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Few Facts, Millions Of Clicks: Fearmongering Vaccine Stories Go Viral Online

From Miles Parks at National Public Radio…

The odds of dying after getting a COVID-19 vaccine are virtually nonexistent.

According to recent data from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, you’re three times more likely to get struck by lightning.

But you might not know that from looking at your social media feed.

A new NPR analysis finds that articles connecting vaccines and death have been among the most highly engaged with content online this year, going viral in a way that could hinder people’s ability to judge the true risk in getting a shot.

The findings also illustrate a broader trend in online misinformation: With social media platforms making more of an effort to take down patently false health claims, bad actors are turning to cherry-picked truths to drive misleading narratives.

Experts say these storylines are much harder for companies to moderate, though they can have the same net effect of creating a distorted and false view of the world.

“It’s a really insidious problem,” said Deen Freelon, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The social media companies have taken a hard line against disinformation; they have not taken a similarly hard line against fallacies.”

To date, the CDC’s reporting system has not received evidence linking any deaths directly to vaccines.

And yet, on almost half of all the days so far in 2021, a story about someone dying after receiving a vaccine shot has been among the most popular vaccine-related articles on social media, according to data from the media intelligence company NewsWhip.

That includes the year’s most popular vaccine story: a South Florida Sun Sentinel article, which was republished in the Chicago Tribune, about a doctor who died a few weeks after receiving the vaccine.

The story explicitly notes there has been no link found between the shot and his death, but it has received almost 5 million interactions on Facebook and Twitter nonetheless.

“This problem is not theoretical. It’s not hypothetical,” said Sarah Roberts, an information studies professor at UCLA. “This thorny issue directly lands in this gray area of an emergent information crisis that has really clear real-world implications.”

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