Documenting online antivax misinformation

Whatever your position on childhood vaccinations, a new report provides very solid documentation of the role played by various antivax pressure groups to sway public opinion using a variety of online social media platforms. The report is a joint effort of two non-profit organizations, the Sabin Vaccine Institute and the Aspen Institute. I haven’t read the entire report, “Meeting the Challenge of Vaccination Hesitancy,” (a copy linked to at the end of this post) but want to focus on its last chapter, a paper written by Renée DiResta and Claire Wardle. DiResta is a cybersecurity researcher at Stanford, Wardle is a TED fellow and US director of First Draft. Their paper examines the changing policies of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other online platforms towards the antivax movement.

There is no doubt that this movement has created a global health crisis, even before Covid appeared. Doubts about polio and measles vaccines have created new outbreaks of this disease in places such as Brooklyn, Samoa and Italy, among other places. Both of these diseases were considered cured just a few years ago and rarely seen anywhere. That all has changed as a result of increasing opposition to vaccinating children.

Part of the problem is the asymmetric relationship between pro- and antivax groups: the provax folks use mostly medical literature and poorly designed public health websites; the antivax folks use well-thought out videos, catchy Internet memes and powerful personal anecdotes to make their points. Having just a few global social media platforms means the antivaxxers can spread their message more easily too. The antivaxxers also give the impression that they are the sole trusted source of information about vaccines, which isn’t helped by the several missteps over Covid over the past few months from the CDC and WHO. It also helps that several celebrities have been pushing the antivax message, which gets further amplified by mainstream media.

The authors wrote: “To counter online misinformation, we must understand how the rumors, conspiracy theories, and misleading content that we see in digital spaces intersects with existing barriers to vaccination in different countries.” The researchers took screenshots of how people searched for vaccine information in different countries and compared those results with the official policies of the social media platforms. Not surprisingly, things didn’t line up. There are “real concerns which still exist about whether these promised changes to vaccine-related policies are having the desired effect.” For example, a search for the term “vaccines” on Instagram in February 2020  produced top results that were disproportionately pushing antivax positions, even though Instagram instituted changes to reduce this misinformation almost a year earlier.

“Anti-vaccination activists have gained a deep understanding of how to communicate
effectively on social platforms and have developed techniques to take advantage of their unique characteristics, such as groups, ads, and trending topics,” they wrote. That is a depressing situation.

Another problem is that the state health departments are largely in charge of vaccination programs, and the antivaxxers are very organized at the state level to pressure their legislators to enact laws supporting their point of view. “The ability of the pro-vaccine community to tell a more compelling story more persuasively and to spread its evidence-based message to broader audiences online is an imperative for public health,” conclude the researchers.

https://www.sabin.org/sites/sabin.org/files/sabin-aspen-report-2020_meeting_the_challenge_of_vaccine_hesitancy.pdf

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