The Danger of Vaccine Misinformation on Pregnancy Apps
Misinformation on social media has become a serious problem in recent years, especially given the danger of COVID-19 misinformation to people’s health and safety. Research by the Harvard Kennedy School found that while Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter all have independent COVID-19 misinformation policies, other highly-used social media platforms, including Twitch, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Tumblr, did not prohibit COVID-19 misinformation. When it comes to possible sources of vaccine (mis)information, the general public tends to think of the news, social media, or political campaigns. However, misinformation plagues other sources of information, an important one being pregnancy apps.
What to Expect (one of the best-known pregnancy and parenting guides)’s Pregnancy & Baby Tracker app hosts a community section, where conversation topics include not vaccinating or delaying vaccination of user’s children as well as concerning references to anti-vax and microchip conspiracies. Glow, an app that helps users track their menstrual cycle, ovulation, and fertility, contains many posts from users discouraging other parents on the app from getting their children vaccinated. It also featured a review of a harmful children’s book “Vaccine-Free Me: A Trip to the Doctor” and a link to purchase it on Amazon. Similarly, Peanut is an online community connecting women navigating fertility, pregnancy, motherhood, and menopause and was named one of the Best Apps of 2021. Unfortunately, misinformation about the safety of vaccines has circulated in its discussion forums.
While pregnancy apps and websites have policies against health misinformation in place, they have not been properly enforced. Only when conspiracy theories, fear-mongering, and disinformation gained traction in community and discussion sections of these platforms did they invest in better moderation and ban the accounts primarily responsible for disseminating these falsehoods. What to Expect, Glow, and Peanut have millions of active users, so misinformation on these platforms has the potential to harm millions of families.
First-time parents are especially vulnerable to misinformation as they have not had previous experience with pregnancy or parenthood and may be turning to such discussion forums and community spaces to receive advice or have their questions answered. There may be a higher degree of trust between users, who share experiences and similar motivations in joining these communities, than healthcare professionals, who they do not interact with personally. Additionally, misinformation not only affects pregnant people and prospective parents but also their babies.
Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and fertility, pregnancy complications, and maternal health have contributed to low vaccination rates among pregnant people. The CDC estimates only 40% of pregnant people in the U.S. have been vaccinated against COVID-19 despite research showing COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. New research suggests that getting vaccinated against COVID-19 during pregnancy protects not only the parent but also their baby. It is vital that pregnancy apps, a trusted source for many pregnant people, monitor discussion forums for misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and point people to reputable sources of health information.
The issue of misinformation about pregnant, women’s, and people AFAB health extends beyond pregnancy apps. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have encountered myths about COVID vaccines causing sterility, not being able to get vaccinated if you are breastfeeding or pregnant, or needing to take a pregnancy test before receiving your vaccine. Social media platforms need to better moderate their comment sections and identity and delete posts and ban users perpetuating misinformation that can affect people’s health and safety. We also need to improve digital literacy and teach people how to recognize misinformation in what they hear, read, or see.
Advice for Expecting Parents
- Consult reputable sources for medical information, such as Mayo Clinic, CDC, NIH, ACOG, and Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Have a healthy level of skepticism if you do read posts or discussions on pregnancy apps and fact-check the information with credible medical sources.
- Read the reviews of pregnancy apps or sites you are considering downloading or joining.
- Always talk to your healthcare provider.
Where to Get Accurate Vaccine Information
- CDC: Vaccines & Immunizations, COVID-19
- Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP): Vaccine Education Center
Pregnancy apps have become a battleground of vaccine misinformation
For generations of parents, Heidi Murkoff's 1984 pregnancy guide "What to Expect When You're Expecting" has been a…
The Internet Is Failing Moms-to-Be
Even as a disinformation researcher, I was surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of manipulation in pregnancy apps…
Disinformation is everywhere - including pregnancy apps
Juana Summers speaks to Wilson Center fellow Nina Jankowicz about disinformation in pregnancy apps. JUANA SUMMERS…