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Summer 2023 - Vaccines

How Medical Misinformation About Vaccines is Spread

Politicization and polarization have made finding credible information online harder than ever.

The development of vaccines is arguably one of the most important advances in the history of medicine, but in recent years, vaccination rates have significantly declined.1 This decline can be largely attributed to the politicization of medical information and subsequent vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy refers to a person’s concerns about the decision to vaccinate oneself or one’s child(ren) that result in a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite their availability. Other factors such as differing individual beliefs and attitudes, social norms and access to and confidence in accurate vaccine information have only exacerbated the issue.2 The politicization of medical information — and vaccines, in particular — is a complex issue, one that has caused political polarization, rampant misinformation and an inherent lack of trust of both the government and pharmaceutical companies, but determining what’s true and what’s not remains important.

What Is Politicization?

Political motivations have always been somewhat involved in determining policy regarding public health. Balancing the allocation of government resources with the differing values of political parties isn’t new, but until recently, it was not necessarily a problem. However, when public policy decisions are based on ideology instead of scientific data and research, the situation becomes politicized.2 Politicization is “the action of causing an activity or event to become political in character.”3

In recent years, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians and political parties have largely taken a position on vaccines or medical treatments based on their ideologies rather than solely on scientific evidence.4 Tying political ideology to medicine has resulted in public opinions on vaccines becoming intertwined with political identity rather than purely on facts. And, unfortunately, this politicization has led to the spread of misinformation that has negatively affected vaccine rates.

The most recent example of this was the controversy surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines, which directly led to millions of Americans delaying getting the vaccine or not getting it at all. In fact, in 2021, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a study on misinformation about COVID-19 and found that more than three-quarters (78 percent) of U.S. adults either believed or were not sure about at least one of eight false statements about the COVID-19 pandemic or COVID-19 vaccines.5

While it is true that Democrats were more likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccine than Republicans, and a number of Republicans remained unvaccinated, the politicization of vaccines was not one-sided. In fact, according to a 2021 article in The Atlantic, party lines seem to have less to do with politicization than vaccine status. “While most state and national GOP leaders focused on defending the rights of unvaccinated Americans, polling showed that the majority of vaccinated adults — including a substantial portion of Republicans — supported tougher measures against those who refused COVID-19 shots,” the article stated.6 The vaccine itself seems to pit the vaccinated against the unvaccinated, with some on the far left calling for imposing vaccine mandates across the board and some on the far right outright vilifying the vaccine.

Drivers of Misinformation

Both sides post information online about vaccines, and both accurate and inaccurate information can be found there. Unfortunately, social media often drives misinformation. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made it easier for individuals to spread misinformation and even conspiracy theories about vaccines and other medical issues. False narratives can quickly gain traction through viral posts and memes shared and reshared by users on both sides of the political aisle. In fact, according to cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kauffman, PhD, founder and director of the Center for Human Potential, a recent study showed that “people on both sides of the traditional left-right divide are equally likely to believe political news that is consistent with their ideology, and to disbelieve news that is inconsistent with their side.”7 Viral posts with information that aligns with one political ideology or another can influence public opinion, which can lead to both vaccine hesitancy and other adverse health outcomes both at an individual and a population level. When looking at medical information on social media, it is essential to remember that because platforms are usually free and accessible to anyone, information is not vetted by experts as it is when posted on the website of a credible news source.8

Additionally, it is important to remember that just because a healthcare worker posts medical information does not mean it is true! Not all healthcare workers on social media are reliable sources of information. There are notable instances of physicians with a political agenda deliberately spreading misinformation, as in the case of the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors Simone Gold, MD, JD, a Los Angeles physician. Dr. Gold is known for both her nurturing of medical conspiracies popular in some right-wing circles and her involvement in the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.9

Social Media Is Not the Only Way Misinformation Is Spread

While social media is a significant driver, it is not the only way misinformation is spread. There are many websites and blogs devoted to promoting medical misinformation and anti-vaccine beliefs, and political agendas are not the only reason for sharing misinformation. Some healthcare professionals seem to do it for fame and personal gain. An example is Joseph Mercola, DO, an osteopath in Cape Coral, Fla., who has been dubbed the most influential spreader of COVID-19 misinformation.

In February 2021, Dr. Mercola published an online article that declared the COVID-19 vaccines were a medical fraud and permanently altered a person’s genetic coding. The article went viral, reaching more than 400,000 people.10 His medical misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine was nothing new: Dr. Mercola has amassed a net worth of more than $100 million in the past 10 years by pushing unproven natural remedies and disseminating anti-vaccine content.

Questionable healthcare providers spread misinformation, but they are not the only ones. There are many other websites and blogs devoted to the spread of medical misinformation, too. These types of sites appear to be credible sources of information to the public, but they either lack scientific evidence or they rely on cherry-picked data that is used out of context to misinform their audience.

This cherry-picking of data is part of what makes the misinformation so convincing. Wrapping fictitious or misleading information around a kernel of truth makes it more believable. The myth that drinking bleach prevents COVID-19 is a good example. While it is true that bleach can be used on surfaces as a disinfectant, it can cause severe bodily harm if drunk. This kernel of truth makes it more believable for people who may not understand the dangers of the practice.11

Misinformation is also spread by traditional media outlets, influencers and celebrities. Traditional media outlets usually report accurate information, but unfortunately, they are not immune to politicization. It has been well-documented (in particular by the Pew Research Center) that the U.S. media environment has become increasingly polarized in recent years, with Democrats and Republicans placing trust in completely different news sources.12 Politicization can lead to the spread of misinformation through sensationalized headlines or incomplete reporting that does not provide a complete picture of the scientific evidence, and it can happen on either side of the aisle.

Besides traditional media outlets, social influencers and celebrities can significantly impact public opinion, too. Recently, many celebrities have used their platforms to spread misinformation about vaccines. This trend is particularly concerning. Because of their popularity, the public may be more likely to trust them and treat what they say as a reliable source rather than listen to medical professionals.

Consequences of Misinformation

The politicization of vaccines and the spreading of misinformation can have serious consequences for public health. With low vaccination rates, diseases can spread more easily and quickly within communities. It is important to understand that vaccines not only protect individuals who receive them but also contribute to what is known as herd immunity.

Herd immunity occurs when a large portion of a community (the herd) becomes immune to a particular disease through vaccination or previous exposure. The spread of disease from person to person becomes unlikely when herd immunity is achieved. The whole community becomes protected, not just those who are immune.13 Additionally, when herd immunity is achieved, it helps protect vulnerable individuals who may not be able to receive a vaccine. The consequence for individuals and the spreading of disease outbreaks are not the only repercussions. The spreading of disease also strains healthcare systems and increases healthcare costs for everyone. Further, outbreaks lead to lost work productivity and missed school.

Detecting Misinformation

To combat misinformation, one must first learn how to spot it. When determining whether a piece of information is credible, the following items should be looked at:11

  • Source: Examine the source to determine if it is reputable. This can be done by researching the author’s credentials. Additionally, decide the motivation of the author. Is it political in nature? Is it posted on a trusted domain like .edu or .gov?
  • Headline: Does the headline appear sensationalized or designed to elicit an emotional response?
  • Platform: If it is on social media, determine if the information is posted as a prank (much of what is posted is meant to be a joke). Unfortunately, people may believe the joke to be true when they do not look further into its claim.
  • Data: Carefully read the article to determine if the data has been cherry-picked or if the research is misquoted or taken out of context.
  • Support: Carefully research the supporting documents. Do the cited sources share the same conclusions as the article?
  • Bias: Check your own biases and ideology regardless of which political party you belong to. Do you believe the article because it supports what you want to think?
  • Expertise: If you have questions, ask someone who is an expert in the medical field. An excellent place to start is a trusted doctor.

When reading medical information online, consider the following (chart).

Combating Misinformation

Because vaccine hesitancy has multifactorial and complex causes, combating it requires a broad range of approaches. One of the best ways to combat medical misinformation on the Internet is for responsible healthcare providers to post accurate, up-to-date, evidence-based information.

Unfortunately, actively engaging on social media is not something academics are typically good at. In an article by Stanford Medicine, Vin Gupta, MD, a pulmonary critical care physician at the University of Washington, points out that this is an area in which the medical community needs improvement. “Much of academia doesn’t effectively engage with social media,” Dr. Gupta said. “We’re not taught how to do that.”14 He stresses the importance of promoting reliable content to combat misinformation, suggesting the use of storytelling and compelling images to deliver powerful public health messages. “Make it less about you; cut through partisanship,” Dr. Gupta emphasizes.

While combating medical misinformation on social media is important, misinformation must also be addressed by healthcare workers at a community and societal level. This must be done by building people’s trust in public health infrastructure, addressing misinformation and reducing the distribution of false or misleading posts on social media.

Politicization of Medicine = Poorer Population Health

Overall, politicizing vaccines can severely affect public health by decreasing vaccination rates and increasing the risk of disease outbreaks. It is vital to combat medical misinformation on social media, traditional media outlets and the Internet at large by providing accurate information about vaccines through reliable healthcare professionals and public agencies.


  1. Jolley, D, and Douglas, KM. The Effects of Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories on Vaccination Intentions. PLOS ONE, Feb. 20, 2014. Accessed at
  2. Salmon, DA, Dudley, MZ, Glanz, JM, et al. Vaccine Hesitancy: Causes, Consequences and a Call to Action. Vaccines, 2015 Nov;33(4):D66-D71. Accessed at
  3. Zaza, S. Politicization of Public Health: Preventative Medicine Responds to COVID-19. American College of Preventative Medicine, Sept. 3, 2020. Accessed at
  4. Reiss, D. The Politicization of Science. American Bar Association, June 14, 2021. Accessed at
  5. Kaiser Family Foundation. COVID-19 Misinformation Is Ubiquitous: 78% of the Public Believes or Is Unsure About at Least One False Statement, and Nearly a Third Believe at Least Four of Eight False Statements Tested, Nov. 8, 2021. Accessed at
  6. Brownstein, R. ‘Everybody I Know Is Pissed Off.’ The Atlantic, Aug. 12, 2021. Accessed at
  7. Kauffman, SB. Liberals and Conservatives Are Both Susceptible to Fake News, But for Different Reasons. Scientific American, Feb. 14, 2019. Accessed at
  8. Igoe, KJ. Establishing the Truth: Vaccines, Social Media, and the Spread of Misinformation. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, July 10, 2019. Accessed at
  9. Rubin, R. When Physicians Spread Unscientific Information About COVID-19. Journal of the American Medical Association, 2022;327(10):904–906. Accessed at
  10. Frenkel, S. The Most Influential Spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation Online. The New York Times, July 24, 2021. Accessed at
  11. Barron, M. How to Spot and Combat Health Misinformation. American Society for Microbiology, Sept. 9, 2022. Accessed at
  12. Hamel, L, Lopez, L, Kirzinger, A, et al. KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: Media and Misinformation. Kaiser Family Foundation, Nov. 8, 2021. Accessed at
  13. Mayo Clinic. Herd Immunity and COVID-19: What You Need to Know, Sept. 27, 2022. Accessed at
  14. Conger, K. How Misinformation, Medical Mistrust Fuel Vaccine Hesitancy. Stanford Medicine News Center, Sept. 2, 2021. Accessed at
Abbie Cornett
Abbie Cornett, MBA, is the patient advocate for IG Living Magazine