandemic has had on the world, one positive thing to come out of this is global discussion and interest in science.
"A year and a half ago, I don't think people were aware of things like contact tracing and a lot of people did not know how vaccines work and or what viruses are and I think as tragic as this has been, I think it has also been a good public education on epidemiology and public safety, and overall biology."
SEE THE VIDEO
Misinformation: Debunking Facebook comments with local experts
Misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines has been widespread since the start of the pandemic, but how do you know if the information you are reading is true or false? Simple, you need to find a credible source.
"To have a credible source, you need to make sure that there's an author," said Morningside University Professor David Elder, who specializes in propaganda and misinformation. "You need to make sure that they have the right background in order to have some sort of opinion on this thing."
Whenever we share a COVID-19 or vaccine-related story on our Siouxland News Facebook page, there are many comments with claims that aren't necessarily true. We decided to take some of those comments and debunk them with local experts.
One of the most common comments is that the vaccine does more harm and isn't safe because it isn't fully FDA-approved.
"Vaccines are safe. They do have some side effects like any of them do, but generally, they're very well-tolerated for most people." Dr. Jeffrey O'Tool is a physician at UnityPoint Health - St. Luke's. We didn't want to just take his word for it, so we asked MercyOne Family Medicine Doctor David Ensz the same question.
"The thing with COVID-19 vaccines, even though it came out really quick, you know, within a year which it had to do because we're going through a pandemic," Dr. Ensz said. "These vaccines have been tested through hundreds of 1,000s of people, millions of people, and they are safe, they do prevent illness."
Another claim that often comes across our page and many others are that if you are vaccinated and get COVID-19, it proves the vaccine doesn't work. Both doctors say that's not the case.
"You can absolutely still get COVID-19 after having the vaccine," Dr. Ensz said in response to this claim, "but all that means is that the virus is in you."
"I think generally the vaccine's working pretty well," said Dr. O'Tool. "People who have been vaccinated tend not to get as sick as those that have been vaccinated or may not have any symptoms at all with COVID-19."
Immunologists say the vaccine's goal is to reduce your risk of severe illness, which it largely has done. Dr. O'Tool says that UnityPoint Health has seen some positive cases in people who have been vaccinated, "but a lot of our positive cases here recently have been in those that have not been vaccinated."
How about another claim that's been around since the beginning of the pandemic. That masks make you sicker. With mask mandates being reinstated with the rise of the Delta variant, we asked Dr. Ensz, who wore masks as part of his job as a doctor before COVID-19, if this was actually the case.
"There's that sensation that you're breathing through a mask, but it doesn't worsen any chronic breathing conditions or breathing in somebody who's healthy," Dr. Ensz said on this claim.
"The theory is. "okay I'm so close to my breath, and I'm going to be breathing that in". But all the data show that there's no increase in respiratory illnesses, allergies any of that."
Dubbed "anti-vaxers", the voices of those with distrust or hesitation in vaccines have gotten louder in recent months, but vaccines have been around for decades and have eradicated deadly diseases and viruses.
Dr. Ensz listed several vaccines that kids need to have and several diseases eradicated thanks to vaccine science saying, "one of the reasons we don't hear about polio anymore is because everybody got vaccinated for polio, and we don't see it, We don't see, you know, kids who aren't walking because polio affected their legs. These vaccines work."
"Vaccines are distrusted in this country, anyway," Elder said. "Again from a bunch of false information, but it's a belief that has taken over so adding one more step to the mistrusted vaccines isn't seen as that too far of a bridge."
Vaccines aren't 100% effective at preventing any illness, and that's never been said by medical professionals.
"Overall, the COVID-19 vaccines seem to be much more efficient than many other vaccines that people are getting all the time." Dr. Anni Moore is a microbiologist and teaches immunology at Morningside University. "Up to 95% effective. There's always that 5%, either the vaccine didn't work properly. Whether the virus has mutated a little bit so it didn't, it sort of slipped past your immune system. There are always these cases."
"Generally speaking, vaccines will help," said Dr. O'Tool. "Nothing is perfect. Influenza successful years or 60% protective effect from an influenza vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine can be much more effective, probably in the high 90s, which has been reported all the way along."
For those worried about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, our local experts say while these were developed quickly in a sense, "vaccine development itself is pretty complicated. However, because we have been doing that for about 200 years now, we do have the tools. We know what goes into it, and it's a much more seamless process, even when we don't have these pandemics going on. There is a lot of research going into vaccine developments all throughout the world."
"There's been millions and millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine given around the world," said O'Tool. "We all hear reports of side effects and things like that. But those are a very, very small number compared to the total number of doses have been given."
"You know, honestly, that's something we don't know at this point," said Dr. Ensz. "You know the one thing we do know is that we're going through a pandemic right now and this virus is still killing people. It's killing healthy people, it's killing ill people. And the best defense we have against it right now is this vaccine."
Doctors say that even if you have had COVID-19, getting the vaccine is still recommended. As medical professionals work tirelessly to treat COVID-19 patients and make improvements to the vaccines available, Ensz and O'Tool have one final message for Siouxlanders.
"Bottom line is if you're on the fence about getting the vaccine. My recommendation is to absolutely do," said Dr. Ensz. "So that's the only way we're going to get rid of this pandemic. We're already seeing the mask mandate come back in certain states. If you have questions about it, ask your healthcare provider, ask family members who have received the vaccine."
"It's been a long year and a half here. And the sooner we get more people vaccinated," said Dr. O'Tool. "Hopefully, we're less likely to get more variants that could eventually have a variant that the vaccine doesn't work for. And then we have to start over again."
SEE THE VIDEO
Web articles from my time at Siouxland News.