An International Health Crisis: How Disinformation is Fuelling Anti-Vaccination Belief
Should a child be vaccinated against disease? Conventional wisdom would say yes, and yet there’s a growing number of people saying no.
This is a hugely polarising and publicly charged topic, but with reports from Q1 2019 outlining the resurgence of mumps, measles and chickenpox it’s more vital than ever that big-tech companies, new outlets and members of the public settle on a stance. And quickly.
A recent article published on newsweek.com generated over 389,000 social media engagements after it reported on a study carried out by the World Health Organization, which listed vaccine hesitancy as one of its “Top 10 Health Threats for 2019”.
Graph 1: Comparison of total article numbers being generated per month surrounding “anti-vax”, alongside total social media engagements (01/03/18 – 15/03/18; 49,159).
During the first quarter of 2019, posts surrounding the anti-vax movement seemed to have peaked when looking across the year timeframe, with increasing levels of social platform users criticising an individual’s choice not to get vaccinated. Users have blamed the movement on social messaging that disseminated unreliable and non-evidential messages, causing individuals to sway towards vaccine avoidance.
Graph 2: number of social posts surrounding “pro anti-vax” groups (01/03/18 – 15/03/18; 1.8million mentions).
In modern day, it seems almost unfathomable as to why members of the public would not want to get vaccinated. From the outside it seems as though the pros far outweighs any cons, with the manifestation of serious side-effects having seemingly low probability levels. So, the unanswered question is: why do individuals still decide not to get vaccinated, and how are their decisions influenced?
Trust in Vaccination
Across social media, the resurgence in measles, mumps and chickenpox has sparked an online uproar about the importance of vaccines, firing blame towards individuals who have not been vaccinated. Despite the increase in not only infection levels, but also mortality levels, anti-vaxxers still appear to be against the idea of vaccinating their children to protect them from these resurgent threats.
For example, following news of a measles outbreak in the United States it was reported that a mother reached out on an anti-vax Facebook page, asking others for guidance on how to protect her unvaccinated child against the virus. The mother received a backlash, with many stating that vaccination was the obvious answer. So, the question remains: despite the risks of their child contracting these illnesses, why do some individuals continue to avoid vaccination?
Graph 3: comparison of total article numbers being generated per month surrounding “anti-vax”, alongside total social media engagements.
According to social media data, lack of trust in the medical system and government was the most prominent theme that emerged when looking at anti-vax groups. These groups claimed that vaccinations were either a ‘hoax’ or a method to generate money from the public through scare-tactics. Others claimed that they avoided vaccination due to the perception that they contained harmful or toxic chemicals, with mercury being a particular substance of focus. Users stated that they had evidence to support their opinion to not vaccinate their children, giving reference to specific reports, articles, profiles and ingredient lists to justify their stance:
Furthermore, despite users consistently looking to debunk anti-vax beliefs with multiple articles that published study results which reveal no correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism development, online users have still expressed doubt or fear as to whether vaccines can cause impairments or illness in their children.
The role of fear is evident as studies have found shocking statistics, with one study conducted by Orlando Health finding that more than half of U.S. parents believe that their child can contract flu from the flu shot. Similarly, the effect of fear can be observed on platforms such as on mum forums, where some comments suggest that the distress of having their child potentially developing autism or being exposed to possible side-effects overrides their decision to vaccinate their child.
Graph 4: number of forum posts surrounding why parents have decided not to get their child vaccinated (domains used: Mums Net, Net Mums, Made for Mums, Emma’s Diary, Baby Centre).
The Influence of Big-Tech
News of big-tech companies’ efforts to restrict the spread of vaccine misinformation drove social media engagements and article numbers during the first quarter of 2019. With Facebook claiming that they would limit exposure to vaccine controversies on both Facebook and Instagram, YouTube demonetising anti-vax channels, Pinterest eliminating vaccine conversation entirely from its search availability and Amazon removing two books from its sales list, the conversation surrounding the role of big-tech companies in anti-vax message dissemination has boomed.
The power of social media as a tool to spread messaging is of no surprise, not least because the number of global social media users has risen year-on-year and a single post therefore has a greater potential to reach a wider audience than ever before.
Graph 5: number of social media users from 2010-2019 (source: statista.com.
Further to this, an article published on theatlantic.com revealed that just seven Facebook pages had generated 20% of the top performing 10,000 anti-vax posts. These pages provide ‘in-depth’ information about how vaccinations can have a detrimental effect on an individual’s body, as well as claiming how scientifically-proven natural alternatives can actually outperform some vaccines. As mentioned previously, users have been shown to believe in the anti-vax movement despite articles and studies that discredit the idea that vaccines contribute to the development of flu and autism. However, doctors have been shown to administrate some of the most engaged with anti-vax Facebook pages, potentially enhancing the movement’s perceptual validity.
Message Dissemination from Popular Sites
Individuals have also been shown to turn towards blog posts advising aversion to vaccination, often generating high levels of engagement on social media, causing further spread of the message. Such blog posts also shed light on why an individual might decide against their child’s vaccination, including:
- Toxic ingredients and heavy metals
- Lack of trust in scientists or medical system
- Vaccinated children are allegedly “unhealthy”
- Books by medical doctors advising against vaccination
- The child can get sick even if they are vaccinated
Comments on these types of blog posts have reflected large numbers of users who reciprocate these messages. Furthermore, the theme of occupation also seems to be a reoccurring focus in comments that look to justify their actions, particularly studies or books released by an individual with a medical profession.
Whilst at first glance it seemed as though anti-vax individuals were merely fuelled by “false beliefs”, social data has shown that these individuals may have been impacted by the spread of messaging that claims to have scientific evidence. With posts exposing users to articles, studies and books that have been published by popular sites or those in the medical profession, it is understandable as to why one would choose to believe a movement that otherwise seemed unjustified. Fear is known to be a biological defence mechanism that cannot be overridden with scientific information alone, therefore suggesting that the dissemination of anti-vax will continue to spread despite social media’s attempts to stall the movement’s level of progression.