Fact checking of the week: Viral claims shared on WhatsApp under the “forwarded many times” label

Background

An extensive text message called „PUBLIC AWARENESS POLITICAL MANIFESTO” was massively shared/ forwarded on Whatsapp and disseminated across several Telegram channels and Facebook pages in Romania. The viral message claims that “vaccines do not not work, natural immunity lasts a lifetime, and the long-term effects of the vaccine are unknown”, while encouraging users to refuse COVID-19 vaccination. These claims are founded on false or misleading arguments, which have been contradicted by available studies and scientific data.

Source: Whatsapp/Telegram

The evidence

Regarding the claim that “those who had COVID-19 have a natural immunity that last a lifetime”, studies indicate that COVID-19 vaccines create a more effective and lasting immunity than the immunity induced by natural infection. A recent study found that 36% of people who had a previous COVID-19 infection of didn’t develop antibodies. Another study found that 65% of people who had antibodies after getting infected completely lost their antibodies within 60 days. At the same time, recent data published by The Lancet journal in October 2021 indicate that vaccine remained 90% effective against the risk of hospitalization for at least six years months. The latest data have shown that full-scale vaccination reduces the risk of severe infection and hospitalization. For this reason, COVID-19 vaccination is considered the safest and fastest way to help build protection against the risk of infection, severe cases, hospitalization and even death.

The claim that “the long-term effects of COVID vaccines are COMPLETELY UNKNOWN” is misleading and meant to spread fear and mistrust. While studies about COVID-19 vaccines are still in progress (such as the ones investigating how effective they are against variants and how long their protection lasts), there is extensive evidence that builds confidence in the long-term safety of the vaccines. Studies show that severe side effects are extremely rare and, if it’s the case, they occur during the first two months. There is currently no evidence that any vaccine in general has caused chronic conditions years or decades later. For example, a meta-analysis in 2016 examined 23 studies among vaccines for children and didn’t find connections or evidence that vaccines can cause long-term side effects. In fact, a 2017 study evaluated nine common vaccines and confirmed that no vaccine has caused chronic conditions to emerge years or decades later.

Rating: misleading and unsubstantiated

The text message does not indicate its source of information and relies on several misleading claims, such as: “vaccinated people can still get COVID-19, so vaccines are ineffective„, “there are efficient cures for COVID-19, so there is no need for vaccines”, ”natural immunity lasts a lifetime and is stronger than the vaccine-induced immunity”.

This specific message supports misleading narratives circulating right from the beginning of the pandemic in Romania and transnationally: “the pandemic is a hoax”, “there is a war waged on people in order to force them to get vaccinated”, “the government (alternately “they – an unknown elite group”) is lying to the people and is helped by the mass media virus”.

Tips and tricks for safely navigating digital information

Misinformation and disinformation often circulate on private messaging apps, such as WhatsApp or Telegram. Due to the fact that such encrypted messaging apps keep the information private between sender and receiver, mis- and disinformation are harder to track. These forms of encrypted, below-the-radar content enables message targeting and hyper-personalization („Dear x, I am sending you this message that I also received from my friend y”), thus adding to its authenticity, credibility.

Here are a few simple tips to help you better spot and avoid the proliferation of such content:

  • Check the label “forwarded many times” and be cautious when you see it;
  • Be cautious about messages circulating on private messaging networks that are not picked up by credible mainstream media sources/ news outlets;
  • Pay attention to highly emotional andprovocative titles (clickbait, hyper-personalized), to frames or narratives that rely on triggering strong emotions (fear, distrust, outrage);
  • Verify if claims are supported by factual evidence;
  • Avoid sharing content just becauseit suits your previously existing beliefs; in other terms, avoid confirmation bias.

Our sources:

cdc.govPredictors of Nonseroconversion after SARS-CoV-2 Infection

cdc.gov – Decline in SARS-CoV-2 Antibodies After Mild Infection Among Frontline Health Care Personnel in a Multistate Hospital Network — 12 States, April–August 2020

springer.com – Vaccines and multiple sclerosis: a systematic review

cdc.gov – Historical Vaccine Safety Concerns

cdc.gov – Benefits of Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine

who.int – Do I still need the vaccine if I have Covid-19

health.harvard.edu – Treatments for COVID-19

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