SMPA Professor Will Use Google Gift to Fight Vaccine Misinformation

Ethan Porter will study reactions to misinformation in 10 countries with the goal of reducing false beliefs around vaccination.

December 16, 2020

Ethan Porter

Ethan Porter.

Now that the Food and Drug Administration has approved its first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, an end to the transformative public health crisis of 2020 seems to be on the horizon. But negative public beliefs about these vaccines’ safety and efficacy, if they cause people to reject vaccination, could threaten the global recovery effort.

Ethan Porter, an assistant professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, is working to keep misinformation from determining those beliefs. Funded by three $150,000 gifts from Google, he and two co-researchers at Columbia University and Ohio State University will study the ways vaccine disinformation spreads, the forms it takes and how to check it most effectively. His work on COVID-19 vaccination will build on some of his earlier research, in which he investigated the ability of fact checks to rebut false beliefs.

Inaccuracies around COVID-19 vaccination are “of a different character altogether” than other types of misinformation he’s studied, Dr. Porter said. “It doesn’t just inform your political beliefs. It’s not just about what campaign you’re supporting. At stake instead is the health of the human race—not to be overdramatic, but really.”

Misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines is unique because the pandemic itself is so new, so complicated and so poorly understood by the general population, Dr. Porter said.

“People’s attitudes aren’t set in stone, which means misinformation can wield a pretty large impact on how they think about COVID generally,” he said.

In the next few months, Dr. Porter and his collaborators will conduct a study on reactions to vaccine misinformation in Brazil, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa and the United States—all countries Dr. Porter said have sizeable existing populations opposed to vaccination in general. The team will work to find ways to identify and correct different types of vaccine misinformation, however it may manifest across a range of cultures, populations and languages.

Correctives could include educational campaigns, robust fact checking mechanisms or even algorithmic changes to online platforms and search engines. It’s about meeting people where they are, said Dr. Porter, whose new book “The Consumer Citizen” argues that most people use the tools and habits they’ve developed as consumers to make sense of their political world.

“My colleagues and I have found that when factual information is detailed, clear and makes people think, it tends to be pretty effective” in combatting false beliefs, Dr. Porter said. “Fact checks that are pretty detailed leave durable impressions on people.”

In some populations, suspicion about the vaccine may stem from a history of institutional and medical abuse—and clear, detailed fact checking is still the best antidote, Dr. Porter believes.

“Especially among people who have good reason to be skeptical, the key is not to condescend or disregard their concerns but instead to present substantive evidence correcting misinformation,” he said.

It’s still ambiguous just how big a problem misinformation will be when it comes to vaccine adoption, Dr. Porter said. Survey results may vary depending on the way questions are phrased, and in any case may not accurately reflect respondents’ behavior once vaccines are widely available.

“You may say, if you’re responding to a pollster, ‘I won’t take the vaccine because I don’t think COVID is real,’ but when the vaccine is actually in front of you, your behavior could be different,” he said.

For now, Dr. Porter is hopeful that informed populations can prevent false beliefs from posing an existential threat to widespread vaccine adoption. After all, it’s a matter of life and death.

“At the end of the day, living organisms cannot survive if they have false beliefs that are dangerous to life,” he said. “That might not be true for everybody all of the time, but it will be for the vast majority of people. The truth catches up to us all.”