Disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine—and the resultant refusal of many to get vaccinated—presents a significant threat to the US economy, and especially to companies operating in service industries and critical infrastructure sectors. Employees of many of these companies are more vulnerable to the virus because of extensive interactions with the general public and prolonged proximity to one another in the performance of their jobs, making countering false vaccination narratives even more critical for these firms. Foreign influencers seek to disrupt the US economy and are actively posting disinformation on social media and interjecting a fear of vaccines into the workforce’s feeds. Although there are some who will not take the vaccine for moral or health reasons, the refusal of too many workers to vaccinate can slow down forward momentum to reopen the economy. Proactively engaging disinformation experts to help counter anti-vaccination messaging can help counteract its negative impact.
Vaccination Key to Economic Recovery
In the time it has taken to develop a vaccine, several service and infrastructure sectors have experienced devastating impacts. As of early February, at least 28,700 grocery workers have been infected with or exposed to the virus and at least 134 have died from the disease. A study released in October found that nearly a quarter of New York City transit workers reported having contracted COVID-19. Another study on the impacts of the virus on the manufacturing industry indicates that the 10 most affected states could see a decline in manufacturing revenue of $400 billion. Women have disproportionately dropped out of the workforce, and the US gross domestic product was in decline for every state except Utah in the first three quarters of 2020.
Employers are key stakeholders in supporting vaccine adoption and are well positioned to facilitate vaccine distribution within their communities and among their employees, potentially accelerating herd immunity and economic recovery. However, disinformation campaigns aimed at the COVID-19 vaccine may diminish the effectiveness of these efforts. Disinformation is a significant factor in vaccine hesitancy in the United States, where, according to a recent survey, only 51 percent of unvaccinated adults have said they will definitely get vaccinated against COVID-19.
- Even before the onset of the COVID pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) had identified vaccine hesitancy—the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines—as one of the top 10 threats to global health. Various experts estimate the threshold for herd immunity, historically achieved through vaccination, to be anywhere between 60-90 percent for the coronavirus.
- Several companies have already started engaging in efforts to help their communities reach the required level of vaccination. Amazon recently announced its intention to begin administering vaccines to nearly 20,000 of its warehouse and grocery workers in Washington state. Some businesses are considering making the vaccine mandatory for returning to the office, while others, such as Google, are strongly encouraging it. Big-name companies such as Walmart, Starbucks, and Microsoft are partnering with local governments and medical providers to distribute vaccines within their communities
Disinformation Foments Distrust
The historic speed of the COVID-19 vaccine development process and mistrust of the medical community are among the factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy in the United States. Disinformation campaigns exploit these uncertainties and seek to amplify doubt, encompassing a wide range of topics from safety concerns to distrust of government.
- Concerns about personal health and safety during a pandemic are natural, and much of the disinformation around the vaccine seeks to exacerbate these fears. Various conspiracy theories about the vaccine causing infertility (debunked here and here) or claims that the vaccine alters human DNA (debunked here) have propagated on the Internet.
- One of the top myths about the vaccines is that high level officials, such as infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci (debunked here), and “corrupt” billionaires, such as Bill Gates (debunked here) are profiting from their hasty release. One conspiracy theory claims that the Gates Foundation could make nearly $43.5 billion from a COVID vaccine in the UK.
- Disinformation campaigns also target the religious and moral convictions of significant sections of the US population. Several myths spreading across the Internet claim that the vaccine contains aborted human fetal tissue (debunked here and here).
- Some disinformation campaigns rely on shock value, such as the assertion likely spread by Russia that one of the vaccine variants will turn people into monkeys because it relies on a modified chimpanzee adenovirus.
Disinformation Tool for Foreign Adversaries
Foreign adversaries have played a significant role in spreading COVID-19 vaccine disinformation in the United States, exploiting government and vaccine distrust among the US population. Russia and China have been the two major sources of foreign disinformation campaigns while working to promote their domestically developed COVID-19 vaccines.
- Even pre-pandemic, Russia was a significant source of vaccine-related disinformation. An international time trends analysis, which examined attitudes toward vaccines on social media from 2018-2019, determined that a preponderance of social media campaigns promoting anti-vaccine content “originate from within Russia or via pseudo-state actors informally associated with Russia.”
- The Russian COVID-19 disinformation strategy aims to undermine trust in western vaccines, while promoting the commercial success of the Russian vaccine. One such campaign, aimed at discrediting the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, targeted western nations as well as countries where Russia hopes to sell its own Sputnik V vaccine. Another false report, which quickly spread from a small Kremlin-friendly website to US-based Facebook groups, claimed five Ukrainians had died after getting the US vaccine. Although these efforts are driven in part by efforts to promote Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, these disinformation campaigns are also consistent with Russia’s long-term strategy of sowing chaos, distrust, and division in western societies.
- China’s disinformation campaigns promote its own vaccines while seeking to undermine trust in the vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical firm Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. Defenders of the Chinese Communist Party known as the “Wolf Warriors” have led efforts to cast doubt on the safety of US vaccines, spreading disinformation across social media. A propaganda network that owns thousands of fake YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook accounts has also carried out campaigns combining criticism of the US COVID response with vaccine disinformation—efforts that have recently been amplified by Chinese diplomats, as well as influencers in Latin America, Pakistan, and Hong Kong.
- The Chinese propaganda network has deployed tens of thousands of bot accounts since 2018, although each account had relatively few followers and the content was often removed by tech platforms. However, the network has improved the ability of its bots to mimic humans, including by posting photos and videos and interacting with real humans in comments, making its disinformation efforts more sophisticated and harder to track.
Conclusion and Remediation
Companies can take several measures to encourage and facilitate COVID-19 vaccinations among their employees. Providing on-site vaccination and offering additional paid time off for employees to get vaccinated during the workday are just two strategies that may encourage personnel who may be hesitant to take time off to get inoculated. Companies such as Kroger have recently announced monetary incentives for employees who get vaccinated. Once logistical and financial barriers to vaccination have been addressed, employers can mitigate the risks of foreign disinformation campaigns by building disinformation literacy using trusted resources, especially in the educational and nonprofit sectors that can be adapted to meet their needs. FiveBy can help companies develop processes to address disinformation promptly and decisively and in a manner that informs longer term prevention.