“Narratives are directly aligned to our sense of self and how we make sense of the world,” Rory Smith told KGW reporter Cristin Severance. Smith is a member of First Draft, a group formed to study misinformation and find better ways to fight its spread. The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it – precautionary measures, medical care, vaccine development – have unfortunately provided plentiful opportunities for false and distorted understandings to sprout and spread. 

What’s Being Said 

The vaccine was developed too quickly to be safe. Multiple vaccines appeared in a short period of time because 1) research had already been taking place on similar viruses, 2) funding was amply provided and 3) so many different groups were working on different approaches to creating a vaccine. 

Natural immunity from having been infected and recovering is better. The virus really is deadly, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving many others crippled, possibly for life. Even if you do survive the virus, there is no predicting how long immunity will last. 

The vaccine will alter your DNA. The vaccine currently being distributed in the U.S. is based on mRNA messenger Ribo-Nucleic Acid a form of RNA that is used to pass information from one cell to another and which never enters the cell nucleus, so physically cannot alter human DNA. 

Many different side effects have been reported. A list of over thirty symptoms, some of them severe, some of them quite bizarre-sounding, has been widely distributed, but as the vaccine is being distributed in Oregon, only six side effects have been observed, all of them familiar ones from any vaccination: soreness at the injection site, fever, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, chills, and headache.  

First Draft Steps Up 

Unfortunately, while shooting down baseless claims feels satisfying and effective, it turns out not to be the most effective way to disentangle a person from a web of falsehoods and misinterpretations.  

“You can’t simply debunk or label a narrative,” Smith told Severance. He has learned a lot about persistent myths as a founder of First Draft, a group which unites people in newsrooms, universities, social media platforms, and civil society organizations all over the world. First Draft is named after the journalist Alan Barth’s 1943 observation that “News is only the first rough draft of history,” and seeks to make that draft speak more clearly and accurately to its audience. 

“We take so many mental shortcuts, and there are so many cognitive biases that we latch onto what we already believe in,” Smith said. “Social media platforms will reaffirm that by serving as content that kind of adheres, or is similar to our worldviews.” 

“I think that the dehumanizing effects of calling it silly or wacko is quite detrimental and that further polarizes people,” Smith said. “That’s just going to further entrench their worldview and it’s going to create this kind of adversarial environment of ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ which is already a severe issue in the U.S.”  

By: John M. Burt 

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