6 April 2021, 8:40 a.m.
Current and accurate information are key elements in the global and Canadian response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This HillNote examines the impact of information and misinformation on public health responses to the COVID pandemic, particularly with respect to vaccination campaigns. The HillNote discusses differences in vaccine hesitancy rates based on demographic factors and provides a summary of government, United Nations and corporate infodemic responses.
What is the COVID-19 Infodemic?
The World Health Organization, along with other United Nations agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has emphasized the importance of addressing the COVID-19 “infodemic” in order to stop the pandemic.
The term “infodemic” can be understood as “[a] proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly and uncontrollably through news, online, and social media, and is regarded as intensifying public speculation or anxiety.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada has warned of the impact that an infodemic – and more specifically the spread of false information – might have on Canada’s pandemic response:
The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that accurate and timely information is key to saving lives. Throughout the pandemic we have relied on technology and information-sharing platforms to keep us safe, informed, and connected. At the same time, these platforms have contributed to an overabundance of information – an infodemic – that worsens the current pandemic by allowing false information to circulate more easily, hampering public health responses, creating confusion and distrust, and ultimately, making it more difficult for people to make vital decisions about their health and safety.
The COVID-19 Infodemic and Attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccination
Statistics Canada defines information literacy as “the competencies involved in working with data including the knowledge and skills to read, analyze, interpret, visualize and communicate data as well as understand the use of data in decision‑making.”
Vaccine hesitancy is associated with missing or inaccurate information. The main reasons for hesitancy have been identified as concerns over vaccine effectiveness, lack of information about the potential side effects or ingredients of vaccines and distrust of government officials or pharmaceutical corporations.
In September 2020, Statistics Canada measured Canadians’ intention to get a COVID‑19 vaccine. The results of this survey indicated that 75% of Canadians would be somewhat or very likely to get a COVID‑19 vaccine. This survey found that older adults and those with post-secondary education were more likely to report a willingness to be vaccinated.
These results are similar to findings from studies in other countries conducted between July and December 2020. However, acceptance rates vary greatly by country (ranging from 97% in Ecuador to 23.6% in Kuwait according to the results of a study published in January 2021). Vaccine hesitancy rates have declined since the beginning of the pandemic as more information on the safety and efficacy of vaccines has become available.
In addition to differences across countries, vaccine acceptance rates also vary across different racial or ethnic groups within countries. A December 2020 survey by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health found that 79% of white respondents said that they would get a COVID‑19 vaccine, while only 55% of respondents from Asian backgrounds were willing to be vaccinated. A survey conducted in France in July 2020 has linked vaccine hesitancy to gender, age group and education level.
In the United States, a November 2020 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that, of the adults interviewed, 83% of Asian Americans, 61% of white Americans and 42% of Black Americans said they would get vaccinated. Historical mistrust linked to systemic racism and discrimination has been cited as the cause of these lower vaccine acceptance rates, particularly among Black populations.
Some governments and organizations have developed outreach and public education plans targeted to audiences with higher than average vaccine hesitancy rates, such as the City of Toronto’s Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity.
Actions Taken to Address the COVID‑19 Infodemic
As COVID-19 vaccination programs roll out around the world, governments, health organizations and private corporations have moved to address the COVID-19 infodemic and, more specifically, vaccine misinformation and disinformation (the distribution of misinformation with the intent to harm or deceive) that may affect people’s decision to receive a vaccine.
Two main approaches have been taken. The first has been to counter nonfactual claims and disseminate current and accurate information. The second has been to build information literacy skills. The following list summarizes some of the measures that have been taken by various entities globally.
- Canada’s Minister of Health announced, on 2 February 2021, $30.25 million in funding for “community-led projects to increase vaccine confidence by addressing gaps in knowledge, attitudes and beliefs related to vaccination.” This funding supplements Statistics Canada’s efforts to assist Canadians in identifying misinformation and disinformation through research on misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and data literacy training.The Government of Canada maintains a Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) site with links to information about the pandemic from various departments and agencies. Provincial and territorial governments all maintain COVID-19 information pages (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Yukon).
- Australia’s government hosts a COVID-19 Mythbusting
- The United Kingdom’s counter-disinformation efforts are led by units in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which emphasizes media and information literacy, and the National Health Service, which maintains a Coronavirus (COVID-19) fact page.
- Multiple United States federal departments and agencies have established fact-checking sites. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a Myths and Facts about COVID-19 Vaccines webpage; the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has a COVID‑19 Disinformation Toolkit; the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a Coronavirus Rumor Control page; and the Department of Defense has a Coronavirus: Rumor Control page.
- The World Health Organization has produced a Coronavirus disease “mythbusters” page countering common misperceptions about the disease, a How to report misinformation online site and a regularly updated Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
- The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has published, among other information, two policy briefs and infographics on COVID-19 disinformation for governments, journalists and the general public.
Social Media Corporations
Social media platforms have made public commitments to identify and/or delete content flagged as containing inaccurate information about the COVID‑19 pandemic.
- Facebook issued a news release on 3 December 2020 stating that “over the coming weeks [it would] start removing false claims about these vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts on Facebook and Instagram.”
- Twitter took a similar approach and announced on 16 December 2020 that it “will prioritize the removal of the most harmful misleading information, and during the coming weeks, begin to label Tweets that contain potentially misleading information about the vaccines.”
Successful COVID-19 vaccination campaigns are needed to end the pandemic. People’s willingness to be vaccinated against COVID-19 is affected by the information that they receive. Governments, international organizations, and social media corporations are developing approaches to address COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation.
Authors: Élyse Lemay and Melissa Fraser-Arnott, Library of Parliament