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Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Mayo Clinic unite against online vaccine 'infodemic'

Minnesota senator and doctors say the spread of false stories has driven vaccine hesitancy, prompting a warning letter to tech and social media CEOs.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks during a press conference to highlight her recent letter to tech industry leaders around vaccine disinformation on Wednesday, February 17, 2021, at Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
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ROCHESTER, Minn. — Citing the false information that led to an attack on the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Amy Klobuchar appeared alongside Mayo Clinic vaccination program co-director Dr. Melanie Swift and infectious disease specialist Dr. Andrew Badley on Wednesday, Feb. 17, to sound the alarm about online misinformation concerning the vaccines administered for COVID-19.

"We know it's been tough for everyone waiting to get one,” Klobuchar said. "That being said, as more and more of these vaccines become available one of the things we are realizing is that people are seeing misinformation online … People are reading things online and they are believing them and it's not true, it's really that simple."

A member of the Senate commerce committee, Klobuchar in late January co-signed a letter to the heads of Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter urging them to better identify and counter false information being spread on their platforms about the vaccines.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, reports have found that your companies have struggled with limiting coronavirus and vaccine-related misinformation and disinformation in the United States," read the letter, co-signed by two other senators. "The result has been tens of millions of Americans seeing harmful misinformation, including conspiracy theories."

Since that letter, Klobuchar said, millions of posts have been removed and the tech CEOs "then committed to redouble their efforts to take down these tweets or to put a warning sign on posts that are ambiguous." She argued that any charges of censorship in the face of holding social media companies to a truth standard are false.

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"At some point these companies have some responsibility here," she said. "They have made a lot of money off of us and our data … It's not censorship, they're businesses and they have to protect us from bad information. Your TV station cannot allow fake information. The newspapers have rules that govern them. They can't pretend it's anything goes … We have seen what happens with false information about elections. You can just look at the broken windows and glass at the Capitol."

Klobuchar said that the World Health Organization has termed the problem as an "infodemic," and urged Minnesotans to see the spread of vaccine misinformation as an attack. "People are actively trying to get people to not take the vaccine. Other people are just passing misinformation along because they think it's cool to do, or they actually believe what they're reading."

Klobuchar has also introduced a COVID-19 Misinformation and Disinformation Task Force Act that would enable the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the government analysis of false vaccine information online.

"I believe Minnesotans deserve fair and accurate information about vaccine," she said. "We've had a rash of diseases in certain communities because they've had bad information. Some of this in the past has been tracked to foreign governments. Some has been tracked to people who were just trying to make trouble out there."

Swift, from the Mayo Clinic, agreed.

"We're here to promote vaccination because we know that widespread immunity is our best way to end the pandemic," Swift said. The physician added that more than 95% of Mayo doctors have now received the vaccine. "They believe in this vaccine, as do our nurses and other health care staff."

"There is another reason people are hesitant to get the vaccine, and that is the speed at which they were approved," Badley added. He cited sped-up funding and regulatory approval, as well as faster time to enrollment as part of the reason why the vaccines were developed so quickly without taking safety shortcuts.

"People were willing, ready and eager to sign up for these vaccine trials," he said. "The parts that were not sped up were the rigor of the study design. In fact these were some of the largest clinical trials that have been done. There were 40,000 patients in some of these trials."

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What should a person do who sees vaccine disinformation online?

"You should report false stuff," Klobuchar said. "That allows the social media companies to take them down. Take control of the problem … There's a lot of bad people out there that want to screw you out of the right information. They are trying to mess with you and they are trying to mess with our country. Don't let them do it to you.

"If every night people go home and see lies on the internet, they start believing it. Believe me, I know that because I was just in the middle of it when a bunch of people believed a bunch of stuff they saw online and invaded the Capitol."

Paul John Scott is the health correspondent for NewsMD and the Forum News Service. He is a novelist and was an award winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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