Countering anti-vaccination influences from social media—with conversation

The flu vaccine is considered one of the great achievements in public health, and each year it prevents millions of people from getting sick and thousands of deaths. Even so, social media messages abound with skepticism and falsehoods about vaccination.

small child receiving a vaccine shot in the upper arm.

What effect, if any, do these social media messages have on actual vaccination behavior?

new study on this underexplored subject, using big data and survey results from the 2018-19 flu season, finds strong associations between regional social media messages and vaccination attitudes and behavior. But when there are negative associations between social media content and vaccination, real-life discussions with family and friends appear to eliminate them.

The study, published online in the journal Vaccine, analyzes 115,330 geolocated tweets about the flu and vaccination along with data from a survey of 3,005 U.S. adults conducted from September 2018 to May 2019. The research was done by Man-pui Sally Chan and Dolores Albarracín of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC).

“What we find is that some online discussions appear to have a negative influence on people’s attitudes and vaccine behavior—which makes the people exposed to them less likely to get a flu shot,” says Albarracín, who is also an APPC distinguished research fellow. “That’s the case if they do not have real-world discussions about vaccination with family and friends. But if they discuss it with others, that effect goes away.”

In analyzing the roughly 100,000 tweets, the researchers used unsupervised machine learning to identify 10 topics among flu- and vaccine-related tweets. They found that two of the 10 Twitter topics, which they named “Vaccine Science Matters” and “Vaccine Fraud and Children,” were prospectively associated with attitudes and behaviors – that is, they anticipated the views and behaviors reported by survey respondents.

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.