2020年12月16日 星期三

On Tech: Vaccines need effective messengers

How health care professionals and internet companies can help in the fight against misinformation.

Vaccines need effective messengers

Brandon Blommaert

Getting the science right is only one element of having coronavirus vaccines be successful. People must also trust them, and that requires an effective communications mobilization.

My colleague Davey Alba co-wrote an article on Tuesday about a recent increase in misleading claims about vaccines for the coronavirus. She spoke with me about the challenge for health professionals and others to spread the message about vaccines’ effectiveness and safety and the role of internet companies in slowing misleading information.

Shira: You can’t blame people for being cautious about new vaccines to prevent a virus that scientists don’t completely understand yet.

Davey: Absolutely not. I want to distinguish between misinformation narratives and the understandable caution that we all have about new vaccines.

Here’s an example. Regulators are keeping tabs on whether the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine causes an adverse health reaction in people who have a history of a specific type of severe allergic reaction. The misinformation narratives capitalize on that to spread the concern that allergic reactions from the vaccines are widespread, which isn’t true.

(New York Times journalists have answers to people’s common questions about coronavirus vaccines.)

There’s a history of Black Americans being mistreated or abused in health care. Is that legacy showing up in misinformation about the pandemic or vaccines?


Past misinformation campaigns have tried to capitalize on people’s existing fears or divisions. In 2016, for example, Russian disinformation targeted Black Americans and immigrant groups because they believed it was an effective tactic to try to widen existing social divisions. I’ve seen some early signs that people might try to exploit vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans.

How much blame do the internet companies deserve for the spread of misleading information about vaccines?

This year internet companies have seemed willing to be more aggressive to combat urgent risks of misleading information. Facebook and YouTube have said they will remove content about coronavirus vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts, and Twitter says it’s working on its own policy.

But writing policies is one thing. Whether they are effective and how the companies enforce their policies are another.


Once misleading information starts to spread widely — as we saw with false claims of voter fraud in the recent U.S. election — it’s a Band-Aid for internet companies to take action after the fact. Companies also often enforce their own rules unevenly, and some people take advantage of loopholes.

The fundamental problem is that the internet platforms depend on maximizing people’s attention. And false information is effective at getting people’s attention.

The misinformation researcher Renée DiResta wrote that health care officials haven’t done enough to make reliable health information compelling and understandable. Are any health professionals or government officials trying to fix that?

I’m grateful to the health professionals who take the time to communicate with people about the coronavirus and vaccines in ways that are clear. News organizations have a role to play in this, too, by making health messages accessible and relatable.


(Here’s Shira’s interview with a doctor who makes popular TikTok videos to teach people about the coronavirus and vaccines.)

In the pre-internet days, people absorbed important information mostly from friends and family, others they interacted with personally and traditional news outlets. Would we be better informed about coronavirus vaccines in a hypothetical world without the internet?

I don’t know. The wealth of information that’s available now — both good and bad — does place more of a burden on us to be more careful consumers of information.

It also makes it more important for researchers, science and health professionals, journalists and others to dream up ways to effectively communicate information so people aren’t out there all on their own trying to understand what’s happening.

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Failure isn’t all bad

I’m going to give Periscope, an app you’ve probably never used, a moment in the (newsletter) sun.

Periscope was among the first breakout apps to give anyone the option to easily broadcast whatever they wanted to the world in real time. Twitter, which bought the app in 2015, said on Tuesday that Periscope would be unplugged by March.

Periscope has been on death’s door for awhile, partly because most of us don’t want to post live videos of whatever is happening. But its influence lives on, because live video is everywhere. If you have in this pandemic year hung out on Zoom, strummed along to real-time guitar lessons on Instagram or interacted with sexual performers live on websites like OnlyFans, then Periscope deserves a little credit.

My big question is not why some ideas like Periscope fail, but why relatively similar ideas have widely different outcomes.

Why did Periscope wither, but Twitch built a thriving community of people livestreaming themselves playing video games or just sitting around talking? Why did live video not really catch on for Facebook — though the company tried hard — but it has for Facebook-owned Instagram?

(On a side note, live video remains a feature I feel conflicted about, because of the real and hard-to-control danger of people posting live videos of horrible things.)

There will be post-mortems about what went wrong for Periscope, and surely Twitter deserves at least some of the blame. Twitter is notorious for taking a fresh concept and ruining it by failing to invest in it, neglecting to make feature changes or making other management bungles.

But accurately diagnosing failure or success is not easy. There’s some magic alchemy of a good idea, good execution and good luck for why some products live on and others don’t. And sometimes, as with Periscope, failure is not the end of the story.

Before we go …

  • We haven’t heard the last of the massive cyberattack: My colleague David E. Sanger explained on “The Daily” what was behind the computer attack that hit multiple U.S. government agencies, and why this keeps happening.
  • Technology is not the answer, example infinity: The Markup selected the worst algorithms of 2020. The losers include data-based systems that influence who receives important medical treatments, a police department’s misuse of facial recognition technology to wrongly arrest a man in Detroit and educators who used software to assign grades.
  • But sometimes people can use tech for good: This is a remarkable tale of Ben Gardiner, who harnessed the early internet to help people share information about AIDS, find support and organize to change government policies. “His legacy lives on in anyone who now takes to the internet in good faith to deliver information and support to the suffering,” OneZero wrote.

Hugs to this

“I do my hair toss, check my nails …” Boston Medical Center staff members danced to celebrate distributing the first batch of coronavirus vaccines to their colleagues. (I definitely chair danced to Lizzo as I typed this.)

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