SAN JOSE, Calif. — On an unseasonably warm day in February, two men working with a local community group went door to door in an ethnically diverse neighborhood to persuade people to sign up for Covid-19 vaccinations.
It was just after 11 a.m. when they encountered the first person reluctant to get a shot. Two doors down and 30 minutes later, it happened again. For nearly an hour, they stood on a front lawn with George Rodriguez, 67, chatting about the neighborhood, the pandemic and the available vaccines.
“I see all this stuff online, about how it’s going to change my DNA. It does something to your DNA, right?” asked Mr. Rodriguez, who is Hispanic. “There is just too much stuff out, too much conflicting information. And then I hear that even if you get the vaccine you can still get sick. Why would I get it, then?”
Black and Hispanic communities, which were hit harder by the pandemic and whose vaccination rates are lagging that for white people, are confronting vaccine conspiracy theories, rumors and misleading news reports on social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter and in private online messaging, health authorities and misinformation researchers said.
The misinformation varies, like claims that vaccines can alter DNA — which is not true — and that the vaccines don’t work, or that people of color are being used as guinea pigs. A good part of this incorrect information comes from friends, family and celebrities, bubbling up in communities that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and facing other hurdles to getting vaccinated.
Foreign news outlets and anti-vaccine activists have also aggressively tried to cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines made in the United States and Europe.
Misinformation has complicated efforts by some states to reach out to Black and Hispanic residents, particularly when health officials have provided special registration codes for vaccine appointments. Instead of a benefit, in some cases the codes have become the basis for new false narratives.
“What might look like, on the surface, as doctors prioritizing communities of color is being read by some people online as ‘Oh, those doctors want us to go first to be the guinea pigs,’” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. “I’ve seen people on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Clubhouse — you name it — saying the codes are a way to force the vaccine on communities of color as an experiment.”
Research conducted by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation in mid-February showed a striking disparity between racial groups receiving the vaccine in 34 states that reported the data.
The state figures vary widely. In Texas, where people who identify as Hispanic make up 42 percent of the population, only 20 percent of the vaccinations had gone to that group. In Mississippi, where Black people make up 38 percent of the population, they received 22 percent of the vaccinations. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the vaccination rate for Black Americans is half that of white people, and the gap for Hispanic people is even larger.
While researchers say a lack of easy access to vaccine sites could be the biggest driver of that shortfall, misinformation is playing a role.
The belief that doctors are interested in experimenting on certain communities has deep roots among some groups, Ms. Koltai said. Anti-vaccine activists have drawn on historical examples, including Nazi doctors who ran experiments in concentration camps, and the Baltimore hospital where, 70 years ago, cancer cells were collected from Henrietta Lacks, a Black mother of five, without her consent.
“The thing about misinformation is that it works best when it is built around a kernel of truth. In this case, many communities of color don’t trust the medical establishment because they don’t have the best history with it,” said Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence Against Women, a group that supports women of color who are harassed online.
An experiment conducted in 1943 on nearly 400 Black men in Tuskegee, Ala., is one of the most researched examples of medical mistreatment of the Black community. Over four decades, scientists observed the men, whom they knew were infected with syphilis, but didn’t offer treatments so that they could study the disease’s progression. When the experiment came to light in the 1970s, it was condemned by the medical community as a major violation of ethical standards.
Researchers who study disinformation followed mentions of Tuskegee on social media over the last year. While Tuskegee averaged several hundred mentions a week on Facebook and Twitter, there were several noticeable spikes that coincided with the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company.
The final week of November, when the pharmaceutical companies Moderna and Pfizer announced promising results in their final studies on the safety of their Covid-19 vaccines, mentions of Tuskegee climbed to 7,000 a week.
There was another lull until mid-December, when the Food and Drug Administration announced it had given emergency approval to the vaccines. Mentions of Tuskegee climbed to nearly 5,000 that week, according to Zignal, with some of the most viral tweets calling the coronavirus vaccines “the New Tuskegee study.”
Doctors say they are battling vaccine hesitancy in other demographic groups, as well. Last month, a poll by the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 23 percent of Republicans said they would “definitely” not get vaccinated, while 21 percent said they “probably” would not get a coronavirus vaccine.
Native American groups have been battling vaccine fears in their communities, and doctors have reported that some of their Chinese-American patients have been bringing in articles in Chinese-language media outlets questioning vaccines made in the United States.
Many Black and Hispanic people were already struggling to make appointments and reach vaccination sites that are often in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. And officials in some cities say that people from those neighborhoods also have been flooding vaccination appointment systems and taking supply intended for poorer Black and Hispanic residents.
Misinformation about who is allowed to receive the vaccine, when it is available and how it was safety tested has added even more difficulty, Ms. Mitchell, said.
At a mass vaccination site at the Oakland Coliseum on a recent Friday afternoon, before 68-year-old Anthony Jones agreed to get his shot last month, there was just one last thing he wanted to look up on Facebook. He pulled out his phone and started to tap, waving off his grandson, who had driven him to his appointment.
“I read something about a woman who died from this thing, and I want to know if she was Black,” said Mr. Jones, who after several minutes of scrolling could not find the Facebook post he was looking for. “You see a lot of stuff on the internet which makes you think, as a Black man, you should not be taking this vaccine.”
Mr. Jones eventually gave up. As he was walking in for his shot he remembered the article he had seen was on WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, and from a website he didn’t recognize.
“My grandson tells me not to believe everything I read on the internet,” he said. “I like to believe my grandson.”
The next day, Daniel Lander, 38, was canvassing a neighborhood in San Jose with Armand Mateos, 28. For the last five months, Mr. Lander has been going door to door in a program managed by Working Partnerships USA, a community organization based in Silicon Valley. The group is working with local county officials to help dispel misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines.
“We hear people say that they saw this or that celebrity sharing something on Twitter or Instagram that made them think the vaccine was a bad idea. People value the opinion of people they look up to, and these celebrities have a lot of influence,” Mr. Lander said.
As they chatted with Mr. Rodriguez, a muscular man and an enthusiastic talker, Mr. Lander and Mr. Mateos said they sympathized with his concerns. They said they had a lot of the same questions, and explained their decision to get the vaccines themselves. Mr. Rodriguez asked where they got their shots and how it made them feel.
Mr. Mateos reflexively touched his left arm, where he had received the vaccine in recent weeks. It hurt, he said, and he wasn’t going to sugarcoat it. But he was convinced that it was safe, and that it would keep him and his loved ones from getting sick.
“They’ve read all this stuff online, from different news sources, which is confusing. But then they meet me, as someone who has had the shot, and I can give them some real answers,” Mr. Mateos said. He added that many people cited articles in the Spanish-language versions of Russian state-backed media networks, Sputnik and Russia Today. “They are very down on the American vaccines. People read those stories and don’t want to get the shot.”
As the two men were leaving, Mr. Rodriguez yelled out that he would get the shot that week. They made sure he had the phone number and websites he needed to register, and continued down the street.
“I think I will get it later this week,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I don’t make promises, but I think that they’ve convinced me.”