As high-risk groups begin rolling up their sleeves to receive COVID-19 vaccines, experts warn against misinformation being spread on social media platforms, including among culturally diverse groups.
- Experts confirm it is "completely untrue" that mRNA vaccines interfere with a person's DNA
- Misinformation thrives on non-English channels where vaccine messaging is less prominent
- The Department of Health says it is working closely with a CALD advisory group
For example, posts on Chinese social media platform WeChat have been spreading the false claim that mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer jab, can integrate with a person's DNA and transform recipients into "genetically modified humans".
According to various accounts viewed by the ABC, Chinese-language posts carrying this information have been shared in at least five active WeChat groups where over 2,000 Chinese Australians discuss public affairs and share information about the pandemic.
The same type of messaging has also surfaced in various exchanges between people claiming to be health experts, using academic language and referring to "scientific research" — which isn't provided — from authoritative science journals, such as Nature.
Although China's state-owned media has come out at times to refute these messages, clarifying that it is pseudo-science or misinformation, it's often too late, as the material is carried over to WeChat where the conversations continue within the community.
Yang Bingqing, who leads a voluntary fact-checking group for Chinese Australians, told the ABC threads of misinformation appear in "almost every chat group" she joins.
In a statement to the ABC, WeChat said it's "committed to providing a secure and open platform for users to stay connected and share information and ideas".
"We take active steps to address misinformation and inappropriate behaviour on our platform by providing users an easy way to report that through the in-app reporting function so that we may follow up on these quickly and effectively," the statement said.
"We are constantly expanding and enforcing our efforts to protect against misinformation."
But how seriously are various communities taking these claims? And when language barriers and government distrust can fuel misinformation among some groups, what can be done to ensure they receive credible COVID-19 information?
COVID mRNA misinformation 'completely untrue'
Australia's drug regulatory body has provisionally approved two vaccines for high-risk groups, including Pfizer, the world's first mRNA vaccine and the only mRNA candidate approved for use in Australia.
mRNA — or messenger RNA — vaccines work by injecting a particular strand of mRNA into our cells. Our cells use the strand as a blueprint to build only the spike protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. After a few days, the mRNA is broken down.
This trains our immune systems to "remember" the virus spike and make antibodies against it, so that if it ever meets the real virus, it ready to mount an immune response.
Dr Archa Fox, associate professor in RNA biology from the University of Western Australia, said the message circulating on WeChat was "completely untrue".
She said it was not possible for an mRNA vaccine to become part of the DNA in our genome.
"I'd like to use the example of the DNA being like a big recipe book. And the RNA is a little scribbled piece of paper with handwriting," Dr Fox told the ABC.
"Millions of people around the world have now received RNA vaccines, and there is no evidence of this happening," she said, adding the misinformation could result in vulnerable groups refusing to have the vaccine.
"That will put themselves and their loved ones at risk."
Fact-checking volunteers not enough to meet community needs
Dr Alexandra Grey, a University of Sydney researcher who studies the effectiveness of government messages within Australia's multicultural communities, said in-language misinformation can significantly impact community trust in public health information.
"Particularly for things like health communications, where you want to affect behavioural change, you want your audience to trust what you're saying," Dr Grey told the ABC.
"It conveys something additional, something symbolic about inclusion and trust."
The ABC spoke to around two dozen residents from Asian communities on the streets of Sydney over the past week, the majority of whom spoke English as a second language and found it difficult to access public health information in their own languages.
Several people confirmed they came across vaccine misinformation on social media, including Facebook, Instagram and WeChat.
Ms Yang launched her fact-checking group on WeChat during the early stages of the pandemic last April, when fake news and disinformation related to COVID-19 were on the rise in the Chinese-Australian community.
The fact-checking hub now consists of over 600 Chinese Australians who provide assistance in two WeChat groups and clear up misinformation concerns where they can.
But Ms Yang maintained that their effort was insufficient to meet community needs, suggesting the federal government should provide an online fact-checking centre to distribute accurate information in different languages for multicultural communities.
A recent study conducted by the Edith Cowan University also found that information provided by the government was "too hard for the average Australian to understand", while a separate study published this week by a UNSW-led research team identified barriers to informing culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities during the pandemic.
They include delays in translating health information and difficulties in navigating government websites.
And while government materials are tailored for multilingual purposes, there are concerns around the accuracy and consistency of messages.
The researchers suggest improving messaging by identifying and training local community ambassadors and employing bilingual engagement officers.
They also recommended having source documents "developed and reviewed by the target communities prior to translation to ensure they make sense and are culturally appropriate".
CALD social networks outside the National Vaccine Campaign
A Department of Health spokesperson told the ABC that on top of the government's $31 million COVID-19 vaccination public information campaign, $1.3 million had been allocated to multicultural organisations to help reach CALD communities.
"The National Vaccine Campaign includes advertising translated in 32 languages for multicultural audiences across radio, print and social media — this includes WeChat and Weibo, and are available on the health website," they said.
"In partnership with the Department of Health, SBS has created videos, explaining vaccines and safety, approval processes, priority groups and how to stay informed."
While the Department of Health has provided information related to COVID-19 vaccines in over 60 languages on its website, it misses significant portions of the population — for example, the only Pacific language available is Samoan, when there are hundreds of languages and dialects from the region.
This is concerning for Rita Seumanutafa, who serves on the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities COVID-19 Health Advisory Group, helping to share messages about the COVID-19 vaccination program.
"Our people are getting their news from Facebook posts," Ms Seumanutafa told the ABC's Pacific Beat radio program.
Ms Seumanutafa said the lack of Pacific language translations made her concerned that community members would be attracted to fake news available in their languages before they received credible information about vaccines.
The Department of Health told the ABC that it has been working closely with the CALD advisory group and that it will take further advice from it on whether additional translations are required.
"The Department is working closely with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse community leaders and is being advised by an important working group to ensure communities have information in their language."
Overseas studies in places like the United Kingdom have shown that people from an ethnic minority background or migrants are more likely to die from COVID-19 than Caucasian residents, and research here in Australia has shown similar communities on our shores are missing out on key information.
COVID messages 'won't get 100 per cent of people on board'
There are some misconceptions and mistrust in the government's messaging among religious communities too, according to Dr Zuleyha Keskin, a senior lecturer in Islamic Studies at Charles Sturt University.
"The Muslim community doesn't have full trust in the politicians and this could be based on past history," Dr Keskin told the ABC.
But several Australian Muslim imams have helped to counter misinformation about COVID-19 through Friday sermons, stressing the jabs are halal (permitted under the Koran) and vaccination was an "ethical duty" to protect others.
Muslim Health Professionals Australia has also been running a virtual COVID-19 vaccine discussion with several Islamic centres, providing a religious and scientific perspective.
Two weeks ago, an Islamic ruling — a fatwa — was released by the Australian Fatwa Council, saying the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines do not contain any prohibited substances or ingredients and are safe, and various vaccine companies have come out confirming the same.
"There will always be some who will say [the Fatwa Council] have other agendas, or, that they're being influenced by the government … there will be some who won't take it seriously."
Indeed, one Islamic cleric based in Australia recently posted a YouTube video questioning the authority of the peak body of imams in Australia to declare the vaccine halal.
Dr Keskin pointed out religious leaders from other faiths had also expressed concern about the vaccine.
Last year, three of Australia's most senior archbishops said while they supported a COVID-19 vaccine in principle, they were critical of the AstraZeneca jab.
The AstraZeneca vaccine has been developed from a kidney cell line (HEK-293) taken from an aborted foetus. The cells are commonly used in medical research, and used to manufacture other vaccines such as the HPV vaccine.
The federal government has reassured religious communities there are no "ethical concerns" surrounding the vaccine, and experts said the cell line was developed decades ago.
"The Department will be working with multicultural stakeholder networks, community leaders and members to help address concerns and hesitancy through local level engagement," the health department spokesperson told the ABC.
Health advisory group member Rita Seumanutafa added that she would like to see more consistency with in-language messaging strategies, to ensure that community members have access to accurate information about COVID-19 vaccines.
"That's what I hope to see instead of a decision not to be vaccinated based on what you see on social media."