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How to navigate COVID-19 vaccine misinformation with fellow parents

Experts share their tips to discuss COVID-19 vaccines responsibly.

Kids as young as 5 have been able to get a COVID-19 vaccine since November. But parents are finding themselves wading through a confusing landscape of COVID-19 misinformation. And some are wondering how to responsibly have conversations about the vaccines with those around them.

Online parenting groups and “mom blogs,” in particular, have become a “common vector for anti-vaccine content and vaccine hesitancy content since before the pandemic,” Kate Starbird, associate professor in the department of human-centered design and engineering and co-founder of the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, told TODAY. 

But addressing and correcting the issue clearly isn’t easy. “I think if we had simple answers for what to do here we wouldn’t be in this situation. And in reality, there aren’t simple solutions,” said Starbird, whose research focuses on the way misinformation and disinformation spread online.

Although the best strategy to take is likely to be different from person to person, there are some basic evidence-based guidelines for parents to approach those conversations with their fellow parents most effectively, Rupali Limaye, an associate scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies vaccine hesitancy and health science communication, told TODAY.

“We just want parents to make an evidence-based decision and my biggest concern is that a lot of parents are making their decision not based on evidence-based information,” said Limaye, who helped lead the design of a new online course for parents that aims to help them feel comfortable as vaccine ambassadors in their community.

If COVID-19 vaccines are coming up in your conversations with other parents, here are a few guidelines to help you address common concerns, answer basic questions — and call out misinformation when you see it.

Make sure you’ve brushed up on the basics.

Before you set out to correct misinformation or have these tricky discussions with people in your life, the first step is to make sure you have a solid understanding of the science of vaccines, Limaye explained. For instance, her course contains basic information about how COVID-19 vaccines work, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 and the steps that go into vaccine development.

You should also brush up on media literacy skills so you can safely navigate the choppy waters of online health information, Starbird said. That might include learning how to vet online resources, checking claims with other sites to see if they’ve been verified and familiarizing yourself with common disinformation tactics, according to a toolkit released by the Surgeon General last year.

Approach the conversation with empathy and understanding.

“We need to be empathetic. We need to be not dismissive. We shouldn’t be judgmental,” Limaye said. “It’s really important for us to be able to listen to people through an empathy lens and be compassionate about their questions because that’s the only way that we’re going to actually be able to increase vaccine acceptance.” 

This is the basis of a few different communication tactics that Limaye uses in her course. With a strategy called motivational interviewing, for example, you’ll start with an open-ended prompt like, “Tell me about your vaccine decision.” And if someone says they have some concerns, you can ask why, Limaye explained, adding that they might open up about seeing some dubious claims on social media that have them worried.

From there, “you can respond and say, ‘You know, there’s a lot of information, it can be really hard to determine what’s true and what’s not true,’” she said. With this technique, you’re also using tools like affirmative language and reflective listening to let them know it’s OK to open up about these topics with you while still directing them to more trustworthy sources of information. “(You’re) not passing judgment that they may have consumed misinformation,” she said.

“Having conversations in respectful and empathetic ways, keeping the conversations going, highlighting your own choices that you’ve made about taking vaccines and vaccinating your children and what you plan to do — I think those are these are all really valuable,” Starbird agreed. 

Reframe the conversation.

With another communication technique called presumptive communication, you can approach the discussion with the assumption that vaccination is the norm, Limaye advised. 

So instead of saying something like, “Your child is 5 years old and eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Do you think you’ll go get it?” You can frame the question more like, “Your child is 5 years old. Did you know that 90% of 5-year-olds in our neighborhood have already gotten the COVID-19 vaccine? When are you going to get yours?”

Limaye explains that “by stressing that it’s the norm, assuming it’s the default behavior, it really, really does help people make the decision.” 

Notice when you’re getting emotional. 

Generally, the experts advise avoiding the urge to get too emotional in discussions about vaccines. “A lot of (effective communication about vaccines) isn’t necessarily about the content. A lot of it is about the delivery,” LImaye said. “A lot of it is being able to approach a topic and not get emotional about it or get in someone’s face about it.” 

So it’s a good idea to pay attention to the emotions you feel when encountering health information online and in discussions with fellow parents. That may signal that it’s time to take a break from the conversation.

And when you’re on social media, it’s crucial to pay particular attention to any posts that make you feel angry or scared and to interrogate those claims before sharing them. “One of the primary media literacy tools is to tune in to your emotional response to content,” Starbird said. That’s because content that is trying to manipulate us often “does it emotionally first.” 

But misinformation isn’t always something that we disagree with. In some cases, it can be misleading information that we actually want to believe is true deep down or that validates something we always suspected.

“Anytime something aligns with what I already believe, it makes me feel self-righteous and correct and say, ‘Oh, I kind of thought that and here it is. Here’s the proof I needed,’ that’s when I tend to realize that I’m being manipulated,” Starbird said. 

If you come across content like that online or in a conversation, examine it. But also recognize how easy it is to be duped by false information that plays into those powerful emotions and understand that we are all vulnerable to that manipulation on some level.

Call out and (politely) correct false information.

Most of us wouldn’t want to knowingly share something that’s false or misleading. But we’re human; it happens. So it’s important to correct it when it does. If you’ve shared something you later realize is false, admit that and share a correction, Starbird recommends.

If someone you know shares misinformation online, it helps to call that out and correct it. But you should probably do that politely and privately, Starbird said. Sending a direct message can help open up a conversation about what they shared and why it isn’t correct without publicly shaming them or making them feel bad.

However, if you don’t necessarily know them personally and simply follow them online, it can be more helpful to reply in the comments to let their audience know that their statement isn’t correct, Starbird said.

It’s OK if you don’t know the answer to a question.

Of course, you won’t necessarily have the answer to every question or concern you might come across in these discussions. And when that happens it’s completely fine to say that you don’t know the answer. But Limaye suggests offering to get back to that person with authoritative sources or offering to help find more information together.

That might mean you do a little digging on your own and send them an email the next day. Or maybe it’s a more collaborative process in which you go digging as a team. However, Starbird cautions against going right into the deep end of misinformation with them because you run the risk of exposing yourself. 

Know when to let it go — for now, at least.

It’s important to recognize that vaccine hesitancy exists on a spectrum. Some people have very understandable questions about vaccines that simply need an authoritative answer. Others, however, are firmly rooted in their false beliefs about vaccines to the point that those beliefs have become a core part of their identity — possibly even part of their political identity. 

“Vaccine behaviors are on a continuum. And the people that we want to talk to are people that can be persuaded,” Limaye said. 

“There’s a big difference between someone who’s skeptical and someone who’s already made up their mind,” Starbird agreed. “With someone who’s already made up their mind, it may not be worth the conversation. And it may even be worth salvaging the relationship instead of the conversation for now.” 

The truth is that there are people who “we’re not going to be able to get to,” Limaye said. “And as someone that has studied this for a long time, I think you have to know when to cut your losses.” For her, that time comes when someone starts to get too emotional in a conversation or signals that they’re not really there to discuss the issue in good faith.

But that doesn't mean the conversation has to be over forever, Starbird said. Even if a conversation doesn't go the way you hope, you can keep the door open and revisit the topic later. "Sometimes, in the moment, people are just going to feel called out and they might dig their heels in," she said. "But if you give them some time to absorb, you may find them in a different place in the future."

Take care of yourself because these conversations can be exhausting. 

As you may have noticed by now, this is hard work. And it takes a lot of energy and emotional effort to do it consistently. Remember that it’s not a personal failure if you can’t convince someone to rethink vaccines or COVID-19 health information.

“Every one of us has a family member we can’t reach,” Starbird said of her colleagues at the Center for an Informed Public. If you can, she recommends tagging other friends or family members into the conversation when you need to tap out and take a break. 

“If you have a conversation and it doesn’t go well, it’s important not to beat yourself up,” Limaye said. “Most people aren’t used to engaging with people like this on a day-to-day basis. So just be gentle with yourself and understand that these (conversations) are hard to have.”