For a long time, anti-vaccine misinformation pushers have used anecdotes to back up false claims: YouTube videos of mothers discussing how they believe a vaccine had harmed their child, for instance, or personal stories of conversion by medical professionals who, having left science-based medicine behind, now make careers by selling information that they claim the medical industry doesn’t want you to know.
But the narratives of medical professionals getting vaccinated work because they feel personal. Honesty about the experience, and potential side effects, can help set expectations and open up communication among those who might otherwise be prime targets for anti-vaccine propaganda.
“When we talk about vaccine hesitancy, it’s more of a spectrum,” says Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington.
Yes, there are anti-vaccine activists. But there are many others who, for one reason or another, aren’t so sure they want to take this vaccine, but generally think of themselves as pro-science. Maybe they heard that the process was rushed. Maybe their community has a good reason for not trusting doctors. Maybe they just don’t know a lot about how the vaccine was developed. This is the audience that both anti-vaccine activists and those attempting to end the pandemic are trying to reach.
“Here you have medical professions putting out ‘Hey, I got this shot. Here’s what the side effects are, here’s how I think about the side effects versus getting covid,’” says DiResta.
Those stories can matter, but sharing them is not without risk. Anti-vaccine activists online have a long history of inciting mob harassment against their targets, including medical professionals and others who promote the safety of vaccines.
An even bigger risk, Koltai cautions, is the decontextualization of authentic stories in order to promote a false narrative. One nurse at a Chattanooga hospital fainted on camera in mid-December after getting the vaccine—the result of an existing medical condition that can cause her to feel faint as a response to pain. That didn’t matter to anti-vaccine circles online, which took the dramatic image of her fainting and ran with it. The false claim was that the nurse had died and the hospital where she worked was covering it up.