On Monday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced in a press release that their vaccine candidate was more than 90 percent effective at preventing Covid-19 infection, based on initial results from their ongoing phase 3 clinical trial. The company expects to have applied for emergency use authorization with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the end of November and could have as many as 50 million doses produces by the end of 2020.
This is tremendous news — and misinformation about it is already circulating on social media. According to research from VineSight, a slew of social Twitter accounts, including those of Donald Trump Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz, are already questioning the timing of the results’ release just days after the presidential election. By midday, tweets pushing that narrative had racked up more than 20,000 shares. The researchers estimate that Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet alone could have been seen by nearly 7 million people.
The dream of bringing a speedy end to the pandemic is a complicated one. Even when a vaccine does win initial FDA authorization in the United States, we should expect a lengthy period of “chaos and confusion,” one expert recently told the New York Times. Much of that disarray could play out on social media.
From the possibility of multiple vaccines to regionally distinct distribution plans to still-evolving research, the process of vaccine implementation is already stoking anxiety and misinformation. Since the pandemic began, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have faced pressure to combat conspiracy theories about Covid-19 vaccines. When one or more vaccines are ultimately offered to the public, the companies will also need to continue to promote accurate information about ever-evolving public health precautions. And they must act sooner rather than later to grapple with the task of communicating and moderating this next period of the pandemic, according to Jennifer Reich, who has studied vaccine hesitance at the University of Colorado Denver.
“This is not going to be magic,” Reich told Recode. “I think that the way the vaccine has been messaged has been like, ‘Just wait till we have a vaccine and then we can all go back to life as normal.’ That’s probably not a realistic expectation.”
Public health and social media experts told Recode that social media companies should expect anti-vaccination communities to use social media to capitalize on peoples’ understandable concerns about a potential Covid-19 vaccine. At the same time, many will be confused and frustrated at the distribution of the vaccine, and some may be angry when they see others getting a vaccine before they do. That will come amid conspiracy theories and other misinformation that has already spread about potential Covid-19 vaccines.
Basically, it could be a very, very complicated mess.
Top Image Credit: Envato/Amanda Scott
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