This piece was previously posted on the Health Feed blog.
Despite what some online articles and social media outlets suggest, COVID-19 vaccines do not contain tracking devices, nor will they cause infertility or alter your DNA. Those and other claims about the vaccines are simply false.
In fact, a wealth of scientific research demonstrates that the vaccines are safe and highly effective at keeping you from becoming seriously ill. Yet some people are not getting the protection they need because they think myths about the vaccines are true.
“Unlike many other types of misinformation, health misinformation surrounding vaccines can have real, immediate harms, potentially even resulting in a preventable death,” says misinformation expert Ben Lyons, Ph.D., an assistant professor of communications at the University of Utah.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to tell fact from fiction. Lyons offers simple tips that can help. If you are still unsure whether health information is accurate, it’s better to slow the spread of potential misinformation by choosing not to share it. If you have questions, talk with your health care provider.
Separating fact from fiction
An article or social media post could be brimming with information that sounds convincing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it's accurate. Before believing anything you read, evaluate whether the source is a known authority on the subject. You can put trust in news organizations that fact check their content (e.g., Associated Press, National Public Radio, The New York Times), well-known health organizations (e.g., Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, U of U Health), government health agencies (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food & Drug Administration, state health departments) and subject matter experts from those organizations.
If you are unfamiliar with the source, evaluate other information they have issued, including links and claims, to see if it seems credible. If you can’t tell who authored the content in question, that’s a red flag. Read the information critically and think twice before sharing.
When reading social media posts and health news or talking to someone, remember that not every person—even if they have a medical or graduate degree—is an expert in the topic at hand. Public health, infectious diseases and vaccines are all complex subjects. Give more weight to experts who understand the nuances and keep up with the latest information, including virologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and primary health care providers.
All too often, headlines are written with a goal of evoking a strong reaction and driving the reader to share the article. That means that they do not always accurately reflect the corresponding article’s main points or important nuances within it. Whether looking at a post on social media or a news headline, read the entire piece to ensure that it contains solid information that you feel comfortable sharing.
A reliable article will link to the original source behind underlying claims. Look for links that direct you to studies published in reputable, peer-reviewed scientific or medical journals. If the article doesn’t include the original source, or if it instead points to blogs, personal or business webpages, or unrelated studies, then question the validity of the information you are reading.
Information is changing rapidly as scientific research reveals more each day about the coronavirus, COVID-19 and vaccines. What’s more, the pandemic continues to evolve each week, around the world. With that in mind, up-to-the-minute health information is going to be more reliable than content that was published several weeks, months, or years ago. Be suspicious of articles that are undated.
Has a social media or blog post ever caused you to feel a strong emotion like anger, anxiety, or fear? If so, take a closer look before taking the underlying message to heart. Does the language seem to be written with a goal to shock or provoke? Are accompanying images alarming? Is the message based on anecdotal stories rather than data? If so, scrutinize the source and underlying claims.
It’s tempting to share breaking news or trending social media posts but remember that false information spreads faster than corrections to inaccurate information. Before spreading the news, wait and see if other reliable sources independently come to the same conclusions. Comments from other readers can be informative. Sometimes qualified experts will correct misinformation or provide important context that puts the information in a different light.
Julie Kieferassociate director, Science Communications, University of Utah Health