- The science behind why fake news is so hard to wipe out
- The illusory truth effect, explained
- The more we encounter fake news, the more ly we are to believe it
- Studying up on a topic isn’t ly to help
- Our memories are very prone to mixing up real and false information
- There isn’t an easy fix to this problem
- and Google need to step up in their role as news publishers
- Why we believe alternative facts
- Red facts and blue facts
- The more you know
- The root of the problem
- Myths vs. Facts: Making Sense of COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation
- FACT: “Vaccine developers didn’t skip any testing steps, but conducted some of the steps on an overlapping schedule to gather data faster.”—Johns Hopkins Medicine
- FACT: The technology used, called messenger RNA, or mRNA, is not new. Research on it actually began in the early 1990s, and two diseases that are very close to COVID—SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome)—helped bring the mRNA vaccine development to present day use.—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines
- FACT: As of August 9, the CDC said there had been 8,054 vaccinated people who were hospitalized or died who had also tested positive for coronavirus— more than 166 million fully vaccinated Americans. That’s roughly .005 percent. Additionally, CDC director Rochelle Walensky has said that 99.5 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 are in the unvaccinated.—Politifact, Fact Checking Joe Biden’s Figure on Unvaccinated COVID-19 Deaths
- FACT: This rumor started after a report claimed inaccurately, yet circulated on social media, that the SPIKE protein on this coronavirus was the same as another protein called syncytin-1 that is involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy. It was quickly debunked as false by the scientific community.—STAT News, Shattering the Infertility Myth
- FACT: “After people recover from infection with a virus, the immune system retains a memory of it,” the National Institutes of Health explains. While that’s good for the immune system, it also means that even after you recover from COVID, it’s still inside your body and can resurface. Studies have been unclear how long immunity lasts after having COVID—most experts believe anywhere from 90 days to six months, though it could be longer.—National Institutes of Health
- FACT: “Hundreds of children in Indonesia have died from the coronavirus in recent weeks, many of them under age 5.” A five-year old boy in the state of Georgia died of coronavirus in July.—The New York Times , and CNN
- FACT: Studies have shown that a person infected with the Delta variant of COVID has roughly 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than a person infected with the original strain.—CDC, Delta Variant: What We Know About the Science
- FACT: It is not medically possible. The vaccine does not contain the virus.—Johns Hopkins Medicine
- FACT: This one started when Microsoft cofounder Gates said in an interview: “We will have some digital certificates” that could ultimately show who’s been tested and who’s been vaccinated. (Alas, he never mentioned microchips.)—BBC, Coronavirus: Bill Gates Microchip Conspiracy Theory
The science behind why fake news is so hard to wipe out
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images
In the immediate aftermath of the October 1 night massacre in Las Vegas, and Google — the two largest distributors of news and information in the world — helped to spread misinformation.
In its “top stories,” Google featured a 4chan forum — an anonymous message board notorious for fueling conspiracy theories — that misidentified the shooter as a Democrat with ties to leftist, anti-fascist groups, as BuzzFeed’s Ryan Broderick found out. On , “trending stories” featured articles about the shooter from Sputnik, a Russian propaganda outlet, a New York Times reporter noted.
And that’s just the start: An untold number of other pieces of user-generated misinformation and hoaxes on the shooting spread freely on social media. (Broderick compiled many of the hoaxes in a list here.)
The fringe conspiracy theory website Infowars ran a headline that suggested the killer specifically targeted conservatives. And as Broderick chronicled, the far-right website Gateway Pundit ran a headline that said the shooter was associated with an “anti-Trump army” (the post has since been removed).
None of these stories checked out. And the killer’s motives still have not been verified in the days since the shooting.
But each time a reader encounters one of these stories on , Google, or really anywhere, it makes a subtle impression. Each time, the story grows more familiar. And that familiarity casts the illusion of truth.
Recent and historical work in psychology shows mere exposure to fake news makes it spread. To understand why — and the extent to which false stories seep into our brains — we need to understand the psychology of the illusory truth effect.
The more we hear a piece of information repeated, the more we’re ly to believe it. “Even things that people have reason not to believe, they believe them more” if the claims are repeated, Gord Pennycook, a psychologist who studies the spread of misinformation at Yale University, says.
And recent research shows the illusory truth effect is in play when we hear or read fake news claims repeated, regardless of how ridiculous or illogical they sound.
It’s research Google and must wrestle with as the world’s most powerful media organizations.
recently admitted to Congressional investigators that Russian misinformation agents reached 126 million people using their platform.
It’s unclear how much of an impact those post have had on American politics and public opinion. But it’s clear from the psychological research: once falsehoods are repeated, they are very hard to wipe out.
The illusory truth effect, explained
The illusory truth effect has been studied for decades — the first citations date back to the 1970s. Typically, experimenters in these studies ask participants to rate a series of trivia statements as true or false. Hours, weeks, or even months later, the experimenters bring the participants back again for a quiz.
On that second visit, some of the statements are new and some are repeats. And it’s here that the effect shows itself: Participants are reliably more ly to rate statements they’ve seen before as being true — regardless of whether they are.
When you’re hearing something for the second or third time, your brain becomes faster to respond to it. “And your brain misattributes that fluency as a signal for it being true,” says Lisa Fazio, a psychologist who studies learning and memory at Vanderbilt University. The more you hear something, the more “you’ll have this gut-level feeling that maybe it’s true.”
Most of the time, this mental heuristic — a thinking shortcut — helps us. We don’t need to rack our brains every time we hear “the Earth is round” to decide if it’s true or not. Most of the things we hear repeated over and over again are, indeed, true. But falsehoods can hijack this mental tic as well.
The more we encounter fake news, the more ly we are to believe it
Historically, psychologists have studied the illusory truth effect with topics of trivial importance. One study in the 1970s tested the phrase “French horn players get cash bonuses to stay in the U.S. Army.”
Pennycook and his colleague David Rand at Yale are updating these tests to better understand the spread of misinformation in the real world, recreating these classic experiments with fake news headlines ripped from the 2016 presidential campaign.
In a recent study, participants were shown six real and six fake news headlines — and were asked about how accurate they were. The headlines were made to look posts.
Here are some of the fake ones.
And the real ones.
After evaluating the headlines, the participants were distracted with another task (not relevant to the experiment) for a while. After, the participants were given a list of 24 headlines to evaluate, which included all of the fake news stories they saw earlier.
Pennycook was able to replicate the classic finding: When participants had been exposed to a fake news headline previously, they were more ly to accept it as truth later on.
When participants were familiar with a fake news headline, they were more ly to rate it as being true.
“We found essentially the same effect, which was surprising because the stories that we’re using are really quite implausible, ‘Mike Pence’s marriage was saved by gay conversion therapy,’” Pennycook says. The effect was not limited to Republicans or Democrats in the study’s large sample. And a follow-up test revealed the effect persisted a week later.
The effect isn’t huge, but it’s meaningful.
One of the fake news headlines used in the study was “Trump to Ban All TV Shows that Promote Gay Activity Starting with Empire as President.”
If a group of participants hadn’t seen it before, about 5 percent said it was accurate. If the group of participants had seen it before in an earlier stage of the experiment, around 10 percent said it was accurate. That’s twice as many people agreeing an outlandish headline is truthful.
And while the change is small, think about this: and Google reach just about every person in the United States. A 5 percent increase in the number of people saying a fake news headline is true represents millions of people.
Though have some faith: Pennycook found truly, truly outrageous statements “the Earth is a square” didn’t gain acceptance with repetition.
I should mention: Pennycook’s work has only been published in preprint form, which means it has not yet been through peer review. So treat these findings as preliminary. His team did preregister the study design, which is one safeguard in ensuring objective results. But other studies have found similar results.
In 2012, a small-scale paper in Europe’s Journal of Psychology found that “exposure to false news stories increased the perceived plausibility and truthfulness of those stories.
” The study had participants read made-up (but not totally outlandish) news stories — one on a California bill to limit the number of credit cards an in-debt person could own.
Five weeks later, they were more ly to rate these false stories as being truthful as compared to a group of participants who had never seen those stories before.
Studying up on a topic isn’t ly to help
The frustrating truth about the illusory truth effect is that it happens to us unthinkingly. Even people who are highly knowledgeable about topics can fall prey to it.
And it can happen whether or not we have some prior knowledge about a subject. In 2015, Fazio and co-authors published a paper that found prior knowledge about a topic doesn’t inoculate you to the effect.
In her study, participants who knew facts “kilts are the skirts that Scottish men wear” became more doubtful if they read, “Saris are the skirts Scottish men wear.” And they became even more doubtful if they read, “Saris are the skirts Scottish men wear,” for a second time. (Participants rated the truthfulness of the statements on a scale of 1 to 6.)
Fazio stresses that it’s not that people completely change their understanding of Scottish fashion customs by reading one sentence. But doubt begins to creep in. “They moved from ‘definitely false’ to ‘probably false,’” she says. Every time a lie is repeated, it appears slightly more plausible to some people.
Our memories are very prone to mixing up real and false information
The research here suggests that even when there are fact-checks around bullshit claims, the illusory truth effect still influences our memories to confuse fact and fiction.
It’s because our memories aren’t so great. Recently I had a conversation with Roddy Roediger, one of the nation’s foremost experts on learning and memory. In his experiments, he shows how even small suggestions from others can push us to remember whole scenes and experiences differently. And we tend to sloppily remember events news reports.
“When you see a news report that repeats the misinformation and then tries to correct it, you might have people remembering the misinformation because it's really surprising and interesting, and not remembering the correction,” Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University in Saint Louis, said.
Many of the fake news claims and hoaxes that followed the Las Vegas shooting implied that the shooter specifically targeted conservative-minded Trump supporters. That may also prove to be sticky. Stereotypically, we may think of country music fans as Trump supporters.
There isn’t an easy fix to this problem
In one arm of his experiment, Pennycook even put a warning around the fake news headlines when participants first read them. “Disputed by 3rd Party Fact-Checkers,” the note read (which is ’s exact wording for how it labels dubious stories). The warning made no difference.
“We basically said, ‘This is something you shouldn’t believe,’” he says. But participants later on still rated those headlines as being more accurate than ones they had never seen before.
Pennycook and Rand followed up with another paper looking at whether ’s warnings could have any effect on whether readers perceive a news article as being accurate.
Rand explains that the warnings did slightly decrease accuracy ratings — but not to an extent that it overcame the illusory truth effect. “The size of that decrease is smaller than the increase you get from just having seen it,” he says.
“So what that means is seeing an article with a disputed tag on it still leaves you a little bit more inclined to believe it’s true than not having seen it at all.”
The experiment was pretty simple: Participants saw an array of real and fake news headlines either without warnings or with the warnings added.
They were simply asked to state how accurate they thought the headlines were. (One caveat here: This study was not performed on itself, but on a web survey designed to look .
But as Pennycook says, hasn’t made data on the effectiveness of its warnings public.)
and Google need to step up in their role as news publishers
The stakes here are extremely high, with democracy itself under attack. Increasingly there’s evidence that the Russian government used to target Americans with misinformation and messaging to sow unrest during the 2016 election. made it easy.
“These companies are the most powerful information gatekeepers that the world has ever known, and yet they refuse to take responsibility for their active role in damaging the quality of information reaching the public,” Alexis Madrigal writes in the Atlantic. He asks us to imagine: What if a newspaper had done this?
, Google, , and other forms of social media are the newspapers of today. They need to take the spread of misinformation on their platforms more seriously. They need to step up in their role as near-ubiquitous news publisher.
We’re not sheep. It’s not we’ll believe anything we read on . The effect misinformation has on our minds is much subtler; it works on the margins. But in today’s world, where a few platforms dominate information sharing, the margins are huge, filled with millions, and influential.
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Why we believe alternative facts
It's a distinction we learn as kids. But it turns out judging facts isn't nearly as black-and-white as your third-grade teacher might have had you believe.
In reality, we rely on a biased set of cognitive processes to arrive at a given conclusion or belief. This natural tendency to cherry pick and twist the facts to fit with our existing beliefs is known as motivated reasoning—and we all do it.
«Motivated reasoning is a pervasive tendency of human cognition,» says Peter Ditto, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies how motivation, emotion and intuition influence judgment. «People are capable of being thoughtful and rational, but our wishes, hopes, fears and motivations often tip the scales to make us more ly to accept something as true if it supports what we want to believe.»
In today's era of polarized politics—and when facts themselves are under attack—understanding this inclination (and finding ways to sidestep it) has taken on new urgency, psychologists say.
Red facts and blue facts
Much of the early research on motivated reasoning showed that people weigh facts differently when those facts are personally threatening. More than two decades ago, Ditto and David F.
Lopez, PhD, compared study participants who received either favorable or unfavorable medical tests results.
People who were told they'd tested positive for a (fictitious) enzyme linked to pancreatic disorders were more ly to rate the test as less accurate, cite more explanations to discount the results and request a second opinion (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1992).
«It takes more information to make you believe something you don't want to believe than something you do,» Ditto says.
We don't just delude ourselves when it comes to our health and well-being. Research shows we also interpret facts differently if they challenge our personal beliefs, group identity or moral values.
«In modern media terms, that might mean a person is quick to share a political article on social media if it supports their beliefs, but is more ly to fact-check the story if it doesn't,» Ditto says.
For instance, Ditto and his former student Brittany Liu, PhD, have shown the link between people's moral convictions and their assessment of facts.
They found people who were morally opposed to condom education, for example, were less ly to believe that condoms were effective at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Similarly, people who had moral qualms about capital punishment were less ly to believe it was an effective way to deter crime (Social Psychology and Personality Science, 2012). «People blur the line between moral and factual judgments,» Ditto explains.
For people who identify strongly with one side of the political spectrum or the other, it can feel their opponents are willfully ignoring the facts. But right or left, both sides believe their positions are grounded in evidence, Ditto says.
«We now live in a world where there are red facts and blue facts, and I believe these biased motivated-reasoning processes fuel political conflict.
If someone firmly believes some fact to be true that you just as firmly believe to be false, it is hard for either of you not to see that other person as stupid, disingenuous or both.»
In an analysis presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, he and colleagues examined 41 experimental studies of partisan bias involving more than 12,000 participants.
They found that self-identified conservatives and liberals both showed a robust partisan bias when evaluating empirical evidence, to an almost identical degree. «It's an equal-opportunity bias,» he says.
That bias is unsurprising given the powerful social incentives for group-think, says Daniel Kahan, JD, a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School who studies risk perception, science communication and the application of decision science to law and policymaking. Consider climate change. Discounting the evidence of human-caused global warming has become a central feature of the conservative platform—and taking an opposing viewpoint could damage your reputation within that group.
«If you take an ordinary member of the public, his or her carbon footprint is too small to make an effect on climate change. If they make a mistake on the science in that part of their life, nothing bad happens to them,» Kahan explains. «But they can be adversely affected if they're holding a deviant view on an identity-defining issue inside their social group.»
So, consciously or not, people may twist the facts. They can even trick themselves into believing that the facts aren't relevant, as social psychologist Troy Campbell, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Oregon, and colleagues have shown.
His team presented volunteers who either supported or opposed same-sex marriage with alleged «facts» suggesting children raised by same-sex parents did or did not experience negative outcomes.
When the evidence was on their side, participants stated their opinions on the matter were based in fact.
But when the evidence opposed their view, they argued the question wasn't about facts, but morals (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2015). «People take flight from facts,» Campbell says.
The more you know
People often dismiss those who hold opposing views as idiots (or worse). Yet highly educated people are just as ly to make biased judgments—and they might actually do it more often.
In one example of this «expertise paradox,» Kahan and colleagues asked volunteers to analyze a small data set. First, they showed data that purportedly demonstrated the effectiveness of a cream for treating skin rash. Unsurprisingly, people who had a greater ability to use quantitative information did better at analyzing the data.
But there was a twist. When participants saw the very same numbers, but were told they came from a study of a gun-control ban, their political views affected how accurately they interpreted the results. And those who were more quantitatively skilled actually showed the most polarized responses.
In other words, expertise magnified the tendency to engage in politically motivated reasoning (Behavioural Public Policy, in press). «As people become more proficient in critical reasoning, they become more vehement about the alignment of the facts with their group's position,» Kahan says.
The pattern holds up outside the lab as well. In a national survey, Kahan and colleagues found that overall, people who were more scientifically literate were slightly less ly to see climate change as a serious threat.
And the more they knew, the more polarized they were: Conservatives became more dismissive of climate change evidence, and liberals became more concerned about the evidence, as science literacy and quantitative skills increased (Nature Climate Change, 2012).
«It's almost as though the sophisticated approach to science gives people more tools to curate their own sense of reality,» says Matthew Hornsey, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland who studies the processes that influence people to accept or reject scientific messages.
Unfortunately, our modern media landscape seems to be amplifying the retreat from facts. «These are wonderful times for motivated reasoners. The internet provides an almost infinite number of sources of information from which to choose your preferred reality,» says Hornsey. «There's an echo chamber out there for everyone.»
Compounding the problem, fake-news websites that publish hoaxes, conspiracy theories and disinformation disguised as news have proliferated in recent years. But the recent focus on fake news might be doing more harm than good, some experts say. «Now that we have this idea that there is fake news, we can credibly attribute anything we dis to fake news,» says Campbell.
In the past, climate-change skeptics might have tried to pick apart the details of a study or demonstrate a researcher's conflict of interest to cast doubt on the evidence.
Now, they can simply allege that the media can't be trusted to report the truth, and wipe away inconvenient facts with a single stroke.
«Mistrust of the media is a powerful tool for motivated reasoning,» says Ditto.
License to ignore reality is a dangerous path to travel, regardless of your political leanings, Kahan adds. «It's a good thing in our political culture that facts have been the currency of our discourse on disputed issues. If facts are somehow devalued as a currency, it'll be a lot harder to achieve our common goals.»
The root of the problem
What can be done to restore our faith in facts?
Media literacy is one place to start. A report by researchers from Stanford University's Graduate School of Education found students in middle school, high school and college were terrible at evaluating the quality of online information (Stanford History Education Group, 2016).
Though the authors described their findings as «bleak» and «dismaying,» the silver lining is that kids can be taught to be better consumers of information—by, for instance, learning to pay closer attention to the source, consider possible biases or motives and think about what details a news source might have left out.
But given our cognitive biases, teaching can only get us so far. «Motivated reasoning is not something that's open to view through introspection or conscious effort,» says Kahan. «I'd put more hope on a strategy of improving the science communication environment.»
That's where Hornsey is focusing his efforts. In a new paper, he describes what he calls attitude roots—the fears, ideologies, worldviews, vested interests and identity needs—that motivate us to accept or reject scientific evidence.
He argues that communicators must do a better job at identifying those roots and adjust their persuasion attempts accordingly (American Psychologist, in press).
«This is what we call jiu jitsu persuasion: working with people's motivations rather than trying to fight against them,» he says.
So, for example, want to convince a vaccine skeptic that immunizations are safe? First it helps to figure out if they believe in Big-Pharma conspiracy theories, if they're fearful of medical intervention or whether they want to prove to their social circle that they're a concerned parent.
«The key question is not ‘Why do they disagree with the science?' but rather, ‘Why do they want to disagree with the science?'» Hornsey says.
Answering that will probably require doing something people in our increasingly polarized political climate are loathe to do: Less talking, more listening.
People communicating the facts often do so with the implication that the target is a bad person at worst, or uneducated at best, Campbell says. But an adversarial approach isn't ly to change minds.
That's a lesson cosmetics companies learned long ago: They figured out they'll sell more lipstick if they promise to enhance a woman's natural beauty rather than tell her she's ugly, Campbell points out.
People who communicate information would do well to heed that example.
That goes for scientists and science communicators, but also for anyone who can share an article with hundreds of people with the click of a button—which is to say, almost everyone in today's digital landscape.
«One of the most important ways to inoculate people from false information is to befriend them,» Campbell says. «There's a time for the middle finger, and a time to put it away.»
Myths vs. Facts: Making Sense of COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation
Myth: pronounced mith; noun; definition: a widely held but false belief or idea; synonyms: misconception, fallacy, fantasy, fiction.
Among the many reasons COVID-19 vaccination rates in the United States peaked earlier than experts hoped—then, rather than crescendoing into the summer months, began trending downward—are myths that took hold among the unvaccinated and solidified as their reasons not to get the shots. The vaccine will make women sterile; the vaccines are too new; the shots have a microchip in them; the vaccine itself will give me COVID; I’m immune because I had COVID; breakthrough cases prove vaccines are useless.
There are more. And none of them are true.
But no matter how convincing and irrefutable the science and the data about the COVID-19 vaccines are, misinformation spreads so easily and quickly—largely through social media networks—that it has become a major barrier stopping the United States from reaching higher levels of vaccination (190 million people, or 57 percent of Americans, have received at least one shot) that would bring us closer to herd immunity.
So let’s cut to the chase. Myth vs. Fact.
The Brink took some of the most widespread myths to two leading infectious disease experts, Davidson Hamer, a faculty member of BU’s School of Public Health, School of Medicine, and National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, and Sabrina Assoumou, a BU School of Medicine assistant professor of medicine and of infectious diseases and a Boston Medical Center physician.
If these two experts encountered someone on the street who cited one of these myths as their reason not to get vaccinated, this is what they would say to them. To provide extra context, we include one more fact.
MYTH: The COVID vaccines were not rigorously tested, which is why they have only emergency authorization approval and not full Food and Drug Administration approval. (Update: Pfizer’s vaccine received full FDA approval on August 19)
FACT: “Vaccine developers didn’t skip any testing steps, but conducted some of the steps on an overlapping schedule to gather data faster.”—Johns Hopkins Medicine
Assoumou: This is the most common question I get asked. I think there is a perception that things moved very fast, but we want to underscore that the technology being used now was being studied for a decade.
The main difference between emergency use versus full FDA approval is that you need two months of monitoring rather than six months. When you look at the history of vaccines, if patients were to develop side effects, these occurred within two months. We are now over six months into our experience with these vaccines.
We have not seen anything that would make us believe that the risks outweigh the benefits. And vaccines have saved so many lives.
Hamer: The development was more rapid than many other vaccines. But it used the same process of phase one and phase two trials following appropriate safety measures.
Stage three trials were large-scale trials done rigorously with very clear outcome definitions. The safety measures and approaches taken are standard for clinical trials. They just did it more rapidly than usual.
The full process review is ongoing and we are already hearing that Pfizer will have full FDA authorization by September and Moderna soon after.
MYTH: The technology used to create the COVID vaccines is too new to be safe.
FACT: The technology used, called messenger RNA, or mRNA, is not new. Research on it actually began in the early 1990s, and two diseases that are very close to COVID—SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome)—helped bring the mRNA vaccine development to present day use.—Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines
Assoumou: The reason this is called SARS-COV-2 is that there was a SARS-1, the original one, and scientists were working on this vaccine. So when this pandemic arrived they had already developed a lot of the science. A decade of work was actually going on. That’s one issue I to emphasize when people think it was rushed.
The other point I to remind people is that these vaccines went through all the regulatory steps any other vaccines. None of this was rushed. The FDA reviewed all the data. When you say “Emergency use,” people think it was rushed, but the way to think about it is that the benefits outweigh the risks.
MYTH: Breakthrough cases prove that even if I get the vaccine, I might still get COVID. So why bother?
FACT: As of August 9, the CDC said there had been 8,054 vaccinated people who were hospitalized or died who had also tested positive for coronavirus— more than 166 million fully vaccinated Americans. That’s roughly .005 percent. Additionally, CDC director Rochelle Walensky has said that 99.5 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 are in the unvaccinated.—Politifact, Fact Checking Joe Biden’s Figure on Unvaccinated COVID-19 Deaths
Hamer: COVID vaccines have been shown to be very powerful in preventing more severe disease and the need for hospitalization. Breakthroughs occur at a much, much lower rate than in people who are unvaccinated.
The breakthroughs have been occurring more frequently with the Delta variant because of the high level of infectiousness (or transmissibility) of the Delta variant and lower protection of current vaccines against this variant. But people having breakthroughs have much more mild infection, more an upper respiratory infection.
The vaccines prevent severe disease and complications and allow people to return to a more normal state.
Assoumou: I was just at the hospital taking care of patients. I can tell you all the cases of people getting hospitalized are unvaccinated. Breakthrough cases account for much less than 1 percent.
There are so many zeros before the one—99 percent of people dying now of COVID are unvaccinated. And 97 percent of those hospitalized are unvaccinated. We are just not seeing large numbers of people vaccinated being hospitalized.
And if you get it, for the most part it is having a cold.
MYTH: The COVID vaccines can affect a woman’s fertility.
FACT: This rumor started after a report claimed inaccurately, yet circulated on social media, that the SPIKE protein on this coronavirus was the same as another protein called syncytin-1 that is involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy. It was quickly debunked as false by the scientific community.—STAT News, Shattering the Infertility Myth
Hamer: I think people were worried that the messenger RNA in these vaccines messes with their genes. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even make it into the nucleus of your cells. It won’t intervene with any metabolic activity.
Assoumou: Ohh, this is so common that I hear this. For young women of childbearing age, it’s a common question. It started with a report that was incorrect and has been debunked.
But unfortunately, once the information gets out there, the correct information doesn’t always come through.
I tell people that when we look at the mechanism by which these vaccines work, we see that they simply don’t impact fertility.
MYTH: I already had COVID, therefore I don’t need the vaccine. I’m immune.
FACT: “After people recover from infection with a virus, the immune system retains a memory of it,” the National Institutes of Health explains. While that’s good for the immune system, it also means that even after you recover from COVID, it’s still inside your body and can resurface. Studies have been unclear how long immunity lasts after having COVID—most experts believe anywhere from 90 days to six months, though it could be longer.—National Institutes of Health
Assoumou: That’s a very common one. The information we have right now is that vaccines provide a more broad-based immune response that will protect you for a longer period of time. With the mRNA vaccines, you have two shots, one to prime and then another one to boost the immune system. You need the boost to protect you for a longer period of time.
Hamer: After three to six months or so, the natural immunity begins to wane and the risk of reinfection returns. We are definitely seeing people develop reinfections.
Receiving the vaccine after having COVID is a booster effect, and therefore it’s much more effective.
Studies have been done comparing those who had the disease versus those who did not, and those who got at least one shot after having COVID end up with very high levels of antibodies.
MYTH: Children do not need to be vaccinated because they do not become sick from COVID-19.
FACT: “Hundreds of children in Indonesia have died from the coronavirus in recent weeks, many of them under age 5.” A five-year old boy in the state of Georgia died of coronavirus in July.—The New York Times , and CNN
Hamer: Children have much milder symptoms and are less ly to be hospitalized. But since children can become infected and transmit the virus, they can serve as an ongoing source of transmission. Everything seems to be changing with the Delta variant. It leads to a much higher viral load. And that includes children.
Assoumou: That’s a very common one. It is true that children are not dying at the same rate as we are seeing in older adults. But children are going to grow up to be adults. We want to protect them as soon as possible. In addition, we are seeing some of the consequences of COVID. Not only deaths.
But there is also multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MISC) of children, where children get very sick, and we are still figuring out the details and long-term complications of this syndrome. Then there are emerging data that children are developing long COVID [symptoms that linger].
We have vaccines that are safe and effective in children 12 and above and we’re hoping we’ll have it soon for younger kids.
Also, children are part of the “herd.” When we talk about “herd immunity,” we are referring to the level of immunity when the disease stops spreading in the community. Children are part of the population.
Now that we have the Delta variant, we’re going to have to get to an even higher percentage of the population vaccinated to reach population level immunity. Children are part of the community.
It will be harder to get to some normalcy if a large proportion of the population remains unvaccinated.
MYTH: I’m vaccinated. So I can drop all my COVID precautions, right?
FACT: Studies have shown that a person infected with the Delta variant of COVID has roughly 1,000 times more copies of the virus in their respiratory tracts than a person infected with the original strain.—CDC, Delta Variant: What We Know About the Science
Hamer: The challenge is that Delta is so transmissible that I am starting to advise people to wear masks again in supermarkets and stores and public places.
But Delta is causing outbreaks mostly in unvaccinated people and only in some vaccinated people.
Until we get to the point where transmission slows to a trickle, Delta is just more easily spread, and we are quickly learning that it can easily lead to vaccine breakthroughs and even be spread from one vaccinated person to another.
Assoumou: The vaccines are safe, and remarkably effective. But what precautions to take will decide on a lot of factors. For example, where you live.
Are you in a place with high vaccination coverage, Massachusetts, or a southern state with low vaccination coverage and high case rate. It also depends on what activity you are engaging in. Outside not in a crowd, that’s safe.
You don’t need a mask, but inside in a crowd where you don’t know who is vaccinated or unvaccinated, then you may still want to follow public health measures. If you have children less than 12, I do, then you also need to be a little more cautious.
In addition, if you have a compromised immune system, then you also need to take some precautions. If you happen to be in a place with high vaccination coverage and a lower case rate, then it might depend on your level of comfort for risk.
I do want to remind people there are still places we should mask up, the doctor’s office or on public transportation.
MYTH: Getting the COVID vaccine actually gives you COVID.
FACT: It is not medically possible. The vaccine does not contain the virus.—Johns Hopkins Medicine
Hamer: COVID vaccines are not made with live virus SARS-COV-2 virus cells. They are not giving individuals the virus itself so you can’t get COVID from getting the vaccine.
MYTH: A microchip, with the backing of Bill Gates, is being implanted with the vaccine.
FACT: This one started when Microsoft cofounder Gates said in an interview: “We will have some digital certificates” that could ultimately show who’s been tested and who’s been vaccinated. (Alas, he never mentioned microchips.)—BBC, Coronavirus: Bill Gates Microchip Conspiracy Theory
Assoumou: If you are worried about being monitored, just look at your phone. You’re much more ly to have your activities tracked there. There is no microchip in the vaccine.
(When asked if she is able to able to keep a straight face when someone brings up the microchip to her, Assoumou said: “You have to be empathetic, so that people know you are listening to them.”)