For a long time, promoters of anti-vaccine misinformation have used anecdotes to support false claims about vaccine harm and safety: YouTube videos of mothers discussing how they think a vaccine harmed their child , for example, or personal conversion stories by medical professionals. who, having given up on scientific medicine, now makes a career of selling information they believe the medical industry doesn’t want you to know.
But the stories of health professionals who get vaccinated work because they feel personal. Honesty about the experience and potential side effects can help set expectations and open up communication between those who might otherwise be the primary targets of anti-vaccine propaganda.
“When we talk about vaccine hesitancy, it’s more of a specter,” says Kolina Koltai, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington.
Yes, there are anti-vaccine activists. But there are many others who for one reason or another are not so sure they want to take this vaccine, but generally consider themselves pro-science. Perhaps they heard that the process was rushed. Maybe their community has a good reason not to trust doctors. Maybe they just don’t know how the vaccine was developed. This is the audience that anti-vaccine campaigners and those trying to end the pandemic are trying to reach.
“Here you have medical professions posting ‘Hey, I had this injection, here’s what the side effects are, this is how I think about the side effects versus getting covid,’” says DiResta.
These stories can be important, but sharing them is not without risk. Online anti-vaccine activists have a long history of inciting collective harassment against their targets, including healthcare professionals and others who promote vaccine safety.
An even greater risk, Koltai warned, is the decontextualization of genuine stories in order to promote a false narrative. A nurse at a Chattanooga hospital fainted on camera in mid-December after receiving the vaccine – the result of an existing condition that may make her feel weak in response to pain. It didn’t matter to anti-vaccine circles online, which took the dramatic image of his passing out and ran with it. They stuck the moment into a false claim that the nurse was dead and suggested that the hospital where she worked was hiding it.