Memes can be fun ways to comment on current events or pop culture. They also build a sense of community on social media. Unfortunately, memes have also become a sneaky way to spread misinformation.
This viral meme was shared on Facebook, stating that COVID-19 cases are much higher now than before there was a vaccine. To some, it could sound like the vaccine is causing this high number of cases. Here’s how we fact-checked it.
How memes spread misinformation
According to this piece from The Washington Post, memes have been used by extremist organizations to recruit and radicalize young people. But why are memes so good at quickly spreading misinformation? For one, they are really fast and easy to make. Memes are also recognizable, making it easy for people to feel in on the joke and want to share. They can appeal to a lot of different ages, and they have the potential to go super viral.
But for something to be funny, it can sometimes mean leaving out important context. Think back to the last time you saw a meme cite sources or include evidence. Probably never? So when memes take a really complex, layered topic and boil it down to 15 words or less plus a punchline, know that there is simply no way you have all the information.
Look at who’s behind the information
This meme was shared by a Facebook account called the Free Thought Project 4.0.
According to their about page, the Free Thought Project is a “hub for free-thinking conversations about the promotion of liberty and the daunting task of government accountability.” The about page included a link to their website, which featured several articles against vaccine mandates.
When it comes to news websites that you aren’t familiar with, check if they have editorial standards. You want to make sure you get your news from sources that have policies when it comes to things like their independence, accuracy and transparency. We couldn’t find any editorial standards on the website.
Try a keyword search
This meme was published on Jan. 19, 2022. So let’s start off by looking at the COVID-19 cases for that day. Googling “US COVID cases January 2022” brought up this tracker from The New York Times, and on Jan. 19, 2022, there were 851,948 new cases in the United States.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, the Pfizer vaccine was made available to individuals over the age of 16 on Dec. 11, 2020. Looking at the same COVID-19 tracker for the day before — Dec. 10, 2020 — there were 225,225 new cases.
It’s true that there are more cases now than there were before we had a vaccine available. That is a fact. However, it’s important to remember that correlation doesn’t equal causation. There are a lot of factors at play here.
Just because there are more COVID-19 cases now despite us having a vaccine, that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused an increase of cases, as many have claimed online. This is a good reminder: Numbers without context can be very deceiving. The best way to get context is to read what other sources are saying. Turning back to Google, and using a keyword search with the words “can the COVID vaccine give you the virus” brought up this Myths and Facts page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a great source when you’re looking for medical information.
According to the CDC, none of the COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. contains the live COVID-19 virus. So you can’t get sick with COVID-19 from getting a vaccine. The CDC also states that the vaccines don’t cause new variants, either.
Tweaking our keywords a little and opening up a bunch of tabs, we also found a bunch of fact checks that debunked the claim that the vaccines are to blame for the spike in cases. The real culprit? The omicron variant. USA Today debunked the idea that vaccinated people are more likely to get this new variant than the unvaccinated. Instead, they wrote, according to experts and public health data, the opposite is true.
And Reuters fact-checked this same meme. They reported that the meme is misleading and lacks context. While it’s true that the cases are higher now than before there was a vaccine, this is, again, because of the omicron variant, not vaccines.
We’ll label this meme as NEEDS CONTEXT. Parts of the meme are true — like the fact that we are seeing more COVID-19 cases now than in 2020, but this meme could lead people to believe that it’s the vaccines causing this to happen, which experts have repeatedly said is not the case.