May 28, 2020 — Social media messaging urging U.S. citizens to reject vaccination has roughly tripled since the COVID-19 pandemic began and is now driving an increase in public suspicions of vaccines, including the safety of a yet-to-be-developed coronavirus vaccine, according to Joe Smyser, CEO of The Public Good Projects.
Recent polling shows that up to half of American adults would not get a coronavirus vaccine even were one to be developed.
Smyser showed journalists how to use a new digital tool called Project VCTR that can track anti-vax messengers and messages across Twitter, Facebook, popular websites and other platforms.
The tool, which was previously only available to health organizations and a few journalists, is now free and available here. It currently tracks vaccine disinformation in national media and in New York City and state, but is being updated and will soon be able to provide a state-by-state breakdown of anti-vaccination activity, he said.
The tracker reveals that most of the content of anti-vaccine messaging is evolving. Prior to the pandemic, much of it came from concerned parents and originated with only about 200 leaders of the movement in the United States.
Since March 2020, however, the tracker reveals that these 200 activists have been joined by about an equal number of new leaders who are motivated by opposition to lockdowns and quarantines, conspiracy theories about the activities of Bill Gates, and the discredited “Plandemic” documentary, Smyser said.
Public health organizations are losing the communications war with the public, Smyser said, and vaccine hesitancy is rising, globally as well as in the United States. That’s despite the large amount of money spent by federal and state governments and health organizations to try to persuade parents to vaccinate their children and adults to get flu shorts and other innoculations. While the messaging of vaccine opponents is nimble and evolves quickly, public health officials too often stick to reciting facts about vaccine efficacy – facts that don’t change minds, he said.
“I don’t think we can address legitimate concerns or illegitimate concerns [about vaccines] unless we understand the talking points and where it’s coming from,” Smyser said.
May polling by The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago found 49% of adults reporting they plan to get a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available, while 20% would not and 31% are unsure. They cited concern about side effects as the leading reason given for coronavirus vaccine hesitancy (70%), followed by concern about being infected from the vaccine (42%), lack of worry about coming down with COVID-19 (31%), and the belief that vaccines don’t work well (30%). (Respondents could choose many reasons for opting against vaccination.)
A Reuters-Ipsos poll, also conducted in May, found a higher percentage of people (65%) saying they would get a coronavirus vaccine, while 24% would not. Republicans were signifcantly more likely to say they are uninterested in getting the vaccine (31%) than Democrats (16%). Aboout 52% of Americans get an annual flu vaccination.
Smyser (, bio) has previous briefed National Press Foundation fellows on a different tool, called RCAID (pronounced “Arcade”), designed to track COVID-19 disinformation in social media. (Donie O’Sullivan of CNN and Claire Wardle of First Draft joined Smyser in explaining how journalists can cover medical disinformation in this April briefing.)