SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- A lot of people are believing some dead-wrong claims about vaccines, especially misinformation they find on social media, according to new research.

About 20 percent of nearly 2,500 Americans who responded in a nationally representative survey were at least somewhat misinformed about vaccinations, researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center found.

Particularly disturbing was how many people surveyed believed inaccurate and thoroughly disproven claims about vaccines often spread by the anti-vaccination community, researchers said, calling the findings "worrisome."

The study results illuminated the four most believed untruths about vaccinations:

  • Shot scheduling: 20% inaccurately say it is very or somewhat accurate to say it makes no difference whether parents choose to follow the official vaccine schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
  • "Natural immunity" falsehood: 19% incorrectly state it is very or somewhat accurate to say it's better to develop immunity by getting the disease than by vaccination;
  • Debunked autism link: 18% mistakenly stated that it is very or somewhat accurate to say vaccines cause autism;
  • Toxin misinformation: 15% wrongly stated it is very or somewhat accurate to say vaccines are full of toxins.
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While a large majority of those surveyed didn't believe the common misinformation about vaccines, the high number of those who did is a concern, researchers said. The large number of people who did believe inaccurate information illustrates how resilient bad information is, a real problem because lowering overall vaccine-driven community immunity can open an opportunity for disease.

Researchers noted that those who reported low trust in medical authorities were often the same who believe misinformation about vaccines, regardless of what demographic group they fell under or the nature of their political beliefs.

When it comes to vaccination information, consider the source. The researchers surveyed participants over two different two-week periods, in spring and fall 2019, and found that their change in understanding about vaccines coincided with where they got the information.

“People who received their information from traditional media were less likely to endorse common anti-vaccination claims,” said lead author Dominik Stecula, a postdoctoral fellow in the science of science communication program at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Stecula co-authored the study with Ozan Kuru, another APPC postdoctoral fellow, and APPC Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

For example, if a study participant learned more about measles and the MMR vaccine from social media, they were likely to be increasingly misinformed about vaccines. But those who learned about the disease and vaccine from traditional media sources were more likely to be more accurately informed.

"This result underscores the value of efforts to educate the public through traditional sources and minimize exposure to vaccine misinformation on social media," the researchers said in their report.

The study, "How trust in experts and media use affect acceptance of common anti-vaccination claims," was published last month in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.