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COVID-19 misinformation is increasing amid US virus surge

The falsehood that vaccines don’t work is up 437 percent

An illustration of several vaccine vials over a pink and purple background. Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The surge in COVID-19 cases around the United States, driven by the highly contagious and fast-moving delta variant of the coronavirus, is accompanied by a similar surge in virus misinformation, The New York Times reported.

Rates of misinformation about COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines increased dramatically from June to July, according to Zignal Labs, which tracks mentions of phrases on social media and by news outlets. False claims, including statements saying that the vaccines don’t work, immunity from infections is better than vaccination, and vaccines cause miscarriages, skyrocketed. The falsehood that the vaccines don’t work is up 437 percent, the analysis found.

The spike comes after a lull in misinformation during May and June, when COVID-19 cases were low in most places in the US.

Russian-aligned disinformation campaigns are also contributing to the spread of falsehoods, The New York Times reported last week. Those actors are spreading false messaging about side effects of the gene-based COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, and suggesting that the Biden administration will force people to get vaccinated.

The uncertainty around the delta variant created an environment for this type of misinformation to take hold. “Disinformation thrives in an information vacuum,” Lisa Kaplan, the chief executive of the Alethea Group, which helps corporations guard against misinformation, told The New York Times. “Knowing how the Russians typically play those situations, it wouldn’t surprise me they are trying to take advantage of it.”

The spread of vaccine-related falsehoods comes at a key time in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Public health officials are working to convince unvaccinated people to sign up for a shot in order to curb the transmission of the delta variant. Only 59 percent of people in the US eligible for the vaccine are fully immunized, which isn’t nearly enough to contain the virus. In states and counties in the Southeast where coverage is low, hospital systems are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, the majority of which are unvaccinated.