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New Analysis Of Social Media Illuminates Anti-Vaccine Fears

John Amis
Teenager Lauren Fant receives an HPV vaccination injection in Marietta, Georgia on December 18, 2007.

New analysis from the University of Pittsburgh finds patterns among the social media activity of people holding anti-vaccination beliefs. 

The analysis draws on the experience of a local pediatric practice which, in 2017, was inundated with negative social media after posting a video discussing the benefits of the HPV vaccine.

“I worked eight consecutive 18-hour days singled handedly fighting off this attack, which was occurring…literally around the clock,” said Chad Hermann, the communications director at Kids Plus Pediatrics. He said the negative attention came at least 36 states and eight countries. “There was always someone awake attacking our page.”

Once Hermann was able to take a break from blocking trolls and deleting comments, he and Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus, decided to collaborate with Pitt researchers. The goal was to understand what motivates people with anti-vaccine beliefs.

People with anti-vaccination beliefs are “not a monolithic group” said lead author Beth Hoffman. “I think we see a lot in the media about this concern about autism, and we saw so much more than that.”

The subsequent analysis of this social media activity found that anti-vaccine fears cluster into four distinct categories: concerns about vaccine safety, distrust of scientific research, beliefs that homeopathic or alternative remedies are healthier, and conspiracies surrounding vaccinations.

Hoffman said this information might help tailor public health outreach to address specific concerns and combat misinformation.

“For example, in the [homeopathic] alternatives group, these people were very concerned about chemicals and wanting things to be natural,” she said. “So, a message that vaccines are a way to boost our bodies’ natural immune systems is likely to resonate with them more than, a sort of blanket, ‘vaccines are safe and effective.’”

Another interesting finding was that individuals who were suspicious of vaccines were also concerned about health issues like drinking water fluoridation.

The study’s senior author, Brian Primack, who directs Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, said Hoffman was able to uncover these patterns with a technique called “social network analysis."

“[Hoffman] actually put everyone’s information, not just about what they said, but also about the other things on their pages that they are interested in, and that they like, as well as all of their contacts with each other, the structure of their different networks," he said.

Todd Wolynn of Kids Plus said he’s not terribly surprised by the study’s findings, due to his personal experience with the anti-vaccination community. But Wolynn, who sits on the advisory board for HPV vaccine-maker Merck, said he’s glad his clinic’s social media imbroglio has provided an opportunity for research.  

“It just helps build the body of science behind what’s going on out there,” he said. “At the heart of it, we’re here to keep kids healthy.”

The study was published in the journal “Vaccine.”

WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.