Limiting damage from mixed messages on vaccine rollout

08 Jul 2021 | 5 mins

Dr Tauel Harper, The University of Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences Media and Communication lecturer, looks at how to address damage caused by mixed messaging during the COVID-19 rollout. An expert on public communication, his research focuses on how people are communicating about the COVID vaccine on social media feeds across the world and what is being discussed.

While the bulk of Australians are pro-vaccine and research indicates are likely to stay that way, erratic and confusing COVID-19 rollout messaging and alarming “clickbait” adverse events headlines have contributed to a small but concerning increase in anti-vaxxer social media followers.

UWA’s communications expert Dr Tauel Harper says his vaccine-related social media monitoring, which informs State and Federal governments on pandemic trends, has revealed a 30 per cent growth in followers of Australia’s anti-vaxxer social media sites since the start of March – an increase of 76,000 to a total of 321,000 followers.

Confusion during a pandemic had dire consequences, said Dr Harper, and his recent research had confirmed anti-vaxxers were attempting to use the current period of mixed messaging on COVID vaccines to gain both authority and some ground.

“That increase in their followers is an impact of the negative vaccine coverage in the media and that negative coverage is an outcome of the recent inconsistent government messaging,” he said. “Our research confirms media coverage is crucial in determining how vaccine information spreads across social media. 

“I remain very optimistic but looking at the anti-vaxxer followers numbers, things could be going better.”

Sectors of Australia’s mass media were also using vaccine adverse effects as clickbait, attracting readers and followers with alarming headlines that did not always reflect the qualifications of vaccine risks and benefits in the full article. These headlines were then being circulated by anti-vaxxers on social media to try to ‘add authority’ to their claims.

“It is fair enough that journalists scrutinise the vaccine rollout, and they ought to, but the end result of predominantly negative coverage is people start doubting its efficacy and legitimacy,” Dr Harper said.

“I can assure you that the recent level of rollout confusion, that level of uncertainty, particularly the kind of problems around Federal and state governments changing the narrative around the conditions of AstraZenecavaccination; both are picked up heavily by the anti-vaxx community and used for propaganda purposes.

“But also they seem to erode public trust in the government and the vaccination program in general.”

Dr Harper said social media monitoring had also indicated that Australians were much more “risk-averse”, possibly due to not experiencing the same COVID-19 hospitalisations and deaths as other countries.

“It then makes it hard when the vaccine risk-benefit conversation, particularly with AstraZeneca, is a really difficult conversation to have and to sell to people. A real flaw with this, in terms of strategic communications, is that once you have to explain things to people, you often lose them. 

“However, the one good thing about Australia coming last in COVID vaccination rates is the normalisation of COVID vaccines in the USA and UK and also in India, where they were desperate for vaccines.

“Australians now know what the adverse effects are and we are used to the idea that COVID vaccination is something that ‘even the Americans do’. 

“Generally, Australians do want the COVID vaccine and are eagerly looking forward to it.” 

How to move forward and limit the damage from mixed rollout messaging

  • Commit to consistent government vaccination messaging. Move away from erratic statements and be clear about the different COVID-19 risk factors for each state.
  • Complete honesty and transparency about when vaccines will be available and where.
    COVID-19 virus/vaccine education packs for journalists that detail risks and benefits – Dr Harper says, in general, the tendency is for
  • Australian media to over emphasise the risk from vaccination adverse events. 
  • New vaccine public education and communication campaign that is less “boring and bland”, with a focus on motivation to vaccinate. Suggests following in the footsteps of  New Zealand and Singapore campaigns that are “emotional and colourful, light- hearted and community oriented”.
  • Offer incentives for vaccination

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