A number of leaflets about COVID-19 vaccines and their safety have been circulating in Northern Ireland.
FactCheckNI has previously fact checked many of these claims. What is notable is how these leaflets are designed to communicate a lot of information, and more often than not are attributed to a specific group that may not previously have been well known (or indeed, known at all).
If you see a leaflet, how might you approach its content?
Headlines are constructed to get your attention but it’s important to look beyond the headline to get the whole story. The authors may have a specific agenda. A headline can seem accurate yet turn out to be misleading, as vital information and context is missing. It’s important to consider what’s behind the headline and ask whether an over-simplified story is disguising a more complex issue.
Leaflets tend to have multiple claims, which can overwhelm the reader. Bombarding readers with “information” is a way to engender confusion, making people doubt evidence that they may have previously believed to be accurate.
Is the language emotive and imprecise — just broad enough to potentially be true? The use of non-specific language can also make it more difficult to assess whether the claims being made are accurate or not.
FactCheckNI has spotted two approaches to imagery in the leaflets it has seen:
- Emotive images, such as those of children and/or women
The authors of leaflets are attempting to appeal to certain audiences (in this case, women) and appeal to concerns for themselves (e.g. disinformation regarding fertility and vaccines) and the safety of their children (a well known trope of the anti-vaxx movement when raising concerns about childhood vaccinations).
- Selective use of graphs/data
The “what’s missing” test is particularly important in cases where graphs and data are promoted in isolation without consideration of more comprehensive evidence and context.
The beliefs and behaviours of people who produce or share these types of leaflets won’t necessarily be changed by raw facts and data. However, what is important is how this information is treated once it’s put through a letterbox or appears on your car windscreen. Fear underpins the willingness to believe this kind of information — a very normal response to difficult issues. COVID-19 has presented us all with huge challenges — from limiting our social contacts and opportunities, causing health scares with loved ones, on top of the economic and financial fall out — and there have been huge changes in how we live our lives.
However, three central — and crucially, non-threatening — questions can help us decipher fact from fiction when reading this type of content.
Where’s it from?
If you see a post on Facebook, a tweet by an account you don’t recognise, or have a WhatsApp message beginning with “my friend says…”, take a moment. Check who the author is. Question the source. Does the “friend” have a name? Ask yourself why someone has shared the information? A simple check — perhaps a quick reverse image search — on where something is from can often reveal inconsistencies in the story, or indeed reveal a particular intention or agenda for that piece of (mis)information.
At FactCheckNI, we alway emphasise the power of “the extra click” — as it can help spot false information. Open another browser tab. Read around a story or piece of information, and make sure you have the whole story. False information and rumours are often crafted in such a way to provide an incomplete picture of a particular situation or issue, and serve a particular narrative. Ask yourself: what are other people saying? Is there more to it?
How does it make you feel?
This third question is potentially the most important. People who create false information or rumours are often trying to manipulate your feelings. They know that if you’re angry or upset you’re more likely to share it, or act on it. In periods of uncertainty (such as with regard to civil protests), false information and rumours thrive on the oxygen of fear. If it’s winding you up, or upsetting you, take some time to check the information.
And always THINK. CHECK. SHARE.
FactCheckNI is Northern Ireland’s first and only dedicated independent fact-checking service and a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can learn more about about FactCheckNI, our personnel, what our article verdicts mean, and how to submit a claim.