Experience Magazine, November 2021
In December 2020, the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in the United States and Europe. It was a flickering light at the end of the pandemic tunnel—the first inkling that our world had a path back to normal. Elderly patients and high-risk medical workers received their shots to joyous applause. For the first time in months, millions of people breathed a collective, cautious sigh of relief.
But others—a minority, but a critical one—had questions. That same month, user searches for “vaccine” and “ingredients” spiked on Google, according to a sample analysis of 100 million searches by researchers at Northeastern University and several partner universities. And the results were teeming with bad information: articles from domains like express.co.uk and childrenshealthdefense.org with headlines reading, “Covid vaccine ingredients: What is in Pfizer, Moderna mRNA vaccines?” and “Leading COVID Vaccine Candidates Plagued by Safety Concerns.”
The stories themselves don’t look all that different from the ones that appear in mainstream news outlets. But express.co.uk is the online home of a notorious British tabloid; childrenshealthdefense.org has been a prolific source of vaccine misinformation since long before COVID. In the weeks following those first inoculations, around 7% of the results for searches that included the words “vaccine” and “ingredient” yielded articles from sites like those—a much higher proportion than either “vaccine” or “ingredient” would yield on its own. Seven percent may sound small, but in terms of the vast volume of internet searches, it can translate to reaching thousands of people. It was the highest rate of search results that could be classified as “misinformation” among more than 90 pandemic-related queries the researchers tracked.