Under the Surface: Covid-19 vaccine narratives, misinformation and data deficits on social media

Smith, Rory; Cubbon, Seb; Wardle, Claire

This research demonstrates the complexity of the vaccine
information ecosystem, where a cacophony of voices
and narratives have coalesced to create an environment
of extreme uncertainty. Two topics are driving a large
proportion of the current global vaccine discourse,
especially around a Covid-19 vaccine: the “political and
economic motives” of actors and institutions involved
in vaccine development and the “safety, efficacy and
necessity” concerns around vaccines.
Narratives challenging the safety of vaccines have been
perennial players in the online vaccine debate. Yet this
research shows that narratives related to mistrust in the
intentions of institutions and key figures surrounding
vaccines are now driving as much of the online conversation
and vaccine skepticism as safety concerns. This issue is
compounded by the complexities and vulnerabilities of this
information ecosystem. It is full of “data deficits” — situations
where demand for information about a topic is high, but
the supply of credible information is low — that are being
exploited by bad actors. These data deficits complicate
efforts to accurately make sense of the development of a
Covid-19 vaccine and vaccines more generally. When people
can’t easily access reliable information around vaccines and
when mistrust in actors and institutions related to vaccines is
high, misinformation narratives rush in to fill the vacuum. The
findings should act as a wake-up call as the world waits for a
Covid-19 vaccine and sees routine immunization rates drop.