Resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases, or VPD’s, has led the World Health Organization to declare vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health. The resurgence of VPD’s in recent times may be directly linked to the rapid sharing of content via social media without oversight by reputable sources. Anti-vaccination messages flood social media platforms and compromise the public’s trust in vaccine development and dissemination. The public widely utilizes the internet and peer networks to research health information and to connect with like-minded individuals. Distinct communities are forged with common interests and it appears that the anti-vax messages are shared and “liked” more than those which are neutral.
In this article, social media is viewed as an immense platform which propagates vaccine hesitancy and the authors explore ways in which social media could be used to instead improve health literacy and re-foster public trust in vaccinations. To investigate current rumors among social media platforms, the authors research anti-vaccination messages on social media platforms, examined the role of these messages in the vaccine hesitancy movement, and explore steps on how to improve health literacy and public trust in vaccine via social media.
Vaccinations have been one of the most important contributions to the prevention of communicable infectious disease, however, public acceptance of vaccine recommendations is crucial in preventing outbreaks and ensuring acceptance of new vaccines in the future. Reluctance to receive vaccines is fueled by misinformation regarding the benefits, medicinal composition, and adverse effects of vaccination that limit understanding among the patient population.
This authors discuss a search of 87 YouTube videos in 2017 which used the keywords “vaccine safety” and “vaccines and children.” Among these, 65% expressed an anti-vaccine sentiment, 5.6% were produced by government officials, and 36.8% presented no scientific or evidence-based research. In addition, the top YouTube searches included the keywords “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” and provided a result of 27.5% of videos that contained non-factual information and had accumulated over 60 million views. The same study analyzed 150 Instagram posts which included the hashtag #HPV and found that anti-vax images had significantly more likes than the other images. An analysis of tweets with the hashtag #vaccine between 2010-2016 and found that anti-vax tweets were 4.13-fold more likely to be re-shared than neutral tweets on the popular platform, Twitter. In addition, non-human accounts, or “bots” are known to pollute online content by amplifying anti-vaccine content and dissemination of COVID-19 misinformation. Content analysis of Twitter showed that there is heavy promotion by “bots” in political conspiracy theories and divisive hashtags in conjunction with COVID-19 content.
Misguided and false medical information has been shared so frequently on social media platforms that the CEO of the American Medical Association, Dr. James Madara, has written a letter to technology companies urging them to fact-check the safety and efficacy of vaccination and healthcare information shared on their platforms.
As we continue to bare the burden of the ongoing pandemic, we begin to consider how the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine will factor into the global control efforts of the novel coronavirus. The authors express worry that misinformation will be magnified as physical distancing and isolation drive more people to rely on social media to connect with others and reduce the publics trust in a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. It is not clear why social media is so successful in promoting vaccine hesitancy when compared to uptake, however, benefit of vaccine and lack of familiarity with consequences may be to blame. Appealing and vivid imagery and narratives are used to evoke emotions in those who may have cognitive impairment, older age, lower health literacy, and less digital experience. Baseline values and biases may also contribute to ease of influence. Younger users are guided by parental decision making regarding vaccinations. It is important that young people are able to discern evidence-based information and misleading or non-supported evidence.
To overcome the problem of social media misinformation and vaccine hesitancy, the authors suggest that healthcare provides improve upon their communication efforts with patients both in person and online. Providers should engage individuals within these social media platforms to spread awareness and utilize this tool for promotion of evidence-based public health issues. Several social media platforms have committed to counteract anti-vaccination content as part of an effort to curtail misinformation. These efforts include redirecting vaccine related searches to CDC and WHO web pages, disabling advertisements and comments supporting vaccine misinformation. The article goes on to discuss ways providers, social media platforms, and public leaders and figures can help to reduce the spread of health and vaccine misinformation, and alternatively share accurate, evidence-based health information on social media to reduce vaccine hesitancy.
There is a great responsibility among the medical and public health communities to share accurate and evidence-based information regarding vaccinations. Beyond direct engagement of the public to promote vaccine compliance, social media can be used as a tool for epidemiological research into vaccine misinformation and hesitancy, communicable disease incidence and prevalence, and further research studies.