Vaccine misinformation spreads on social media in Japan

There has been a flood of dubious information regarding the novel coronavirus. Hoaxes tend to spread whenever an epidemic or disaster destabilizes society. In recent times, social media has contributed to the spread of false information.

Fake news stories have been circulating online, including one alleging that it has been scientifically proven that vaccines could cause female infertility.

That one began with an article that appeared on a German news-related website in December last year. It reported that a former vice president of U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. had mentioned a hypothetical possibility of female infertility. However, his remarks were altered later to make it sound as if he had determined that the vaccine would in fact cause permanent infertility.

As the story was repeatedly shared on many other sites, more and more false information was added, such as one theory alleging that the vaccine would genetically modify people’s bodies.

There are unknowns about adverse reactions to vaccines, but Prof. Akiko Iwasaki of Yale University warned against blindly accepting such false information.

“There is absolutely no scientific basis for the mechanism of infertility that was mentioned in the false information,” said Iwasaki, a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the Yale School of Medicine who has been studying antibodies and other factors in people infected with the virus.

Pfizer also said infertility was not observed in clinical trials, and Reuters and other major media reported that the information was false.

In Japan, doctors have said the rumor about infertility is not true, but there are still many who believe it.

In April, a 21-year-old nurse in Yokohama refused to be vaccinated at her workplace. After hearing about the infertility claim from a friend, she searched it on Twitter and ended up believing a trove of misinformative anti-vaccination tweets.

She came to regret that she had believed them despite their lack of scientific grounds.

Vaccines against COVID-19 have been the subject of a lot of false information, such as a claim that microchips were being implanted as part of the vaccination process.

When faced with an unknown event such as an infectious disease, many people become anxious and fearful, and at such times many are more likely to tend to spread rumors.

People are more likely to quickly share things that strike them as interesting information on social media, which can accelerate the spread of misinformation.

According to a survey conducted by Nomura Research Institute, Ltd. in March, 50% of respondents had seen fake news about COVID-19 in the last month, and 26% had spread such news.

Kazutoshi Sasahara, an associate professor at Tokyo Institute of Technology, analyzed posts about vaccines on Twitter, and found that people with negative attitudes about vaccines made comments on other people’s posts far more often than those who were positive or neutral toward vaccinations.

“Those who are negative about vaccination tend to send out groundless information regardless of whether it is true or not. This is one of the reasons why false information catches the eye of many people,” he said.

In other countries, private organizations are expanding their fact-checking efforts to verify the authenticity of information on the internet. Google and Facebook fund such groups, which identify and display warnings on social media posts that are deemed to contain false information.

However, ensuring fairness is an issue, as there are risks that the organizations checking the information make decisions that favor their own preexisting biases.

“It is important to establish a mechanism to verify fact-checking efforts, such as by establishing third-party organizations,” Keio University Prof. Fumio Shimpo said.

Also being discussed are measures based on the patterns by which false information is spread.

According to Prof. Hiroyuki Fujishiro at Hosei University, false information is often created in the context of personal and social media, including content curation sites that process and collect posts from individuals.

Fujishiro said that it is necessary to take measures by restricting advertisements on sites that knowingly post false information, and having service providers delete accounts on such websites.