News February 24, 2022

New Report Provides Inside Look and Lessons from Monitoring COVID-19 Anti-Vaccine Narratives

The Virality Project final report finds recycled anti-vaccine narratives and viral content driven by recurring actors.
The cover image of the Virality Project Report. An illustration shows a wave of phones and computers turning red as they share misleading information.

The Virality Project today released a final report with unique insights from real-time monitoring of anti-vaccine narratives across social media platforms shortly after COVID-19 vaccines became available. Over the course of its seven months of work, the Virality Project observed narratives that questioned the safety, distribution, and effectiveness of vaccines — long-established themes, inflected for COVID-19 specifically.

Governments and the public health community faced an unprecedented challenge providing accurate health information during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Mis- and disinformation spread widely as experts and public officials struggled to deliver clear and consistent guidance amidst rapidly evolving, sometimes conflicting, scientific consensus about the virus’s spread. 

A coalition of research organizations, including the Stanford Internet Observatory, partnered to provide actionable recommendations for the public health community and social media platforms to mitigate harm from false and misleading narratives.

The new report, “Memes, Magnets and Microchips: Narrative dynamics around COVID-19 vaccines,”provides a detailed understanding of prominent narratives that emerged during the vaccine rollout, discussing their scope, speed, and spread. The report also provides analysis of social media platform policies and recommendations for a whole-of-society response and collaboration around mis- and disinformation.

Key Findings

  • COVID-19 anti-vaccine narratives are not new, but adapted from long-used and repeated storylines.

  • Vaccine mis- and disinformation was largely driven by recurring actors.

  • Online engagement for vaccine mis- and disinformation is highly variable and driven by viral content that spreads outside the community it is first shared in. 

  • Conspiracy theories made up a smaller number of incidents but appeared to be more engaging than other narrative categories.

  • While online platforms made progress in creating and enforcing vaccine and health-misinformation related policies, gaps and challenges still exist.

Key Recommendations

  • Public health organizations should focus on misinformation narrative themes and tropes rather than attempt to fact-check individual incidents.

  • Social media platforms should consistently enforce their existing policies, and must continue to improve data sharing relationships with researchers.

  • Research groups should develop simple tip line processes to bolster social media observation with community input.

  • Government should develop and maintain communication channels between federal, state, and local agencies to understand and learn from what is happening across regions.

  • Government and public health officials should address vaccine hesitancy in underserved communities through collaboration with trusted voices.

Virality Project Members: