Prof. finds social media linked to decline in vaccination

December 4, 2020

Disinformation campaigns launched on social media platforms have been linked to a decline in vaccination, Professor Steven Wilson (POL) found in a study that looked at social media and vaccine hesitancy. 

Previous studies have shown that the most prominent vaccine content on social media is anti-vaccination messages, according to the study. There have also been campaigns linked to Russian pseudo-state actors which spread anti-vaccination messages on social media

Researchers looked across different countries around the globe to understand the impacts of social media on vaccine hesitancy, according to the study. The study examined social media in two dimensions: usage of social media platforms as a means of organizing action and the level of negativity surrounding vaccines on social media platforms, according to the study. To measure their findings, the researchers polled the sample population and questioned their hesitancy towards vaccines and whether they thought vaccinating was unsafe. Researchers also compared data from the World Health Organization (WHO) to determine the vaccination rates across 166 countries.

The study found that social media’s influence on an individual’s offline actions is largely related to anti-vaccination sentiment, that vaccinations are unsafe, according to the study. Researchers also found that foreign disinformation campaigns have led to a drop in mean vaccination coverage and negative discussion of vaccines on social media platforms, according to the study. The results found a 15 percent increase in negative tweets regarding vaccines.   

“These findings suggest that combating disinformation and misinformation regarding vaccines online is critical to reversing the growth in vaccine hesitancy around the world,” the study explains.

The study noted the significance that policy makers should combat anti-vaccination campaigns on social media before releasing the vaccine for the coronavirus since social media could increase the public’s hesitancy to get vaccinated.

To get their results, researchers looked at five dimensions to understand public hesitancy: access, awareness, affordability, acceptance and activation. Misinformation which was spread on social media was linked to the public’s hesitance on whether a vaccine is safe or not, thus targeting their acceptance of vaccines, according to the study. 

Foreign disinformation campaigns sway the public’s activation of vaccines since it persuades them to not receive their vaccinations. The variables relating to access, awareness and affordability were previously focused on in previous studies so they were not the main focus in this study. 

Researchers looked at people’s tweets and were able to measure the sample population’s  location using GPS technology and contextual regional clues; whether they were talking about vaccinations by looking at the key words ‘vaccine,’ vaccination’ and ‘vaxx,’ and sentiment of the tweet by using a sentiment lexicon which labels words as positive, negative or neutral.  Researchers also measured how likely a person would be to use social media to organize offline action, according to the study. They measured this with a five-point Likert scale which participants could select never to almost never to regularly. 

The study noted that historically, public health trends exhibit that wealthy, developed democratic countries are more likely to have better health outcomes in relativity to less developed countries. However, more modern trends show that anti-vaccination sentiment is heavily concentrated in the wealthier, more developed democracies, according to the study. This reversal of trends can be contributed in part to the influence of social media, because while social media provides a new network of communication, it also allows for opinions which negatively impact public health.

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