It’s Time To Arrest The Spread Of Vaccine Misinformation

It’s Time To Arrest The Spread Of Vaccine Misinformation

“Who was that masked man?”

It’s everybody! Again.

Well, not everybody. But if you live in an area where the Delta variant is spreading rapidly, new CDC guidance suggests even vaccinated Americans wear face coverings in public, indoor spaces. Of course, if the national vaccination rate doesn’t move about 20 points higher, those “isolated” hot spots could end up derailing the entire country on the path back to normalcy. “Biden’s ‘Summer of Joy’ Turns Grim as Delta Infections Skyrocket,” one headline read.

The CDC is back in the position of having to issue what could fairly be described as contradictory guidance. Health officials called for all teachers, staff and students to wear masks irrespective of whether they’ve been vaccinated, but nevertheless recommended a return to in-person learning in the fall. We’re a long way from straws and spitballs.

The seven-day rolling average of new daily cases is above 50,000. That’s obviously nowhere near where it was during the final days of Nero’s reign, but for comparison, it was just ~11,500 on June 19 (figure below).

At the risk of coming across as crass, there’s at least a loose link to education levels. “The CDC said Americans should resume wearing masks in areas where there are more than 50 new infections per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days, or more than 8% of tests are positive for infection over that period,” The New York Times noted, recapping the new guidance and adding that “by those criteria, all residents of Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana should wear masks indoors.”

Arkansas and Louisiana are among the worst ranking states for K-12 and higher education. Florida is actually near the top of the list, but Missouri, another hot spot, ranks poorly, as do Texas and Alabama.

The less education you have, the more vulnerable you are to misinformation about the vaccines and about public health more generally. Louisiana has the third-lowest partial vaccination rate in the country. Alabama the fifth. Arkansas the ninth. In Mississippi, less than 40% are partially vaccinated. The state ranks 43rd on the education rankings list cited above.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee state and local officials will listen to the CDC and in some “problem” states, the locals are unlikely to adhere to new mandates anyway, especially in remote areas where vaccines are an extremely tough sell.

This is a highly unfortunate scenario. At a certain point, benign paternalism is preferable to letting people accidentally kill themselves and the people they live and work with. Corporations are grappling with the best way to approach vaccine mandates and it does appear the White House will require all federal employees to either be vaccinated or acquiesce to regular testing, on the (unspoken) assumption that eventually, people will become weary of the tests and just get the shot. The same strategy is being implemented in New York City and California, and it’ll probably become more norm than exception. White House staff were apparently instructed to start wearing masks inside again.

But if misinformation is a big part of the problem (and we know it is), it’s not clear why the people responsible for spreading it aren’t completely de-platformed by social media. If that doesn’t work (for example, if they have their own websites), the government could instruct Amazon (for example) to cease and desist from providing them with hosting services. If they still aren’t dissuaded, and they’re US-based, one idea is to briefly detain them for endangering the public, and advise them that continuing to engage in such activity will result in criminal charges. At the least, the prospect of having to spend money on a lawyer would be a deterrent.

If social media, hosting services and, more to the point, the government, won’t take those steps, it’s difficult to know where to assign blame. After all, it’s not reasonable to expect people making hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars monetizing vaccine misinformation and pandemic conspiracy theories, to stop out of some moral imperative. If those folks were inclined to such normative concerns, they wouldn’t be in the business of monetizing misinformation in the first place.

Remember, these folks aren’t helping people make “informed decisions.” They’re doing the opposite of that. They’re force-feeding undereducated people misinformation not just about the vaccines themselves, but about government agencies and politicians. Family doctors have little hope of completely exorcising those demons once their patients are possessed.

There have been several high-profile instances of web hosts cutting ties with publishers due to egregious violations that constituted threats to public safety. It’s not clear (at all) why spreading vaccine misinformation isn’t at least as dangerous as the activity cited in cases involving The Daily Stormer and Parler, for example.

On Tuesday, Rochelle Walensky said “the Delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us.”

That’s true, in a way. But as Joe Biden later put it, “we have a pandemic because of the unvaccinated, and they’re sowing enormous confusion.” “There’s only one thing we know for sure,” he added. “If those other hundred million people got vaccinated, we’d be in a very different world.”

If we know that “for sure,” and we know that a big part of vaccine hesitancy is based on demonstrable falsehoods, easily disprovable statements and, depending on the peddler, for-profit lies, it’s incumbent upon the government to arrest the spread of information. Figuratively or, if necessary, literally.

We could have solved this problem by devoting more resources to education, but it’s too late for that.


33 thoughts on “It’s Time To Arrest The Spread Of Vaccine Misinformation

  1. Well put, sir.

    One more issue is the lack of easily accessible and available routine healthcare in many areas. The number of rural hospitals has been on a steady decline for 20+ years as states are forced to slash Medicaid spending to comply with balanced budget mandates and GOP ideology. Throw in a shortage of GP docs in many areas and stir.

    In that context, the notion that “your family doctor” will convince the hold-outs to get vaccinated is far-fetched. In many areas only the wealthiest even have a family doctor. Norman Rockwell’s America no longer exists.

  2. FWIW, it’s not sure more education could really help. France has a highly educated population and we still have tons of vaccine hesitant morons…

    But, apparently, most of the source of vaccine misinformation is a dozen guys, doing it mostly for-profit. I think I wrote a comment somewhere here about that. Arresting a dozen people is damn easy…

      1. It’s not a matter of questioning big Pharma. It’s a matter of vaccine science.

        I shouldn’t have to say this, but apparently I do: Anyone who leaves a comment here that can even be loosely construed as promoting vaccine misinformation will be immediately banned. And passersby should note that all first-time comments go into a queue, where I personally review them.

        There are multiple reasons readers trust me and come here every day. One of those reasons is that irrespective of the topic under discussion (i.e., whether it’s markets, economics or politics), I strictly enforce comment integrity.

        There are a thousand “alternative” portals you can go to and traffic in misinformation and various sorts of propaganda and non-science if that’s what you want to do. This isn’t one of them.

        My rigorous efforts to ensure comment integrity are also one reason why I’m able to maintain cordial relationships with the various and sundry professionals who can actually access my site from work without having to worry about accidentally running across something insane.

        And so shall it always be here.

      2. To question it on what basis? You can’t generalize like that.

        To question it on the basis of medical evidence is far from moronic, yes. In fact I’d say that should be encouraged.

        To question it on the basis of calling something you heard on social media “evidence” is certainly moronic, and I think that should be stigmatized.

    1. In France the problem is not so much disinformation. It’s more about freedom of choice. French have a very strong mentality of resisting “obligations”. Too many people are picking up this mentality of complete freedom. They seems to forget that freedom is always bound to responsability. And having yourself vaccinated is a question of social responsability.

      1. I frankly doubt that. We’ve got legal and admin obligations up the … To stay on vaccines, you have to have your kids vaccinated to put them to school and home schooling is more or less forbidden. Sure, you can get slightly corrupt doctors to write you an exemption but those remain relatively rare.

        For all the constant hot talk and riots, we’re a pretty well regulated society.

  3. Just think, those who resist good information on the vaccine, are likely to resist good information on just about everything else. So is this a genetic culling event where people who can discern correct information survive? If so we are witnessing is Darwinism in action.

  4. “it’s not clear why the people responsible for spreading it aren’t completely de-platformed by social media.”


    “After all, it’s not reasonable to expect people making hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars monetizing vaccine misinformation and pandemic conspiracy theories, to stop out of some moral imperative.”


    Social media also benefits from the misinformation, they are able to monetize their platforms the more their users are engaged. Mis and Disinformation are the most engaging content they can serve up. It is by design that the things that terrify and anger you are the things that keep you refreshing your feed all damn day long. Social media corps making Billions of dollars by monetizing vaccine and political misinformation/conspiracy theories are not going to stop out of some moral imperative either.

      1. I quit social media altogether and naively implored others (friends and family) to do so as well years ago. The platforms are too addictive, FOMO too powerful for any of them to listen. Government regulation is the only way we survive this now. The Insurrection and this pandemic are bleak reminders of how easily a 1984 type environment could exist here with ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past’ being FAAMG.

  5. Nope. Education will not now, nor ever, fix problems if those who desperately need education refuse to embrace it. You can’t fix stupid, sadly

  6. When I found out Facebook took payment in rubles in the run up to 2016, and other various misdeeds I quit immediately. I have a linkedin account for business which I rarely use, but that is a completely different type of platform and for business information. Social media is a factor in society, but as my kids are instructed in school, just because something is put in type, does not mean it is true. The poorly educated and naive are being used and abused and we are all poorer for it. Facebook in particular is a malign company with terrible ethics. The hilarious thing is if you look at its supposed ESG rating it scores highly. One reason that I think ESG is borders on fraud.

  7. Masks- of the fashion variety- although presumably better than nothing are not very good at creating a barrier for the airborne spew of droplets coming out of our mouths/nose whenever we speak, breathe, cough or sneeze.
    On the protection (from others) side of the equation- we need N-95/surgical masks to really protect. If you have ever tried wearing one of those types of masks for any length of time, especially if you are doing any physical exertion, you know that you feel like you are suffocating with that mask on. I rarely see people wearing that type of mask.
    I think that indicating to people that a mask is a reasonable back-up to a vaccine is a huge disservice.
    No choice- everyone (with medical exceptions) must get vaccinated.
    When I was growing up, the school nurses set up vaccine stations in the lunchroom and we lined up and got vaccinated. Done. Not everyone has access or the know-how to get online and book a vaccine time slot. The states are going to have to do a better job at taking the vaccine to the people. If the Federal government has to cut off state funding to solicit compliance, so be it. It won’t be the first time. More tents/temporary facilities.
    My Pfizer-vaccinated daughter just found out that her Pfizer-vaccinated college roommate not only tested positive, but the roommate is symptomatic. My daughter is asymptotic and awaiting covid test results. The efficacy of the J&J vaccine against the Delta variant is even more questionable, based on the published studies to date.

    1. Pfizer, Moderna, AZ, J&J, Novavax have reasonable protection against serious illness, intensive care and death. You can still become infected, you can still spread the virus, but it won’t kill you anymore if You’re vaccinated.

  8. While nothing written here will change popular opinion, denigrating people who are not vaccinated, especially broadly disparaging the inhabitants of certain states, seems counterproductive to me. The goal should be to encourage people to get vaccinated, not drive them further toward “Trumpian” misinformation sites. As for masks, I wear a 3M mask with p100 (2091) filters and a 3-D printed “exhaust port” cap with a double n95 filter. A regular n95 mask may not be completely effective in protecting you (unless you glue it to your face) while the 3M mask may prevent air from bypassing the mask. Any mask is better than nothing but a really good mask might be worth consideration. And, of course, get vaccinated.

    1. It’s not “denigrating.” Nobody applies the same common sense to the pandemic as they do to everyday life. If you’re in the grocery store, and someone dressed as Barney is in the utensils aisle, taking knives out of their packages and slinging them around like darts while singing “Scarborough Fair” at the top of their lungs, is it “denigrating” to suggest that person might be suffering from mental illness? Should we just leave him be? “Let him have his fun, we’d hate to hurt his feelings.”

      1. And to add on to this, Biden already tried the ‘let’s be respectful’ approach, it didn’t work. The same people that need us to desperately worry about how they feel about people they claim are enemies are the country are the same ones who refuse to get vaccinated because some grifter is trying to make a few bucks. Blaming the message for why they won’t get vaccinated absolves them for being the reason it will probably never happen. To partially quote several of the signs and flags at the Capitol Insurrection “F*ck your feelings” and get vaccinated.

        1. It’s also important to note that the portals and personalities pushing the misinformation are embedding it within broader conspiracy theories, which makes the vaccine misinformation much more difficult to refute.

          It might help if the White House reminded folks that Americans rely on government agencies every single day to protect them, and in almost all cases, people take the government at its word.

          When you buy beef or chicken at the grocery store, you assume it’s safe because at some point, the facility where it came from was inspected. When you buy an over-the-counter pain reliever for a headache, you assume it’s not a placebo, because ultimately, the government watches out for that kind of thing. And so on, and so forth.

          The point being, we all trust government agencies with our lives every, single day. Even the guy with the doomsday bunker in his backyard probably has it stocked with canned vegetables he assumes are safe not because he personally inspected the factory where they were canned, but because he trusts the government did. And what about that ammo for your firearm collection? Who makes sure that’s real, safe ammo? It’s always the government.

          We trust the government not because we necessarily want to, but because that’s part of the social contract and it’s necessary for an orderly society. If the government didn’t generally do a decent job most of the time, most of us would have died a long time ago.

  9. After someone that does not care for a vaccine shot gives you their information and blurb, look him in the eye and say“ Scared of needles are you?“
    I chuckle when I see the look on their face.

  10. We still have a very nice interrogation center in Cuba. Using it to determine who is actually sponsoring vaccine disinformation through advanced interrogation sounds like a good way to get it shut down. Two birds. One stone.

  11. I wonder if the Federal and state governments have harnessed the full power of marketing and social media in their vaccine campaign.

    Much of the vaccine-refuser population will not be persuaded by scientists, doctors, talking heads and officials, partly because they don’t trust/respect them and partly because the media they consume excludes most of those messages.

    So where are the clever ad campaigns, viral messages, and PSAs by people the vax-niks might pay attention to? The rappers and country singers, the NBA NFL players and NASCAR drivers, the Instagram and Youtube influencers?

    If you were trying to sell a consumer product in Tennessee, would you film a commercial with Rochelle Walensky or with Dale Earnhardt, Kyle Petty and Danica Patrick?

  12. To me the main problem with misinformation on vaccines, etc. is that our society is largely uneducated and has lost most of the natural respect we used to have toward one another. Today we have too much “It’s my right …” or “Fxxx you …” responses to anyone we don’t want telling us what to do … in any way. I went to a boarding school for 9-12 grade in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I had to wear a sport coat, dress shirt and tie at all times on campus. Jeans were not permitted anywhere on campus. I was 21 when I got my first pair. All teachers were addressed as Sir and teachers addressed students as Mr. … When a teacher entered a classroom, we all stood up. The same when the teacher left. All of us took turns serving each other as waiters during our 21 meals a week in two week rotations. Waiters picked up food in the kitchen, brought it to the table and returned leftovers. Staff did clean the tables. It took a good college two years to catch up to my high school education. My 10th grade English class was devoted to writing. There were 180 days in the school year and I had to write 170 papers for that class, one very day. Moreover these papers were impromptu as we were given the topic on the spot, based on books we were reading for class. Each was returned the next day, closely graded. Sound like prison? It wasn’t. No talk of rights, we all had the usual ones. We just had a few rules and practices that produced a civil society and individual self-discipline. For me my school gave me an experience most people were not lucky enough to get. And today, such lessons are virtually non-existent. One of the things I noticed about my education is that it’s really hard to be a delinquent in a coat and tie. As to social media. Fortunately, I didn’t have to put up with that insanity, not did my daughter, although she barely escaped. I have never logged on to a social media site, nor will I. To me, as to many contributors to this thread, the only reason so many people fall for the rampant misinformation on the web is that they never got a proper education. They were never taught how to judge what they read Our system today is designed to minimize blowback by directing all activity to the lowest common denominator. Regression to the mean will put our whole country in that lowest category in the near future. Then bridges will start falling down, roads will wash away, our gadgets will stop working …

  13. I always thought it was criminal to shout fire in a crowded room… in what possible way can this for profit misinformation campaign not be construed as criminal misconduct? We’re now at a worse point than last Sept. We still had masks on last Sept. Given the areas where vaccinations are low are likely to be highly concentrated with other non-vaccinated this is a firestorm starting up.

  14. ARREST is the operative word. US Government is required by the constitution to protect the health and welfare of all citizens. The power must be used by the elected. Begging is not working.

  15. I have a different take on this. If religious zealots and political extremists choose to tell their followers to endanger their lives uselessly, so be it. Perhaps after enough of them die, and see their loved ones die, then they’ll change their minds about their world view. Yes, harsh, but I’ve grown tired of arguing with stupid. Perhaps after a few close elections are lost because of “changes in demographics” in certain districts, then the ant-vax influencers will change their tune. Until then, I’ll protect my family, and wait for natural selection to play out.

    1. Unfortunately, causing death has never deterred humans from much of anything. In darker moments I wonder if it might even be a primary motivation. How else to explain the joy from drinking bourbon and smoking a cigarette.

    2. If it worked like that, I’d be all for having the maximum of vaccine hesitant people stay unvaccinated and live out the consequences of their actions.

      But this COVID virus doesn’t work as neatly as that. One, unvaccinated people who fall sick are still treated. Hence, they are a collective burden. Not until hospitals refuse care to those unvaccinated people that cannot pay full whack does this free rider problem gets solved. I’m not holding my breath to see even the famously uncaring US adopt such brazenly punishing attitudes.

      But, two, vaccinated people aren’t immune and fragile population remains at risk even with the vaccine i.e. unvaccinated people are still putting their vaccinated neighbours at risk. Sure, reduced risks but still. If my mother in law or elderly parents die because idiots didn’t get vaccinated, I won’t care their odds were improved at the population level.

    3. There is another outcome here, somewhat unexpected. Today the KC Star reported that a sizeable number of people, especially in the low-vaccine parts of Missouri, are actually disguising themselves and getting vaccinated in secret because they don’t want their anti-vax friends to make fun of them.

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