A Shocking Number of Americans Believe the Dumbest COVID Vaccine Conspiracy

Social media companies have failed miserably to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation, and now absurd conspiracy theories are taking root.

Jul 16 2021, 12:53pm
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

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A fifth of Americans believe that it is “very true” or “probably true” that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips as part of a covert government-led population control plan.

That is the shocking finding of a new survey conducted by YouGov for the Economist and published this week. The survey asked respondents if “the U.S. government is using the COVID-19 vaccine to microchip the population.” In response, 5 percent of those asked said the statement was “very true” while another 15 percent said it was “probably true.”

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That means approximately 42 million adults in the U.S. believe a conspiracy theory cooked up by anti-vax disinformation groups who claim the pandemic is a cover for a plan to implant trackable microchips in people, and that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is behind it.

The claim initially surfaced last year but gained renewed momentum last month when notorious disinformation superspreader Sherri Tenpenny claimed, in testimony before the Ohio State Legislature, that vaccines make you magnetic.

The result is that the microchip theory now has more believers than the decades-old and unfounded claim that vaccines cause autism—which 17 percent of Americans believe to be “very” or “likely” true according to the survey.

The survey’s findings show that in the U.S. the greatest threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic right now is not the virus itself, but the continued spread of vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories.

Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. right now are among the unvaccinated population, a staggering endorsement of just how effective the vaccines are. Essentially, if all eligible Americans were fully vaccinated, the data suggests deaths would dwindle to virtually zero.

And yet, the latest data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) shows that less than 60 percent of the U.S. adult population is currently fully vaccinated—despite vaccines being widely available to everyone and widespread efforts to entice the unvaccinated to get the jab.

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In some states, CDC data shows the percentage of fully-vaccinated adults is as low as 43 percent.

One of the primary reasons people are so hesitant to get vaccinated is obvious: Anti-vax misinformation, boosted by GOP lawmakers in many cases, has been allowed to spread unchecked on social media platforms for the last 18 months. And despite promises from companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, efforts to stop the spread of disinformation have been abysmal.

Take, for example, a crudely edited video claiming that Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma have colluded to put microchips in COVID-19 vaccines.

Facebook

It was uploaded in November last year and in December, Reuters published a rigorous fact-check of the video, debunking the claims made in it. At the time the video had been shared 27,000 times. 

It was uploaded by a Facebook user who told her followers she had “no idea who made this. I do not have the original link. I have no idea as to the validity of the information in the video.” The user has posted other misinformation and her profile picture is accompanied by the words “exposing friends to extremist content.”

Facebook put a label on the video, calling it “altered media,” and saying the information contained in it “could mislead.” But, crucially, Facebook didn’t take the video down, and it is still available to view today.

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In the last six months it has been viewed over 1.5 million times and shared over 40,000 times.

This is just one example of how Facebook has failed to live up to the repeated promises it executives have made, to do better at preventing people from using their platform to spread COVID-19 misinformation. 

On Thursday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy made a historic announcement, declaring for the first time that misinformation is a public health hazard. He called on technology companies to “take responsibility for addressing the harms” their products are causing.

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

Murthy has recommended that tech companies redesign their algorithms so that search and recommendation systems don’t surface reckless misinformation, and to make it easier for people to identify and report misinformation. 

The problem with this approach is that most people are bad at spotting misinformation.

“In general people are not that good at identifying fake news,” Joshua Tucker, co-director of the NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, told VICE News. Tucker and his colleagues have been running a large scale study on people's ability to identify the veracity of fake news in real time, and their findings don’t exactly inspire optimism.

“When we showed ordinary citizens stories that had appeared online in the past 24 hours that had been assessed as false by professional fact checkers, fully one-third of respondents thought the stories were true—and only one-third correctly identified them as false,” Tucker said.

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The politicization of COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout has also hindered people’s ability to spot misinformation online, Tucker said:

”One of the great tragedies of the COVID response in the U.S. is that attitudes towards covid, masks, and vaccines has gotten caught up in partisan politics. So if conservatives think that the microchip conspiracy is somehow aligned with conservative ideology, we are going to see conservatives even more likely to believe that this is true.”

And the data bears that out. The YouGov poll found that 32% of Republicans said the microchip conspiracy was “very” or “probably” true, compared to 14% of Democrats.

But even when people go searching for more information about something they saw on their Facebook feed, the internet can reinforce the misinformation rather than debunking it. This problem is known as “data voids,” a term first coined by researchers Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd in a paper published in 2019 that outlined how those spreading disinformation could take advantage of a lack of content about new or unique terms to help reinforce misinformation.

“We found that when people were encouraged to search for information online about false information, they were actually more likely to believe those stories,” Tucker said. “We think what is going on here is that when people go to search for information about low quality news, they are finding other low quality news.”

As vaccine take-up has stalled, the Biden administration is attempting to tackle vaccine misinformation head on, with plans that include going door-to-door to convince people to take the vaccine.

But it may be too little too late, and Tucker believes the Biden administration should have been trying to figure this out much earlier.

“It is telling that we spent billions of dollars on developing vaccines, but much less on thinking about how to make sure people are willing to use them,” Tucker said.

“The original Biden-Harris Transition COVID task force lacked any misinformation experts. It is high time to get social scientists who study human behavior and misinformation more centrally involved in the government’s response to COVID.”

Tagged:

Autism, joe biden, Republicans, Bill Gates, vaccines, microchips, COVID-19, Disinfo Dispatch

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