Operating Status

More than half of Americans are not sure whether or not to believe some of the false claims and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, according to a new survey from a coalition of university-based research from across the country.

“While a relatively small percentage of people believe vaccine misinformation, there is a considerable proportion who say they are not sure whether the misinformation items are true,” said lead author Katherine Ognyanova, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information who is part of a coalition of researchers from Rutgers-New Brunswick, Northeastern, Harvard and Northwestern universities. “There is a well-known association between holding misperceptions and refusing the vaccine. Importantly though, we find that uncertainty is also linked to vaccine resistance. All of this confirms that when scrolling down our news feeds, we need to be extra careful what we share.”

In the June survey by the COVID States Project, researchers asked Americans to mark four popular vaccine misinformation claims as true, false or “not sure.” The false statements included that COVID-19 vaccines will alter people’s DNA, the vaccines contain microchips that could track people, the vaccines contain the lung tissue of aborted fetuses and the COVID-19 vaccines can cause infertility. 

Researchers found that 20 percent of Americans believe at least one popular vaccine misinformation statement, while 51 percent say they are not sure whether to believe at least one false claim.

The most prevalent misperception in the data links the COVID-19 vaccines to infertility. Only about half (52 percent) of respondents were able to identify this particular statement as false, 11 percent were concerned that vaccines can cause infertility and 37 percent were unsure. 

Eight percent of respondents think the COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, 9 percent say vaccines use aborted fetal cells, and 10 percent believe vaccines can alter human DNA.

The researchers say that vaccine misinformation and uncertainty about misinformation are associated with lower vaccination rates and a higher volume of people who are resitant to getting vaccinated

Seventy percent of those who did not believe any of the statements were vaccinated, while 15 percent were vaccine-resistant and had not gotten vaccinated. Among those who thought multiple misinformation statements were true, 46 percent were vaccinated and 42 percent were not vaccinated.

According to the survey, only 5 percent were vaccine-resistant and 85 percent were vaccinated among those who identified all four misinformation claims as false. Among Americans who did not identify any claim as true but were uncertain about at least one, 25 percent were vaccine-resistant and 56 percent were vaccinated. 

“With new COVID variants on the rise, it is even more important to be protected by a vaccine,” said Ognyanova. “Low-quality information, even if it is not believed, can increase uncertainty about vaccinations, raising concerns among those who are already hesitant and hardening the conviction of those who are vaccine-resistant.”

The survey also found people 25 to 44 years old, those with high socioeconomic status and Republicans are most likely to hold vaccine misperceptions, with more 25 percent in each group marking at least one misinformation statement as true. 

Women, African-Americans, young people and those with lower socioeconomic status are most likely to report uncertainty about whether misinformation statements are true. 

The researchers polled 20,699 Americans from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between June 9 and July 7.  

The COVID States Project is a joint project of the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, the Network Science Institute of Northeastern University, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy of Harvard University, Harvard Medical School and the Department of Political Science and Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. 

The consortium has released 60 reports and charted public opinion related to COVID-19 topics since April 2020. It is the largest ongoing national survey tracking people’s opinions and behavior during the pandemic.