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The New Campaign To Remedy COVID-19 Vaccine Doubt Within Black Communities Online

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

These days, there are lots of ad campaigns aimed at promoting vaccines and debunking myths about them. Last week, the Ad Council launched its ad featuring four former presidents, including Barack Obama.

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BARACK OBAMA: It will protect you and those you love from this dangerous and deadly disease.

CHANG: The Biden administration plans to ramp up its own vaccination campaign in the coming weeks. Many of these campaigns aim to reach a Black community hit hard by both COVID-19 and disinformation. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: As far back as nine months ago, pediatrician and health activist Rhea Boyd noticed social media posts citing false information about the safety of vaccines in development.

RHEA BOYD: Before any of the vaccines had reached emergency use authorization, we already saw that disinformation targeting Black communities online.

NOGUCHI: The State Department since blamed Russian intelligence operatives for spreading some of those rumors. But at the time, Boyd says...

BOYD: It wasn't clear where it was coming from, you know? It would just look like a user would sow seeds of doubt. It doesn't look like a campaign for misinformation. It looks like a bunch of users who are sharing their own conversations about what they think about the vaccine and what seems like insider information.

NOGUCHI: Boyd decided to push back with her own campaign. She framed hers, too, as a conversation, one based on questions her family and neighbors were already asking. She says many of the questions people have about vaccines are universal, but many people in communities of color can't get answers because they lack access to medical care. Boyd works with the Kaiser Family Foundation and historically Black colleges. This month, they posted a series of videos, including one featuring comedian Kamau Bell posing questions to Black medical professionals.

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KAMAU BELL: First question - the vaccine happened fast, like super fast, like Usain Bolt headed to the bathroom fast. Is that something we should be concerned about?

JOIA CREAR-PERRY: Having an emergency authorization for these medications was critical, but that doesn't mean any steps were cut.

NOGUCHI: Boyd's campaign is emblematic of many efforts around the country, seeking to reach diverse populations with information about vaccines that is both factual and relatable. Boyd called her campaign The Conversation: Between Us, About Us, referencing, Boyd says, a phrase often used to signify Black-led initiatives - for us, about us.

BOYD: Knowing that Black folks would recognize that, knowing that people would say, oh, this is, like, for us. Like, this is an inside conversation inside the community.

NOGUCHI: She says such intimacy and authenticity are critical for these messages to be heard. Reverend Anthony Evans says the Black church developed its own methods of fighting disinformation. Evans is president of the National Black Church Initiative, a network of 150,000 member churches. It organized in 1991, in the midst of a crisis caused by the crack epidemic. The group offered social services and advocacy to the Black community. Now, Evans says, it also functions like an emergency alert system, relying on volunteers to keep an ear to the ground and track local threats to their community and church.

ANTHONY EVANS: We've got a very sophisticated communication system in the Black community that very few people know and understand, and that's why we can mobilize so quickly.

NOGUCHI: Over the past year, Evans says, the combination of racial unrest, voter suppression and disinformation about the pandemic has kept the alert at its highest level.

EVANS: We raised the code to purple.

NOGUCHI: He says last year, volunteers flagged disinformation campaigns designed to suppress the vote.

EVANS: We was able to filter through that to get a very clear message to African Americans - you have to vote, you have to vote early, and you can vote by mail.

NOGUCHI: Similarly, it's through this network Evans first heard false rumors about the vaccine.

EVANS: I got 150,000 ears in any zip code in America.

NOGUCHI: And Black churches, Evans says, reach 30 million people on a weekly basis. So now he's working with health care workers in those churches to help get this message out.

EVANS: The Black doctors tells us that the vaccine is good for us. The ministers support that, so we want you to get vaccinated. That's a strong message in our community.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "TONE'S RAP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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