ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Social media has turned us into a nation of amateur news editors, picking and choosing from a rushing river of current events on which stories to amplify, refute or ignore.
At the same time, the established media are multiplying daily, losing staff, and pressed to produce fresh content, 24/7.
Neither bodes well when it comes to the need for discretion in presenting information on COVID-19 vaccination to the public.
The result has been the arrival of another health crisis atop the challenge of the pandemic itself -- unexpected pockets of hesitancy, even among health care workers, in the face of the long-awaited vaccines.
Though they may be transformational discoveries and are widely expected to garner scientific prizes, in some quarters, the vaccines and their remarkable speed to market are greeted with cold feet. Mixed messaging is at the heart of it.
That's the takeaway from a new study examining the terrible power to shape opinions on vaccines by way of "framing," a term from the academic study of communications, one denoting the emphasis on one element of a given subject over all others.
The research, published last week on the pre-print server MedRxiv (and therefore still awaiting peer review), took a representative sample of 1,100 respondents, recorded their political affiliation, and randomly assigned factual but slanted messages about the new shots.
They then asked the subjects about their interest in taking them, and compared those answers to a no-message control group.
What they found will surprise few: when it comes to new vaccines, people often go with the last thing they read about them.
Especially if it aligns with what they have been told everyone else believes as well.
The American news consumer and vaccines: malleable and impressionable
"If we told them other people were willing to get it, we had more people saying they would take it," says Risa Palm, Ph.D, of the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University and a coauthor of the paper. "If we said there is resistance to it, we found fewer people willing to take it."
The researchers came to this work after studying why people deny climate change. They were concerned, as far back as August, that the COVID-19 vaccines would encounter a similar buzzsaw of noise, and that political persuasion would play a role.
In one stage of the study, they asked about vaccine interest within a subset told that vaccines had undergone all the standard rounds of safety and effectiveness testing, as well as a subset told that the bar for passage could be low, and the side effects plentiful.
- Read more coverage of COVID-19 vaccines
This arm of the study had the weakest results, with Independents and Democrats showing a susceptibility to changing following a positive message, but neither group persuaded by a negative message.
Strangely, Republicans studied who were given a positive message about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines actually lost trust in them, at least as beneficial for society as a whole.
A second arm of the study told test subjects positive and negative assertions about how other Americans viewed the vaccines. This not only changed views as predicted, but did so across party lines, although the greatest effect was on Democrats and Independents.
A final stage tested the effect of differing cynical opinions on the politics behind vaccines.
One tried a belief appealing to conservative skeptics -- that radical liberals would use vaccine to control the population and stifle business. Another tried a belief appealing to liberal skeptics -- that President Donald Trump had hurried the review in order to gain re-election.
Neither led a person to change their view towards more cynicism about vaccines, but both led subjects to become skeptical about how other Americans would react to the reports.
No, the COVID-19 vaccine won't change your DNA
Complicating matters, is the effect of our politics. The researchers pointed out findings that conservatism increases the risk of vaccine hesitancy, and that those who voted for Trump in 2020 were 35% more likely to report that they would refuse the vaccine.
Researchers believe the president reduced trust in COVID-19 vaccine among Democrats as well, however, by stating at one point that he thought fast approval would help his re-election.
Within Minnesota, 30-60% of long-term care workers are reported to have turned down vaccine.
A December 2020 report from the NIH put the percentage for vaccine hesitancy within healthcare lower, writing that "only about two-thirds of healthcare workers are willing to be inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines."
The primary drivers for vaccine hesitancy come down to concerns that: 1) it was "rushed to market," 2) long-term evidence isn't here for side effects, and 3) the mRNA technology is both brand new and could lead to DNA harm.
Health officials have responded that the vaccine was fast because the technology was on the shelf for MERS, that vaccine side effects almost always show up quickly and 60 days of review were given the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and that mRNA technology is both decades old and incapable of affecting DNA, because it erodes fast and cannot enter the nucleus (to change DNA) without a reverse transcriptase enzyme that we lack.
"I don’t have any 'opt-out' data to share at this point," wrote Mayo Clinic's Ginger Plumbo following a request for the percentage of Mayo staff to have turned down early access to the vaccine.
Plumbo added that, "we are using all the vaccines we receive ... we could administer more if we received more, and 100% of available appointments have been filled at this point."
"People are very influenced by the messages they are getting," Palm says. "What we get from that is, how important it is to message this properly, and to not have mixed messages."
"We certainly are interested in learning what those concerns are (causing vaccine hesitancy), and we're learning a lot more about that," said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm at a news conference on Thursday, Jan. 14. "I think it varies a lot from area to area, when it comes to the degree to which healthcare staff are taking the opportunity to get vaccinated."
"I'm also hearing that for those that aren't taking it, it's not a refusal to ever take it. It's a desire to take it later, either because they perceive they are at low risk and want to make it available for others first, or because they want to see how it goes in the first weeks of vaccination."
"It's incumbent on all of us to make sure people have accurate information about the effectiveness of the vaccines, the safety of the vaccines, and why it's such an important piece of how we get beyond the grip that COVID-19 has on our health care systems, businesses and civic life."