S2E5: Vaccine Misinformation: Series Introduction

Podcast published date: 

May 26, 2021



 misinformation, vaccines, people, nature, conversations, fear, expert, expertise, science, disinformation, vaccination, idea, pandemic, nerf, film, mis, series, system, anti vaxxers, understand


Shawn Walker, Michael Simeone


Michael Simeone  00:00

This is Misinfo Weekly, a somewhat weekly program about misinformation in our time. Misinfo Weekly is made by the Unit for Data Science and Analytics at Arizona State University Library. 

Hello, and welcome to the first introductory episode of what will be a multi episode series where we explore vaccines and misinformation. Now, there's a lot of different topics out there when it comes to misinformation. Shawn, why have we prioritized vaccines as a topic to think about? And why is understanding vaccine misinformation so important to the overall understanding of Misinfo?


Shawn Walker  00:38

We're focusing on vaccines because this has become one of the central features to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.


Michael Simeone  00:45

It's in the news everywhere.


Shawn Walker  00:47

It seems to be what most of our leaders have pointed as the primary way for us to get out of the pandemic and back to like, sort of quote unquote, "normal life."


Michael Simeone  00:57

Yeah, and while we don't, this is the introduction episode of a special feature, and so in podcast land, we're coming from a timeless space. But at the same time, you know, we are recording sometime in 2021, where the vaccine and conversations about the vaccine are everywhere. 


Shawn Walker  01:11

And as a result of this becoming this central feature, and almost this obsession that we're talking about, it's that also means it's ripe for mis and disinformation. And it's also this long standing, mis and disinformation campaign. So vaccines in general have been controversial for decades. And COVID-19 just happened to link on to that in the early stages and continues to do so. So basically, I see the the COVID-19 vaccines as utilizing this existing infrastructure, you know, the railroad tracks that have been there for a while, a lot of the anti vaxxers just kind of the COVID train hopped on top of that, and use that as a way to spread mis and disinformation around COVID in the vaccine in the pandemic. 


Michael Simeone  01:57

But let's let's let's talk about so, this entire series is meant to focalize vaccines as a productive area to think through misinformation.


Shawn Walker  02:08

As part of this series, we have a number of guests with various expertise ranging from medical, veterinarians, all the way to scholars, as you that research this area over long periods of time.


Michael Simeone  02:18

Yeah, our whole design here, or hope that all of this falls together in the way that we're envisioning is that we don't go back to vaccines and misinformation as this hot button topic where people are shouting at one another back and forth about them being real or not real. But to really make this a more vibrant conversation where we can understand a lot of the different angles going on. And to help you understand that vaccination is an intersection of lots of different themes and misinformation, lots of different techniques and misinformation. And it has been important, but it's especially important this year in 2021. And so with that in mind, we want to preview not necessarily the subject of each conversation in the series, but we want to paint a picture about some of the themes that you can expect to encounter in a lot of these different conversations.


Shawn Walker  03:15

And I think another thing that we're trying to do is bring in not just researchers, as we've done in the past, we're also bringing in practitioners and how they're directly addressing or what are the challenges that they face in directly addressing mis and disinformation when they work with their constituents or their clients?


Michael Simeone  03:32

Yeah, I think by far, one of the most interesting things that happens when researchers encounter practitioners is that they often have very different perspectives, and they don't 100% line up in how they see the problems every single time. So I think it's fascinating to see how there's general alignment sometimes, but we can't expect researchers to see the same thing as practitioners and vice versa. And I think that's really spelled out in a lot of the conversations that we've had.


Shawn Walker  03:59

And the timescales are also quite different. So often researchers are like, hold on, let me get back to you in a year or so. Let me publish your paper that'll take about six months, versus the veterinarian or a primary care physician, they're sitting in their office directly across often from a client or a patient, and they have to give them an answer now or address their concerns. Or sometimes what to the, I would imagine to the doctor is like, whoa, wait, this makes no sense. Like, why would you believe that? Like, how do they address that in that moment?


Michael Simeone  04:27

Yes, I think how we encounter misinformation is on a timescale that's very different. I think that's a great point to always keep in mind, is that we have a relatively comfortable position to understand misinformation, as opposed to practitioners. So let's roll out our framework for thinking through some of these conversations. And so we have kind of four main things that we want to highlight at the top level for folks who are previewing this series and are listening to this particular pre episode right now. And our we have a great acronym. Because all all influential thought can be broken down to acronyms, I think that's misinformation. Did I just say some misinformation? Well, anyway, our, our acronym is NERF. N. E. R. F.


Shawn Walker  05:14

I feel like we just stepped into Sesame Street territory. This episode is brought to you by letters N, E, R and F. 


Michael Simeone  05:21

We're trying, we're trying to get the ABCs of anti vaccination ideology. Okay. N -- that's nature, N stands for nature. See now because of your comment, I'm just imagining, like the block letter N like children's blocks. 


Shawn Walker  05:36

Or like PeeWee's Playhouse, like you said, nature and then like all the furniture screams.


Michael Simeone  05:39

Exactly, exactly. Well, you know that? Well, okay, so nature and the reason we want to call attention to nature is in conversations about vaccines and vaccination. And in conspiracy theories and misinformation around medicine, we have observed that nature is oftentimes treated as almost like a light source, or a source of good energy, rather than a dynamic, complex system of interconnected organisms and life forms. So the idea being that oftentimes, the idea that you are far away from nature, or that you're interfering with nature, is one of the foundational assumptions of trying to think through why vaccines are bad.


Shawn Walker  06:28

Or that it's not natural, right?


Michael Simeone  06:29

Yes, that is not natural, right. So you're either further away from nature, or you're antagonistic to nature. But either way, the closer you are to nature, it will fill you with a kind of healing energy, or at least to dispel or help you avoid some of the harmful, unnatural things going on with vaccines, right? Vaccines are overwrought, they are tampering with something that ought not be tampered with. So that's the N of our NERF acronym to try to think about the role of how different vaccine misinformation sources tend to mobilize the idea of nature in order to convince people that vaccines are detrimental to their health. 


Shawn Walker  07:12

And we first saw this in one of our favorite films, the Plandemic film.


Michael Simeone  07:17

Well, your favorite film is Jurassic Park 2, right?


Shawn Walker  07:21

For now? Yes, if anytime I'm talking to you it is, but okay, but our favorite misinformation film that we've discussed at length, right is this pandemic and Dr. Judy Mikovits. No, Mokovits


Michael Simeone  07:32

Mikovits. Yes, Plandemic One, you're referring to Plandemic One.


Shawn Walker  07:35

So in the first Plandemic talks about nature, and how like masks and vaccines, right,  separate us from nature, but you know, being out in the ocean, and the sand provides this sort of healing.... What's the word?


Michael Simeone  07:52

Vibes. Like healing? There's like a, there's the I think that the best way to describe it is there's just healing vibes out there. There's no like specific biological mechanism that's invoked and these kinds of arguments. But yes, it's left to be a little ambiguous. And that ambiguity is really productive. I think for, for anti vaccination misinformation.


Shawn Walker  08:13

I agree. I just I'm trying to was trying to find a word that respects there's some folks that believe some of this, but the way that it was weaponized in the Plandemic films, I think is different than those that might believe in more homeopathy. Right. There's, there's a lot of daylight between those things. But yeah, she talks--


Michael Simeone  08:33

Right with this did not just turn into a skeptics podcast.


Shawn Walker  08:36



Michael Simeone  08:37

I take your point.


Shawn Walker  08:38

Yeah. But she says she was talking about, you know, Bill Gates, microchips. And then like, boom, you know, all of these things, masks everything, separate us from nature, separate our feet from touching the sand. And so that means they're bad, as well as the way the vaccines were designed. She goes into this complicated discussion of that right, which is inaccurate, then that makes us more vulnerable. So but if we just stop doing those things, and yield to nature, we'll be safe.


Michael Simeone  09:07

Yeah, yeah, I think that's a great point. These ideas predated the Plandemic film, they're really amplified and mobilized effectively in the Plandemic film. And they will outlive the popularity of the Plandemic film. These ideas about nature that you just outlined, I think are going to be around for a while. Let's move on to E. and E and our NERF acronym is expertise. Shawn, talk a little bit about expertise and why that matters and our conversations about vaccines.


Shawn Walker  09:37

So there's this question of who are the experts ? You know it live, we live watch the news, we watch press conferences, who is the expert? Is it, are there doctors which type of doctor is the expert and then what's our relationship to those? So do we believe them? Do we do we trust the government and trust the CDC? So therefore, do we trust that expertise or anytime they say anything? Are we like, oh, the opposite must be true. Because I don't trust those organizations. So expertise. Expertise plays a huge role in what we believe, what we don't believe. And because of who we trust.


Michael Simeone  10:09

Yeah, expertise is so tricky. Because expertise can be, you can symbolize expertise without being an expert. And that's really tricky, right. So we've seen examples of people being interviewed, and they're wearing scrubs, but they're not actually experts in the things you're speaking about. They're just wearing scrubs. So you assume they're an expert. But then, the other tricky thing is, you do need a base level of expertise in order to understand who the experts are. And that a lot of things that can be confusing is not knowing exactly who is authoritative on a particular subject. So how a disease spreads could be distinct from someone who does, you know, more molecular work, right. So someone who's doing a lot of clinical and has a lot of clinical experience is gonna have a different perspective, and may not be the same expert as someone who does more kind of molecular biology, or does kind of virology. Even though both of them go by doctor, both of them might be dressed the same when they're interviewed on cable news, but they have very different experiences. And they have different corners of the same general field of expertise, if we want to call that like the expertise area of, of medicine. 


Shawn Walker  11:21

Right, I mean, both of us are doctors, but not those kinds of doctors, but also some of this fatigue. And some of this distrust can then lead to not believing anyone. And you're just like, what I need to do is look at the information myself, because I have this great BS detector, though, therefore, I'll figure out the truth. But if you don't have the expertise to sort through this, you can come to potentially harmful conclusions.


Michael Simeone  11:44

Yeah, if you know a little bit, then you've got this overconfidence that makes you feel like the expert. And then that puts you in conflict with the folks who could potentially help you. Or leaves you susceptible to people who want to mislead you. 


Shawn Walker  11:57

Definitely, yes. So the next one.


Michael Simeone  12:02



Shawn Walker  12:02

So R is for role. What do we mean by role, Michael,?


Michael Simeone  12:05

By role, we're meaning to make sure that people pay attention to how this information is useful to the people who are reading it and spreading it around and representing it as true. This is of a piece of what you were talking about before Shawn, that people who believe that vaccines are harmful, we shouldn't assume bad things about them. We shouldn't assume that they live in like the opposite moral universe as anyone else. We want to really think through how that information is useful, even though it might be deceptive.


Shawn Walker  12:43

So they'll say maybe potentially an example for the utility of misinformation. If you are say afraid, then you might find a piece of misinformation that gives you assurity and therefore assuages your fear. Or if you believe that nature, in the sense we just discussed, is the best way that misinformation about vaccines or the you know, its utility is that it confirms your belief in nature, and then allows you to reject what you believe is unsafe.


Michael Simeone  13:14

Yeah, I think that's a great example and to work with your example. It's a lot simpler, and you have to negotiate a lot fewer institutions, to say, I'm not going to get vaccinated, I'm going to stay home until it's safe. For some people, in some situations, it's more appealing to trust nature, and to trust the people who boost those ideas that nature is actually the best way to go here. Or that it's not very, you know, another useful piece of information that isn't true is these COVID statistics that pass around on these different message boards that are anti Vax, that talk about the survival rate of COVID-19. And how it's incredibly high, it's so high that the vaccine is actually more dangerous than the virus itself. That kind of idea, makes it seem like doing nothing, not having an intervention at all, is actually the most effective treatment. That is a really useful idea to think that you don't have to worry about a vaccination, that everything should just go back to normal, that this isn't really a big deal, that there's nothing to be afraid of anymore. That's a really useful idea. If you're in a situation where you're locked down, you're unsure. So we don't want to say that some of these ideas aren't appealing if they were actually true. And so when we call attention to the role of misinformation, we really do want to see how that, how that particular piece of information may provide some kind of service for somebody.


Shawn Walker  14:42

And I think this stands in contrast to the sort of trope of well, only sort of stupid, uneducated people believe mis and disinformation. And I think we disagree with that. Because instead it's not stupidity or lack of education. It's more of utility, like  misinformation is often useful for a plethora of reasons, rather than I'm just dumb. So that's why I believe that.


Michael Simeone  15:07

I think conversations about misinformation become far more productive, if instead of thinking of people who pass on misinformation as being infected, or poisoned, or whatever other metaphors, people used to talk about misinformation. If you think about that person having some kind of use for it, and having some kind of role in their life that if you understood it, we might have a better understanding of misinformation and be far less polarizing.


Shawn Walker  15:30

And I think in future conversations that we'll have, that allows us to talk about interventions in a different way. Rather than pounding someone over the head with facts or education or other tools, we can kind of think more widely about, well, how do we meet the need, that the misinformation was serving? Instead of how do we beat you into submission? 


Michael Simeone  15:50

One-hundred percent. Well, that leaves us with our final letter for our system, and that's F, which stands for fear.


Shawn Walker  15:59

So fear could open up gaps, that then misinformation can fill those in to make us feel more comfortable. So sometimes, I think of mis and disinformation like that, like warm, fuzzy blanket, that we can kind of wrap around ourselves to protect us from the outside world, and be less afraid. 


Michael Simeone  16:13

Those outside ideas. 


Shawn Walker  16:14



Michael Simeone  16:14

Yeah, and I think fear gets used as almost like a Boogeyman. In the sense that, you know, and we see this a lot in the vaccine misinformation, which is, you're only getting a vaccine because you're a prisoner of fear that someone is using fear to control you. So, when you're, when you're thinking through fear, and vaccines and misinformation around vaccines, there's fear plays a dual role. One is fear is the enemy. But then, the other one is fear is your friend. So it could be these untrustworthy institutions are using fear to manipulate you and force you to do something to your body that you should never do. On the other hand, you know, if we look through, as we have, right, just this afternoon, looking through Telegram and Facebook, and how people are talking about the COVID-19 vaccines, they're very much designed to make people afraid of the vaccine. The telegram channel, that one of them that has, you know, something like 30,000 followers on it, but I was looking through just now, one of the most common ways or anecdotes is just to list somebody who died after getting the vaccine. And there's this idea that there's a period where you might be fine, and then you'll just collapse and die. That format, right, tells like a horror story, and so mobilizing fear to sow distrust in the vaccines of the vaccination process. That's another way that fear kicks into this situation.


Shawn Walker  17:43

And we can also use fear in the policy space. So we see fear being used as well, if we don't open up, then business or businesses will close, livelihoods will be lost, right. And then on the other side, if we do open up we'll have massive casualties, and the truth is both that's really complicated. There are impacts of opening up, there impacts of staying closed. We don't agree on how to mitigate that. So then fear just kind of circulates. And basically, we end up in this space where everyone just afraid that their lives are ruined.


Michael Simeone  18:15

Yeah, I think that's a great point. And that rounds out our four, four part, framework?


Shawn Walker  18:23

Or NERF series?


Michael Simeone  18:24

Some of these, yeah, just these different themes that we want to call attention to, of nature of how expertise is working, what role that misinformation, plays, and then fear. What what is going on with fear, and each and how's it operating in each of these different conversations that we're going to be having? 


Shawn Walker  18:42

Right, so we can think of these like flashing sign that's like, misinformation. You're welcome here, you know. And with respect to science, we've seen, science becomes this very controversial topic, not that science has not been controversial in the past. But this is one of the first times I think that science is front and central. And every discussion that we've had, we've talked about this before, with dashboards, with press releases, with news articles, referencing journal articles, preprints. This is different than the run of the mill reporting that we normally see in scientific articles that, well, coffee causes cancer, coffee, Prevents Cancer, you should drink wine, you know, and that's just a misunderstanding of scientific studies and other kinds of things. This has become, you know, what do we do when we have a novel virus, which means we've never seen it before. So we don't know a lot about the virus. And then over time, as our understanding increases, that means the suggestions from science is, here's the best practice in this moment. That's going to change. And if we don't understand how science works, then that itself becomes a point of contention.


Michael Simeone  19:50

Yeah, and I think that that gets to this idea that I think it's important to underscore right now. Science is vulnerable to misinformation. Because there are plenty of contradictions in science. In fact, science is designed to be controversial in the sense that people can arrive at different results, and then have a conversation about it. The idea that, say, in a global pandemic, you may think one thing about the virus early on, and then think a different thing about that virus later on. That is an indication that some kind of process, motivated by empirical, motivated by empirical study is actually changing our perspective. From the perspective of a scientist, that means the system is working. But from the perspective of, you know, trying to look for opportunities for misinformation, you can look at those two things as contradictions that rather than existing in a series, as in, I did one thing, I learned my lesson, I'm doing another thing. You think about them, like much more historically, and you just think, well, one person said this, and then they said this, therefore, they have no credibility,


Shawn Walker  20:59

Right? And so we can go through thinking about our NERF process now, right, our NERF framework. We can see how that connects to, to science, right? If we have science saying, hold on, we need to do some research. Well, I don't know what to do right now. So I'm going to go back to nature. That seems like it makes sense. And then, then we have the role of expertise, right? So experts are saying different things. Because you know, what happens in science, people have great ideas, then we test them out. And then that kind of process iterates, some people were wrong, some people were right, new ideas emerge. But if that's not a process that you're used to, and you're in the middle of a pandemic, that kind of sucks.


Michael Simeone  21:36

Yeah, it's not a trivial amount of effort to understand how the entire system of bio creating biomedical knowledge in our country or worldwide, how that system works. So there is usefulness here, in any misinformation, that is going to encourage people to not even bother. Or to oversimplify this system. Because it's not a system that, you know, people have widely documented as providing care and well being very equally to people all the time. And so having a mistrust in that system already, you know, it's very easy to piggyback healthcare in this country, right is this Byzantine system of providers and insurance companies. And, you know, all the other kind of science and medicine and drugs that people are likely to encounter as a patient. Being a patient can be a very complicated thing. There's a lot of value in any story, that simplifies the matter.


Shawn Walker  22:35

So there's our R, and then we have our F for fear. So this environment of with all these unknowns, where your family members might be sick might be passing away, your business might be economically impacted, you might have lost your job, especially if you're in an industry that requires a lot of face to face contact. This is just right for fear. So then we go back to how can some of this misinformation provide assurance at this moment in time assuage your fears, help us choose experts, other things, so that it kind of loops back on itself.


Michael Simeone  23:05

So wrapping up, we are trying to the series of conversations to make this debate more complex, so that we see it less as a for and against vaccines, the people who are educated in science versus the people who are not, we want to make this a much more complex situation for listeners to be able to understand that misinformation, what it does, how it works, isn't so straightforward all the time.


Shawn Walker  23:32

And the COVID vaccination and just anti vaxxers in general, is a really great way to illustrate this because of all of the nuances, the complexities, it's not as simple black and white and you'll see or hear, I guess you'll we should say, you'll hear when we talk to some of our guests that vaccination, not vaccination, it's not a yes or no, it's it's actually a hmm well maybe or maybe at different times.


Michael Simeone  23:56

So this concludes our preview to this multi part series on vaccinations. We hope you enjoy, be thoughtful and be well. 

For questions or comments, use the email address datascience@asu.edu. And to check out more about what we're doing, try library.asu.edu/data.