By Mateo Diaz-Magaloni and Ben Fry
Even though masks have come off, mandates have been lifted, and lives are beginning to return to normal, there are still lingering fears and myths about COVID-19. One of the most widespread myths is about the COVID-19 vaccine. Mateo Diaz-Magaloni and Ben Fry with Peninsula 360 Press interviewed several teens and young adults in the Bay Area to see how these myths have affected youth perceptions of the vaccine and rumors about its effects.
During the first distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, logging into various social networking sites was easy to find information about the vaccine. Several "influencers» and individuals shared their views on the vaccine on Instagram and Twitter. Some of this led to misinformation being spread on the platform, with myths about the vaccine becoming a widespread problem on social media.
This misinformation was considered dangerous as it spread unnecessary fear. For this reason, Instagram found it beneficial to provide a COVID-19 fact-checking service on COVID-19-related posts, while Twitter kept an eye on accounts seeking to spread myths.
This is important because even before COVID-19, misinformation, especially in politically charged messages, was found to spread at an even higher rate than truthful information (Langin 2018).
While Instagram has maintained its fact-checking capabilities, placing a flag on posts that spread falsehoods, Twitter has stopped policing accounts and has even restored some that spread vaccine myths after the recent acquisition of Elon Musk. Considering how social media has spread myths about the vaccine, what have people heard, how did they hear it, and why is it important?
When we ask young people why they got vaccinated, the main reason they give is that it was to protect their families. Most did it because of their family's values, even if they had different levels of confidence in its effectiveness. A senior at Palo Alto High School, said, "I got vaccinated as soon as I could, with boosters too, I did it because everyone around me did it and it was important to my parents."
Additionally, when asked if they were afraid of the vaccine, one Mountain View resident stated that he was “more afraid of getting COVID… than the fear of the vaccine itself.” This is not the same experience that everyone has with regard to the vaccine.
Speaking with a Mountain View High School sophomore, he said he was scared about the effects of the vaccine. They explained that many of these fears came from their friends and what they were told. They noted that many of their friends did not get vaccinated due to fears, yet they chose to go against those fears because it was important to their families.
The same interviewee explained that this fear came from the belief that there was "a chip that they put in you so that the government can spy on you." This belief was corroborated by a senior at Palo Alto High School who also claimed to have the same belief, about microchips in the vaccine. We asked where they had heard these myths from, and both responded that they originated through social media platforms like TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
The second major myth with the COVID-19 vaccine was the belief that after getting vaccinated you can develop autism. One Stanford student we interviewed explained that he had heard on social media that getting the vaccine would cause autism. And it is that, they say, spreading myths about autism is harmful to people on the autism spectrum.
Both myths seem to be widespread, this despite their different positions, some considering them as jokes and others with a sense of fear regarding them. Despite the feeling that these myths are more like jokes, they are dangerous as they create fears about the vaccine and unnecessary stigma towards others.
The overwhelming consensus from our interviewees was that the spread of false information does have a detrimental impact on the safety, trust, and transparency of their communities. Given that today's youth spend a significant amount of time on social media and are heavily influenced by their peers, it stands to reason that those in the Bay Area who are surrounded by friends who believe these falsehoods are more likely to accept them as truth.
For example, when we asked our participants about their beliefs in vaccine myths, they all expressed skepticism toward such claims. Interestingly, that individual was part of a social circle where most people were not vaccinated. It is crucial that today's youth are able to discern fake news and navigate social media without blindly believing everything they come across.
With the increasing use of social media, more and more people are turning to sites like Twitter and Instagram to stay up to date. The problem is that the rates of myths and misinformation being spread on these platforms are alarmingly high. While some people can discern fact from falsehood, the spread of misinformation is still dangerous as seen with COVID-19.
The spread of these myths represents a great danger for our society as it creates fear and mistrust. This point was excellently made by one interviewee who said: "The spread of myths gives rise to fear where there need not be fear." It is essential to eradicate these myths and provide only the truth when there are many doubts and questions about a new topic.
He is 18 years old and a senior at Palo Alto Highschool. He has written extensive research papers on issues related to social justice in Latin America and the United States. She has interned at a consulting firm in Berlin, Germany, for German anthropologists in Mexico, and for the Stanford Center's Laboratory on the Chinese Economy and Institutions. He helped write a scholarly paper for the lab.
She is an 18-year-old student at Palo Alto High School. He is a native of the Bay Area and has lived in Fremont his entire life. For the past several years, he has written works primarily related to psychology, often involving adolescents and young adults. These issues range from gambling addiction to migration stress. He is currently conducting his own research project for a class delving into the psychology of gambling addicted young adults.
You may be interested in: State of Emergency for COVID ends in California