Social media disinformation campaigns are linked to falling vaccination rates, a study published in the online British Medical Journal for Global Health reveals.
By Nabeela Khan
In the year 2019, the World Health Organisation listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top threats to global health. While vaccine hesitancy is not a new phenomenon but the spread of anti-vaccination messaging on social media is growing rapidly.
To analyse the impact of social media use and foreign disinformation campaigns on vaccine hesitancy around the world, a research paper published in the British Journal of Medical Research (BMJ) analysed two different dimensions of social media activity for up to 190 countries. They primarily looked at the public use of Twitter to organise action/resistance; and the number of tweets expressing negative sentiments about vaccines.
Researchers examined overall Twitter use per country (almost 190 countries) from 2018 to 2019 in a global database of geocoded tweets and then mined data on 258,769 tweets related to vaccinations. They also studied public attitudes about vaccine safety and vaccination rates for 10 common vaccine doses between 2008 and 2018 and measured the sentiment of tweets using the Polyglot Python Library.
It assessed the aggressiveness of foreign vaccine disinformation campaigns on a 5-point scale with higher scores indicating more intense efforts. Analysis of all the data revealed that the prevalence of foreign disinformation activity was “highly statistically and substantively significant” in predicting a drop in average vaccination rates.
Researchers said, “the use of social media to organise offline action is highly associated with an increase in public belief in vaccines being unsafe”.
The study highlights that social media disinformation campaigns planned to show distrust on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines are contributing to vaccine hesitancy and there is a substantial relationship between foreign disinformation with negative social media activity about vaccination. But the study cannot specify the particulars of foreign disinformation campaigns or the prevalence of anti-vaccination propaganda. It highlights, “foreign disinformation campaigns are robustly associated with declines in mean vaccination rates.”
The researchers add that “these findings are especially salient in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, given that the vaccines under development will require deployment globally to billions of people in the next year.”
“Policymakers need to begin planning now for ways to work against the patterns found in this study” according to the research.
It further concludes that governments must mandate that social media companies are responsible for taking down anti-vaccination content and foreign disinformation campaigns should be addressed at their source.