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Posted: January 12, 2021

An inoculation against misinformation

How we can use simple claim checks to make sure we have our facts straight about the covid vaccines

Key Concepts:

 Conspiracy
Offline-Assignments

As the first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine are being distributed across North America, the spread of false and misleading information about the vaccines threatens to hinder a smooth rollout. 

 

South of the border on New Year’s eve, Steven Brandenburg, a pharmacist from Wisconsin, was arrested for destroying more than 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine. According to reports, Brandenburg removed vials, which require cold storage, from a fridge and left them out overnight to render them ineffective. 

 

When questioned, Brandenburg said that he intentionally tampered with the vaccine because he believed that it “was not safe for people and could harm them and change their DNA.” 

 

It could very well be that Brandenburg thought he was saving people by tampering with the vaccine, but the claim that the Covid vaccine can alter human DNA has no basis in fact. 

 

According to fact-checking organization Snopes, the claim originated on social media in November, 2020 as part of a longer post titled “Covid vaccine should be avoided at all costs.” The claim quickly went viral and spread across social media platforms. 

 

The false notion that the vaccine can alter our DNA is just one of a variety of conspiracy theories and false claims spreading about the vaccine. Because the vaccine is so new and because it can be hard to find accessible information about such a specialized topic, people can end up believing misleading information they see online. 

 

Misinformation experts at First Draft News argue that the uncertainty around the Covid vaccine makes it ripe for misinformation:  “When people can’t easily access reliable information around vaccines and when mistrust in actors and institutions related to vaccines is high, misinformation narratives rush in to fill the vacuum.” 

 

As the case of Steven Brandenburg illustrates, these misinformation narratives can have very concrete effects, making an already complicated rollout that much more difficult to administer.

1. Health Misinformation

 

Share the article “Wisconsin pharmacist who left vials out thought vaccine was unsafe” with students.

Watch CIVIX Explains: Information Pollution and review the difference between disinformation and misinformation.

Show students an example of the misleading post that went viral. Point out the claim in the first paragraph that states that the vaccine intervenes “directly in the genetic material of the patient and therefore alters the individual genetic material.” Explain that this is the part of the post that was the most widespread and repeated.

Have a discussion about health information/misinformation with your class. 

Guiding Questions

  • Why do you think some people are worried about the safety of the Covid vaccine?
  • Why do you think someone would produce false information about the vaccine?
  • Why do you think people are willing to believe claims they see online about the vaccine?
  • How can people exposed to these claims determine what to trust?
  • What is the impact on society when false claims about the vaccine spread online?
  • What do you think governments or health organizations could do to help people trust the vaccine?
  • Where might you go to find reliable information about the safety of new vaccines?

 

2. Checking Claims

Watch Check the Claim with Jane Lytvynenko and Skill: Check Other Sources with Mike Caulfield.

[Teacher note: Claim checks are explored in detail in the CTRL-F lesson: Check the Claim.]

Demonstrate a claim check

  • Using the example provided above, demonstrate how you would check the claim that the Covid vaccine alters human DNA.
  • Searching the terms “covid vaccine DNA” should return numerous results from professional news sources, such as BBC, and Reuters, that debunk the claim.

 

Ask students to try their own claim checks.

  • Ask students what they may have heard about the Covid vaccine. 
  • Take one or more examples and have the class investigate, individually, in groups, or as a class
  • Sample claim: “If I get a vaccine I don’t have to wear a mask anymore.” (False. A keyword search shows multiple reliable news sources report that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been demonstrated to be 95% effective at preventing illness, but the research is not yet in on whether or not a vaccinated person can infect others.)

[Teacher note: students may point out that media sources make mistakes / may have bias etc. This is true, but if an outlet is professional and standards-based, every effort will be made to report facts as they are known. Reporting from CBC, BBC, The New York Times etc generally represents the most accessible versions of what is known. Related: it’s also important to note that when discussing new science, facts and knowledge will evolve over time as more research is done.] 

 

3. Extension Activity: Evaluating Expertise

Watch Evaluate Expertise with Mike Caulfield and have a class discussion about expertise and health information. 

Review the concept of “domain knowledge”: The deep understanding of a specific topic. When someone has domain knowledge, they may be considered an expert. For example, epidemiologists have domain knowledge of viruses and how they spread.

Ask students what domain knowledge they would expect an expert on vaccines to have.

Show students the article “Experts: mRNA vaccine for Covid does not alter DNA” and ask them to investigate one of the experts cited in the article. Ask students how they determined whether the person cited has appropriate domain knowledge. 

Remind students that journalists are often responsible for summarizing the work of experts and making it accessible for the general public. While journalists reporting on the topic of Covid vaccines may not have medical degrees (though some do), many specialize in health reporting and have extensive training in how to interpret and communicate health-based knowledge. Ask students to visit the website of a local or provincial news organization and identify at least one of the organization’s health experts.

Conspiracy theory: A belief that a secret, powerful group of people is causing major news events, manipulating politics and the economy, or hiding important information about the world.

Domain knowledge: The deep understanding of a specific topic. When someone has domain knowledge, they may be considered an expert. For example, epidemiologists have domain knowledge of viruses and how they spread.

 

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