In 2019, well before the declaration of a global pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) had already identified vaccine hesitancy (“complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines or lack of confidence”) as one of the top ten threats to global health. Even as researchers from around the world continue to work towards creating an effective COVID-19 vaccine, vaccine hesitancy may yet pose a serious challenge to ending the pandemic.
In the time of COVID-19, one strategy for addressing the problem of vaccine hesitancy may be for platforms to unilaterally improve how algorithms rank and recommend more accurate information online. However, given the complexity of how information spreads on social media, a more collaborative approach involving individuals and communities across disciplinary and organizational boundaries might more effectively surface quality vaccine information.
Knowledge Networks on the Web (KNoW) Science, a new initiative by NewsQ, aims to adopt this collaborative approach. KNoW Science will work towards providing actionable insights about the interaction between news and reliable vaccine information, and to strengthen this information in collaboration with vaccine experts, media literacy specialists and online knowledge networks — collectives and individuals who work together to distribute, develop and apply knowledge.
Vaccine Information Quality, Vaccine Hesitancy, and the Threat to Global Public Health
Vaccination is recognized as having the potential to stop nearly 1.5 million additional deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases each year. Yet long before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the proliferation of unreliable information around vaccines was already predicted to have a growing, long-term effect on public health safety.
For example, according to a 2019 Lancet report, vaccine-hesitant parents are more “susceptible to unverified reports of adverse effects of vaccination”, due in part to the influential nature of social media platforms in the spread of this information. This observation was echoed in a January 2019 report by the Royal Society of Public Health, which found that nearly 50 percent of parents with children under the age of five are often exposed to negative messages about vaccines on social media.
Discourse about vaccines on various social media platforms has been on the rise during the pandemic, with vaccine-critical content generating more user engagement than vaccine positive content. Social media continues to be a dominant source of information that encourages vaccine hesitancy, with some researchers predicting that anti-vaccine views will dominate online discussion in 10 years’ time.
As citizens in countries all over the world continue to rely on newly emerging information networks for health-related information, understanding how reliable vaccine-related information is distributed by language is also an important area for research.
As an example, Wikipedia is one of the most frequently visited sites for health-related information; however, research shows an unequal distribution of content in languages other than English.
As reliable public health and education models struggle to compete with vaccine-hesitant views in online information ecosystems, how can journalists and science communicators, public health educators, platforms, knowledge networks, and others create new and meaningful ways to elevate reliable vaccine news and safety information for a broader audience?
Creating New and Meaningful Ways to Elevate Reliable Vaccine Information Online
A key element of addressing the challenge of vaccine hesitancy is recognizing how information from a variety of sources — news, public health communications, authoritative resources — is interwoven and linked.
With this in mind, NewsQ KNoW Science aims to improve and elevate reliable vaccine information online by facilitating collaborations between journalists, health educators, platforms, online knowledge networks such as the Wikipedia community, and others. How can we help online readers discover the most accurate and contextual information on vaccines as they do their own research?
For example, as one of the most visited sites in the world, and as a reliable information source for social networks such as Facebook and Google, Wikipedia is currently a central node in the online information ecosystem. Improving the quality of the vaccine-related content on Wikipedia may help spread accurate vaccine information to a wider audience.
To kickstart these efforts, NewsQ collaborated with WHO-Vaccine Safety Net, Stanford History Education Group, and Wikimedia DC to host a pilot vaccine safety editathon in August 2020. The online event brought together vaccine safety experts, media literacy stakeholders, and members of the Wikipedia community. The articles that were created and edited as a part of this editathon event have already been viewed 455,000 times as of September 2020.
Next Steps for KNoW Science
As a next step, KNoW Science and Wikimedia DC are working with the WHO-Vaccine Safety Net to create a system which would allow Wikipedia editors to alert vaccine experts when articles need to be reviewed or edited.
As NewsQ moves forward with KNoW Science, we hope to build on this effort as the basis for further collaborations with non-English speaking communities and other international knowledge networks.