Anti-vaccination messages on Facebook could be divided into four distinct themes: trust, alternative, safety, and conspiracy, according to researchers who analyzed comments posted in response to a pediatrics clinic’s pro-vaccination video.
A small sampling of these messages on Facebook found that “anti-vaxxers” had qualitatively different types of arguments that cater to a wide variety of audiences, reported Brian Primack, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and colleagues.
However, the one commonality was that all were distrustful of physicians and the medical community, the authors wrote in Vaccine.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists “vaccine hesitancy” as one of its 10 threats to global health in 2019, and indeed, Primack and colleagues cited the “considerable rise in the rate of nonmedical exemptions from school immunization requirements” in the U.S.
They noted that while prior research has focused on either anti-vaccination content on Twitter, comments in response to celebrity posts, and Facebook groups, the characteristics of individuals posting anti-vaccination content on Facebook has not been thoroughly examined.
“We want to understand vaccine-hesitant parents in order to give clinicians the opportunity to optimally and respectfully communicate with them about the importance of immunization,” Primack said in a statement. “If we dismiss anybody who has an opposing view, we’re giving up an opportunity to understand them and come to a common ground.”
Primack and colleagues examined the profiles of 197 individuals who posted anti-vaccination comments on a Pittsburgh pediatrics practice’s Facebook page in response to a video promoting the vaccine against HPV. These were among “thousands” posted over a period of 8 days considered anti-vaccination, “which we defined as being either (1) threatening (e.g., ‘you’ll burn in hell for killing babies’) and/or (2) extremist (e.g., ‘you have been brainwashed’),” the group explained.
Among the 197 randomly chosen for analysis (“in order to feasibly conduct in-depth quantitative assessment”), they found a large majority of these commenters were women, and almost 80% were parents. About 30% reported an occupation and a little under a quarter reported a post-secondary education. Of the 55 individuals whose political affiliation could be determined, 56% identified as supporters of Donald Trump, while 11% identified as supporters of Bernie Sanders.
There were 116 individuals who had at least one public anti-vaccination post from 2015-2017, with posts about “educational material,” or claims that doctors are uneducated and parents need to educate themselves were the most popular (73%), followed by “media, censorship, and ‘cover up'” or the suggestion that pharmaceutical manufacturers, government, and physicians deliberately fail to disclose adverse vaccine reactions (71%) and “vaccines cause idiopathic illness,” claiming kids who are not vaccinated get less illness (69%).
The four overarching themes were more specifically:
- Trust: emphasizing suspicion about the scientific community, concerns about personal liberty
- Alternatives: focusing on chemicals in vaccines, use of homeopathic remedies over vaccination
- Safety: perceived risks and concerns about vaccination being immoral
- Conspiracy: that government “hides” information that anti-vaccination groups believe to be facts
Co-author Beth Hoffman, BSc, also of the University of Pittsburgh, said that these groups “caution against a blanket approach to public health messages that encourage vaccination.”
“Telling someone in the ‘trust’ subgroup that vaccines don’t cause autism may alienate them because that isn’t their concern to begin with. Instead, it may be more effective to find common ground and deliver tailored messages related to trust and the perception [that] mandatory vaccination threatens their ability to make decisions for their child,” she said in a statement.
Limitations to the data include that these only reflect commenters who responded to a single pro-vaccination video, and do not necessarily reflect “broader discussions of anti-vaccination issues on Facebook.” Demographic data was self-reported, and could not be authenticated, they noted.
The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.