The unwitting are the target of COVID-19 falsehoods online
Dr. Michelle Rockwell lost a pregnancy in December and shared her heartache with her 30,000 Instagram followers. Weeks later, she received the COVID-19 vaccine and posted about that, too.
By February, Rockwell was getting past the grief and finally starting to experience moments of joy. But then, to her horror, social media users began using her posts to spread the false claim that she miscarried as a result of the shot.
“They said horrible things to me, like how could I possibly get the vaccine, that I was a baby killer, and that I would be infertile forever and would never have babies again,” said Rockwell, a 39-year-old family medicine doctor from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Even though she knows that research shows the vaccine is safe for pregnant women, she said the posts brought her trauma to the surface and hurt her “to the core.”
From a movie prop master in Texas to a professor in New York, people across the country have found themselves swept into the misinformation maelstrom, their online posts or their very identities hijacked by anti-vaccine activists and others peddling lies about the outbreak.
Sharing other people’s posts or photos out of context is a common tactic in the disinformation playbook because it's an “easy, cheap way to gain credibility,” said Lisa Fazio, a Vanderbilt University psychology professor who studies how false claims spread.
But during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts warn, false or misleading posts can mean the difference between someone taking precautions or not.
“When you’re in a situation where the world is confusing, you’re trying to latch on to what’s true. A common suggestion is to listen to the experts,” Fazio said. “If you have people pretending to be those experts or grabbing that credibility, then that can cause a lot of havoc.”