The other day, when I was getting a haircut, the hairdresser asked me whether I had heard the latest news about the Covid-19 vaccine. She went on to explain that it was incredibly unsafe because the vaccine can alter your DNA. One of her close friends had stressed that the vaccine was so risky it was simply not worth getting.
Misinformation and hesitancy around Covid-19 vaccines have seemed all too common in the pandemic. This is why the director general of the World Health Organization has stated, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” In the midst of this infodemic, the Australian government is preparing to roll out what looks to be a promising coronavirus vaccine advertising campaign. Yet as the adverts are set to go live across media channels, it is important to remember that Australian support for vaccines remains high. In fact, only about 2% of parents across the country choose not to have their children fully vaccinated. Even though misinformation appears to be widespread, dedicated vaccine deniers represent only a very small, but noisy, minority.
Vaccine acceptance is undoubtedly the Australian social norm. What is important to acknowledge, however, is that many people who are not devoted vaccine refusers can still express doubts about vaccines. Like my hairdresser, they probably would not describe themselves as being anti-vaccine. Even so, they may have heard shocking rumours about Covid-19 vaccine risks or conspiracies and could not help but be concerned. Such anxieties tend to get amplified around new vaccines, and the speed of Covid-19 vaccine production may further stoke these misgivings.
What then can the government and average citizens do to address immunisation hesitancy and build confidence in Covid-19 vaccines? To start, it must be recognised that simply communicating scientific facts may not be enough to convince hesitant audiences. It turns out that people tend to agree or disagree with vaccines, or any other science for that matter, based on the core values and beliefs held by the groups that they are connected with. Scientific facts are often accepted, rejected, and interpreted according to social connections and cultural worldviews.
Nevertheless, facts are still important. The problem is that the science and safety of vaccines can be complicated ideas to communicate. Vaccine supporters sometimes struggle to make vaccination facts understandable, while anti-vaccine media tends to be easier to read and comprehend. The lesson is that Covid-19 vaccine communications should be simplified wherever possible, using brief and easy-to-understand language.
With regard to using facts, a key piece of advice when trying to debunk vaccine misinformation is to focus on the facts from the very outset of a communication. Leading experts on fighting Covid-19 vaccine misinformation recommend that the truth should be stated first, using only a few words if possible. After affirming the facts, vaccine misinformation should only be referred to once, and not repeated needlessly. Then audiences should be told exactly why the misinformation is false, and the message should be concluded by restating the facts at the end.
It is also vital to tailor Covid-19 vaccine messages for specific audiences. Importantly, this is crucial advice that the government education campaign seems to have adopted by designing messages for specific priority groups throughout Australia. Different people in different communities have diverse concerns, questions and backgrounds. As a result, one type of communication may not resonate with everybody. It is essential to customise messages for those who may be more uncertain about the new vaccines. This requires listening and paying attention to what the public might be uneasy about, while being empathetic and respectful of vaccine uncertainties, and then adapting communications to address particular hesitations for various groups of people.
Fears about Covid-19 vaccines should also never be dismissed. Worries about vaccine safety can be associated with deep-seated drives to protect oneself and one’s family members. Brushing off an individual’s safety concerns devalues these gut feelings and may fuel distrust. Instead, acknowledge people’s anxieties and affirm the public’s desire to safeguard the health of their family.
It is also valuable to use trusted spokespeople, influencers and opinion leaders to reach audiences. People tend to respond more positively to messages that debunk misinformation when such communications come from credible and trustworthy sources. On a related note, it can be helpful to refer to the scientific consensus on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
Unfortunately, official spokespeople can also sow distrust when they choose to spread misinformation. For example, public confidence is harmed when government MPs share social media posts attempting to discredit science and promote Covid-19 falsehoods. If we have learned anything from the US Capitol riots, it is that purposefully broadcasting untruths can have dangerous consequences.
With that in mind, Covid-19 vaccine messages must be honest and transparent above all. Distrust in government, pharmaceutical companies, as well as health systems can trigger vaccine hesitancy, and any hint of dishonesty may feed further suspicions. Consequently, it is much better to be upfront about such issues as potential side effects or vaccine ingredients. An example of honest communication occurred when the University of Queensland Covid-19 vaccine trials did not go quite as planned. The findings weren’t hidden from the public, even when the need for vaccines were high.
There is no silver bullet for building confidence in vaccines, but truth is a core value for people with different views on vaccines. While trust is difficult to gain and easily lost, it often hinges upon honesty.
Tom Aechtner is a senior lecturer in UQ’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. He has developed AVAXX101, the world’s first massive open online course dedicated to responding to anti-vaccination claims and vaccine hesitancy.