Today, 68% of adults in Palau have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 48% are fully vaccinated. Three months ago, nearly half of the population was hesitant to receive the vaccine.
The barrage of misinformation across nearly all social media platforms had many people worried about taking the vaccine.
Misinformation which has spread via social media has ranged from rumors that people in Palau are being used as guinea pigs for experimental drugs to drastic claims of side effects, even to sheer conspiracy theories of the vaccine being used as a mode to implant trackers in people.
Palau’s national leaders and Ministry of Health have set out to combat the misinformation and reassure people’s fears primarily through example. An active campaign to post photographs of people representing different parts of Palau’s communities receiving their shots on social media platforms seemed to have a positive effect.
Prior to the vaccine rollout, the MOH conducted a survey to gauge people’s perception of the vaccine. About half said they would take the vaccine, while about 35% said they would wait and see, and about 15% said they would not take it.
Although no other survey has been taken since, based on the number of people receiving the vaccine and waiting in line to receive the vaccine in centers where it is distributed, it looks as if many of those fears incited by misinformation and mal-information have been mitigated.
Nowadays, words and phrases such as “misinformation” and “fake news” are commonly heard. To clarify, misinformation can be wrong information given out without the intention to hurt. This may be an error due to technical mistakes or information misheard and passed on to others. Usually this is an honest mistake with no intent to harm.
Disinformation on the other hand is wrong information given with the intention to fool, confuse or harm the person or people receiving information. An example would be people posing to be doctors in videos and telling viewers incorrect information about vaccines or diseases with the intention to fool them, confuse them or make them fearful.
The effects of this type of information scare people away from important and even life-saving information and make people question and distrust entities meant to protect them such as hospitals or doctors.
The advent of social media, smartphones and cheap internet has increased the problem exponentially. Everyone with access, whether it is a 6-year-old kid or a 60-year-old grandfather, is bombarded with information which can change their way of thinking or their behavior.
It is quite a challenge to a trained person to discern disinformation and misinformation, and even more so to the rest of us. Each day, your phone will receive hundreds of posts from Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Your friends and acquaintances share posts, blogs and videos. Even people you don’t know share information with you across all social media platforms. Even mainstream media sends a daily stream of information to your devices. You are expected to make a decision or form an opinion based on all of this information.
So far, the Ministry of Health has managed to successfully combat the effect of misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine, but misinformation is not restricted to COVID. It is everywhere.
One way to tackle this problem is to ask someone you personally know and trust to help verify the information. For example, if it’s a medical issue like COVID, ask your doctor, whom you trust with your life.
One of the realities of the “new normal” we’ll face even after the end of this pandemic will be the continuing onslaught of misinformation, and as we look forward, we must include in our disaster mitigation plans, Misinformation Management. It will be just as important as any other disaster mitigation measures.