STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine has a very rare side effect. Officials paused the use of the vaccine to study news of blood clots that appeared in fewer out of one out of a million cases. The pause has had a very widespread side effect. It's an occasion for people to spread misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines. NPR's Miles Parks is covering that part of the story. Miles, good morning.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: How widespread is this false information?
PARKS: I mean, just to set the stage for you a little bit, the most popular link posted about the Johnson & Johnson News on Facebook this week in terms of engagement was not from The New York Times or Fox News or ABC News. All of those news outlets were in the top five. But the top post was from a conspiracy theorist with 1.5 million Facebook followers who says the pandemic is basically just cover for government control.
INSKEEP: Wow. And I guess we're going to get more of that.
PARKS: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, it's clear that there is an active network centered around vaccine hesitancy trying to drive this hesitancy. And those people are clearly picking up on this story. I talked to Jennifer Granston, who's head of insights at a media intelligence firm called Zignal Labs. Zignal has seen a number of vaccine misinformation narratives spike in mentions in recent days.
JENNIFER GRANSTON: That vaccine conversation is so polarizing. And there's so many eyes on it. And there's so many components of it. This is kind of the perfect storm.
PARKS: On Tuesday, Johnson & Johnson was getting as many mentions online per hour as the company was getting mentioned in entire weeks prior to this news.
INSKEEP: What makes this particular news story such an appealing moment for conspiracy grifters?
PARKS: The biggest thing is that there's what experts call an information deficit right now. The CDC basically said, you know, we're investigating these few reports of blood clots. We're going to talk to doctors about how to deal with these extremely rare cases. And we'll get back to you, you being the public. And that's transparent. And that's true. But it also means there are a lot of open questions that people can exploit to basically say, you want answers right now. We have them. And there isn't good information yet to fill that void. So the longer this sort of waiting period goes on, the more people can jump in and exploit that void.
INSKEEP: I just want to note, this information can get people killed. False information about vaccines can literally get people killed. So does any of it break the rules of Facebook or Twitter or any laws?
PARKS: Oh, it's a really tough problem because in a lot of cases, this is actually people sharing credible news sources, articles from CNN or The Washington Post or The New York Times. They're just using those factual articles as evidence of a broader, false premise, you know, the idea that the vaccines are inherently unsafe or dangerous. This is a tactic that's emerged over the past year as social media companies have gotten stricter about taking down blatantly false information. The other thing to note here is that these sorts of events would not be such a problem if the country wasn't so polarized by COVID in general. I talked to Sarah Roberts, who's an information studies professor at UCLA. And she put a lot of blame on that on former President Trump. Now, basically, she says any time there's any sort of vaccine hiccup or problem, the government is fighting against all of this really ingrained skepticism and division.
SARAH ROBERTS: To call that an uphill battle - I mean, it's like a Mount Everest-sized battle. It's just - uphill is - well, it seems like an understatement.
INSKEEP: Is this likely to be eased once the CDC comes up with some kind of answer about J&J?
PARKS: It's really going to depend on how effective the government is at cutting through all this noise. One in four Americans still say they don't want to be vaccinated. It's doubtful this news helped. And so that's true even if this news doesn't actually affect the actual safety of the vaccines.
INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks. Thanks so much.
PARKS: Thanks, Steve.
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