Feb. 3, 2021 -- As health care providers work against the clock to administer as many COVID-19 vaccine doses as soon as possible, logistics aren’t the only thing standing in their way.

Misinformation -- which has hampered the nation’s coronavirus response -- is now hurting vaccination efforts, too.

Module: video
Combating Vaccine MisinformationJohn Whyte, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer, WebMD, speaks with Steven Brill, Award-Winning Author and Journalist, and Co-CEO, NewsGuard, about combating vaccine misinformation. 1085


JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone.

Thanks for joining.

I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief

Medical Officer,

and you're watching Coronavirus

in Context.

There's a lot of misinformation

out there, especially, when it

comes to your health.

How do you know what to believe?

To provide some insights

and even give you some tools,

I've asked Steven Brill.

He's an award winning author,

journalist, and co-CEO

of NewsGuard.

Mr. Brill, thanks for joining


STEVEN BRILL: Happy to be

with you.

Thanks for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: Tell our audience

first about NewsGuard.

Why did you feel there was

a need to create it?

And what does it do?

STEVEN BRILL: Well, here's

the need to create it

a nutshell.

If you think about how we

consume media

before the internet,

just think about a library.

You go into a library,

books are neatly arranged

on shelves according to subject


You take a book or magazine

off the shelf and you can read

the book jacket

and it tells you, there's

something about the author,

tells you who the publisher is.

You can get a sense

of whether you want to read that

and the credentials of what

you're going to be reading.

Now, imagine you walked

into a library

and instead, there were

$2 billion pieces of paper

just flying around in the air.

You grab one out of the air,

you start to read it.

You don't know who's financing

it, you don't know what

their credentials are,

you have no idea what

their agenda is

and worst of all,

there's no librarian there

to tell you something about all

that, the way there

is in a library.

That's the internet, that's

your Facebook feed, that's

your Twitter feed, that's

your Google search, that's

your Bing search.

That's everything

on the internet, everything--

JOHN WHYTE: But Steven,

sometimes in some ways people

might be thinking,

and this is why I think there's

analogy, it's in the library.

So even though there's billions

of pieces of paper around,

it's in the library,

it must be OK.



STEVEN BRILL: Well, a library

is a library.

JOHN WHYTE: --internet, it's OK.

STEVEN BRILL: People who care

about content.

Facebook is not a library

and the people running Facebook

are not librarians.

They don't much care apparently

about the reliability of what

they're serving up.

And in fact, they don't even--

their claim is they don't even

serve it up to you,

it's everybody else.

It's a platform.

So anybody can be a publisher.

Now, the good thing

about the internet

is that anybody can be

a publisher, which makes it much

more democratic.

The bad thing about the internet

is that anybody can be

a publisher.

Now, when you take

all those issues

of unreliability

and trustworthiness

and understanding who's feeding

you the news and combine that

with the subject of health care,

all those dangers multiply.

Because first of all,

good information about health

care is really important.

It's much more important

that you get good information

about the quality of a treatment

than it is, let's say,

then that you get

good information

about whether you should go

watch a movie or not.

It's really important.

It's fraught with all kinds

of emotional issues.

If you're sick, you're scared.

And let's say, a doctor tells

you you have some kind

of a disease, the first thing

you do

is, you Google the disease.

That's what everybody does.

Now, luckily if you Google

and WebMD comes up, which has

a big green rating

from NewsGuard

because, according to our nine

criteria, WebMD is reliable.

It is something you can count


But the next site that might pop

up in a Google search

might be something called


And cancer.news looks exactly

like cancer.org.

Cancer.org is the site

of the American--

JOHN WHYTE: Cancer Society--

STEVEN BRILL: Cancer Society.

Cancer.news is a hoax health

care site that will tell you

that if you can get

some apricot pits,

you can cancel your appointment

with your own colleges

because the apricot pits are

going to cure your cancer.

And trust me, they have more

engagement online than the Mayo

Clinic or cancer.org.

So what we've decided to do

at NewsGuard

is we've created a whole subset

of product called

healthguard.com which

is targeted at all the health

sites out there.

Anything online that in any way

covers health care,

provides advice about health


whether it's

about the COVID vaccine

or cancer or good diets.

And the way we do it is, we have

a browser extension

that the beginning in January


can download for free at the end

of January.

They can download HealthGuard

for free.

And if they have that browser

extension, when they go

to Facebook or Google

or Twitter, they will be

able to see

our little green or red icons.

And when you hover over one

of our green icons, it will tell

you why this is green according

to our nine criteria,

their basic journalistic


Or if you hover over it

and it's red, it will tell you

why it's red, why it's


And we run through all

the criteria.

If you want even--

JOHN WHYTE: Let's go over.

I want to go over

these criteria.

Let's start off with,

you break it down, the scoring

first in terms of credibility.

So let's go over when we want

to assess credibility.

What do we look for?

You start off with, does not

repeatedly publish

false content.

But that can be a challenge,

because how do you know?

But your rating is in terms of.


the first thing we know

is when it comes to health care,

we don't know.

So we consult experts.

We will cite sources,

whether it's the American Cancer

Society, the CDC, the FDA,

the Mayo Clinic.

So we will read a website

and let's say the website says,

literally says,

I'm not making this up,

that apricot pits cure cancer.

You can search and you will find

that myth is out there enough

that the American Cancer Society

or Sloan Kettering or M.D.


may have actually posted

something on their website

to knock that myth down.

And that's what we will cite.

It's not my opinion

about whether fruit pits cure


JOHN WHYTE: That's why I assume

based on experts.

STEVEN BRILL: It's an expert.

So everything we do

is done by humans.

There are no algorithms here.

We have hired dozens

of journalists

to read all these sites

and to do the research

and it's done according to nine


Now, the first one as you

mentioned was repeatedly

publishing false news.

There were other criteria

such as disclosure

of the ownership of the site.

Let's say you come to a site

because you're worried about

whether you can get melanoma

or not, and if the site that

pops up

recommends a certain drug

or a certain screening material,

you'd probably want to know

if that site is owned by whoever

happens to be selling

that product as opposed

to whether the site is WebMD,

which doesn't own any drug


JOHN WHYTE: So the criteria

are-- we will put them

on the screen for people

to see as well-- it does not

repeatedly publish

false content,

it gathers and presents

information responsibly,

it regularly corrects

or clarifies errors, handles

the difference between news

and opinion

responsibly, avoids

deceptive headlines.

That's just on the credibility


Steven, it would seem like you

need to hire an army, just

on little credibility

and we haven't even gotten

to transparency.

STEVEN BRILL: We have been

able to rate in the countries

where we operate

including, obviously, the United

States, all the news

and information sites

responsible for 95%

of all engagement online.

The key to this

is, we rate

the overall reliability

of the site, its standards,

its processes and its standards.

That doesn't mean that the New

York Times or WebMD or the Mayo

Clinic site

might not make a mistake,

it just means that they'll

correct their mistakes,

it means that overall you can

rely on them more than you can

rely on cancer.news.

That's a key ingredient

in the overall processes

and integrity of the publisher

and that's how we achieve scale.

And by the way,

we do this

in a journalistic way.

If we're going to criticize

any site

and give any site even one

red mark for just

one of the nine criteria,

they're still going to get

an overall green

but we call for comment.

Journalists call for comment,

algorithm's don't call

for comment.

So everything about our process

is totally transparent

and it's completely accountable.

If someone complains

about a mistake we've made,

we investigate it.

If we'd made a mistake,

we correct it.


On the transparency side,

and you've discussed some

of this, the website discloses

ownership and financing,

it clearly labels advertising,

it reveals who's in charge,

including possible conflicts

of interest and the site

provides names of content



with either content or

biographical information.

Are those things also

that consumers should look for,

as well?

STEVEN BRILL: Yeah, absolutely.

I mean, every one of our nine

criteria, it's basically,

the nine criteria have to do

with what's on the website.

So it's in essence a roadmap

for a consumers, even if they're

not using our browser extension,

which I hope they will,

they can look for those nine

criteria themselves.

For example, if you're reading

something on a health care site

that's giving you health care

advice, you should want to know

who's giving you the advice.

Is this person a cancer expert

or is this person an intern?

And I mean a journalism intern

not even a medical intern.

JOHN WHYTE: Why do you think

people are so easily misled when

it comes to their health?

And people know when they read

stock tips online or they read

information about finances.

You need to double check


you need to do

your own research,

you need to look around.

Nobody goes online and then

tries to fix their own breaks

in their car, but when it comes

to health,

somebody has a website

or a blog, all of a sudden

they're like, Oh I should try


When it's your body.

So where is the disconnect


STEVEN BRILL: Well, they are


First of all, I'll disagree

with you a little bit.

There are a whole bunch


fraudulent in the personal

finance side so--

JOHN WHYTE: Well, we do know


I just-- I'll look

at their requests of

give me your routing number

because I have got to give you

$10 million.


STEVEN BRILL: Your point is well


You would never think to fix

your breaks by yourself

or to change the plumbing

in your house by yourself.

But let's look at what happens

when you're in a health care


One of the temptations

is that you want to find

an easier, better alternative

than the doctor has suggested.

So just to give you

a personal example, four years

ago, I was told

during a routine checkup

that I had an aortic aneurysm,

which is really bad stuff.

You have no symptoms.

If it burst you just die but you

have no symptoms.

And I was working out every day,

I was healthy.

And my doctor said, "You need

to have open heart surgery."

So I took it very seriously,

he's a great doctor

but I still went home that night

and started googling around

to see well, maybe there's

an easier way to deal with this.

And luckily I didn't succumb to,

there were some articles that

said if your doctor says you

have an aortic aneurysm,

you need open heart surgery,

here's something else you can


But a lot of people are scared,

they're not informed and they're

clutching at straws.

In the case of vaccines,

in the COVID vaccine, there's

traditionally, a lot

of skepticism about vaccines.

That has really ramped up

in the last few years

based on campaigns

about the measles vaccine,

the MMR vaccine, and now you

have the COVID vaccine, which

by everybody's understanding

has been, quote, "rushed,"


But there may be less

understanding that of the nature

of what rushed in this case

really means.

It's still gone

through the clinical trials it

needs to go through et cetera,

et cetera.

So there's that sort

of anti-vax fear in the air.

Then there's all the politics

associated with COVID, where

a certain percentage

of the population

has been persuaded that not even

COVID is real.

So if that's not real,

why should you take a vaccine

for it?

But we are finding that a third

or more

of people in this country

and around the world

are saying they won't take

the vaccine.

And the place where it's really

been driven home is the reports

you and I have been reading

lately that even non-MD health

care workers are

hesitant at the vaccine,

like a third of them.

My wife got her first vaccine

yesterday morning,

and the nurse who was giving her

the vaccine, they were chatting

and my wife said, "Well,

you must have had the vaccine.

How was it?"

And he said, "No.

I haven't taken the vaccine."

And she said, "Why not?"

"Well, I don't know.

You know I want to see what


I want to wait."

That's a nurse in a highly

regarded hospital giving

the vaccine.

If you came into that vaccine

room as my wife did

and if you were at all

hesitant about the vaccine

and the first thing the nurse is

about to give it to you

tells you is, well, I don't want

to take it.

Just think about that.

JOHN WHYTE: What made you decide

to co-create NewsGuard?

Was there a particular event

or was it just a point in time

you were like, enough is enough?

STEVEN BRILL: It's a combination

of things.

And all the businesses I've


have been journalistically

oriented except for one.

And it was really, in this case,

geared toward how do you restore

belief in legitimate journalism

and everything

that goes with that, everything


so important to our democracy.

In this case, so important

to our health care that goes

along with belief

in legitimate journalism?

And the only way to do that

is to weed out the other stuff.

And that has to that also helps

with advertising.

If advertisers are scared

that nobody believes anything,

then they stop advertising

on news, which many have.

And if instead they have a way

to advertise on news that

is overall reliable,

doesn't mean you agree

with everything on the website,

it means that it's overall these

are people who wake up

in the morning

and they're trying to do

something good.

So it was meant really

to restore faith

in the profession that's been

my life.

JOHN WHYTE: And how's NewsGuard


STEVEN BRILL: Well, we have

different kinds of licensees.

There is a way a consumer can


to either the HealthGuard

browser extension

or the NewsGuard browser


But during this emergency,

we are making the HealthGuard

browser extension

available for free to everyone

in the countries

we serve until the end of June.

Our real business model

is the companies that serve


For example, broadband providers

or Microsoft through its edge

browser licenses NewsGuard

and gives it to all

of its customers.

And on the advertising side,

advertising agencies license

a NewsGuard related product

called BrandGuard and use it

to make sure their clients,

their brands are not advertising

on sites that will embarrass


and are advertising

on legitimate news.

So if you take the view that I

do that there's a market

for people looking for ways

to provide a trust

tool for the internet, then this

looks like a pretty good

business model.

And so far it is.

JOHN WHYTE: Steven, I want

to thank you for taking

your time today for all

that you're doing to help combat

misinformation that there really

is rampant right

now, particularly as it relates

to health.

STEVEN BRILL: Well, thanks

for having me.


John Whyte, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer, WebMD.<br>Steven Brill, Award-Winning Author and Journalist, and Co-CEO, NewsGuard./delivery/aws/d5/6f/d56f0f4b-8805-389d-ac73-a190e2b85c84/Brill_011521_v6_,4500k,2500k,1000k,750k,400k,.mp402/03/2021 12:00:0018001200Brill_011521_1800x1200/webmd/consumer_assets/site_images/article_thumbnails/video/covid19-images/Brill_011521_1800x1200.png091e9c5e820fd348

About 1 in 5 Americans say they won’t take a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor. Even a third of health care workers have voiced their hesitance.

The spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation creates “a really powerful parallel pandemic to the real pandemic,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told NPR. The center has tracked the links between vaccine misinformation and vaccine hesitancy during the past year.

The “infodemic” is essentially “working in concert to really undermine our capacity to contain COVID,” Ahmed said.

To help combat vaccine misinformation and address lingering concerns that people have, corporate, nonprofit, and media leaders, including WebMD and Medscape, are joining a public service campaign called VaxFacts. Led by HealthGuard, the goal of the campaign is to provide facts and tools to help consumers make informed decisions about vaccines.

Steven Brill, co-CEO of HealthGuard, said credible information that comes from trusted messengers is critical to counter vaccine hesitancy.

“There’s traditionally a lot of skepticism about vaccines. That has really ramped up in the last few years based on campaigns about the measles vaccine …. And now you have the COVID vaccine, which by everybody’s understanding has been “rushed,” Brill, said during an interview on Coronavirus in Context, a video series hosted by John Whyte, MD, chief medical officer for WebMD.

“There may be less understanding of the nature of what rushed really means. It’s still gone through the clinical trials it needs to go through.”

HealthGuard is a browser extension that flags health hoaxes, provides credibility ratings for hundreds of websites, and guides users to sources that offer trusted information. The tool is a new service from NewsGuard, which veteran journalists Brill and co-CEO Gordon Crovitz created in 2018 to combat misinformation in the news. HealthGuard, which is free for users globally through June, is specifically aimed at informing readers about health myths related to vaccines and COVID-19. It will cost $35 per year after that.

The HealthGuard Coronavirus Tracking Center has flagged nearly 400 websites for publishing misinformation about the coronavirus, including several top myths about COVID-19 vaccines:

  • The mRNA vaccines can alter human DNA.
  • Vaccines will use microchip surveillance technology.
  • COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility.
  • The vaccine developed by Oxford University will turn people into monkeys.
  • COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted human fetal tissue.

As partners, WebMD and Medscape will feature continuing coverage of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, including articles and videos.

There will be other efforts this year. Google has launched a $3 million fund to back fact-checking organizations to counter vaccine misinformation, and social media platforms are monitoring posts that actively promote disinformation around vaccines.

The U.S. has distributed nearly 50 million vaccine doses, and states have administered more than 32 million of them, including 5.9 million second doses in the two-shot vaccines, according to the latest CDC update.

To reach herd immunity, about 75% to 85% of Americans will need to receive a vaccine, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in December.

Vaccine skepticism has increased in recent years, which has led to a decline in vaccination rates and the highest annual number of measles cases in the U.S. in more than 25 years, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2019, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of 10 threats to global health.

With the COVID-19 vaccines in particular, people have voiced concerns about their safety and how well they work, given their accelerated development, according to Kaiser’s poll. They’re also worried about potential side effects, the perceived role of politics in the development process, and a lack of trust in government. Others don’t trust vaccines in general or believe they may contract COVID-19 from a vaccine, the Kaiser poll found, “suggesting that messages combatting particular types of misinformation may be especially important for increasing vaccine confidence.”

Show Sources

Kaiser Family Foundation: “KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: January 2020.”

Google: “COVID-19 Vaccine Counter-Misinformation Open Fund.”

CDC: “COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States.”

The New York Times: “How Much Herd Immunity Is Enough?”

Pew Research Center: “More Americans now see ‘very high’ preventive health benefits from measles vaccine.”

NPR: “‘The Perfect Storm’: How Vaccine Misinformation Spread To The Mainstream.”

World Health Organization: “Ten threats to global health in 2019.”

Kaiser Family Foundation: "KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: January 2021."

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