Multiple recent studies suggest that anti-vaccination campaigns within social media and by some alternative system medical practitioners, including naturopaths and homeopaths, are a major reason behind vaccine hesitancy. These campaigns succeeded in creating a deficiency of trust in both healthcare providers and mainstream medicine, which are a major determinant of today’s resistance to vaccination.

The term “Vaccine hesitancy” refers to the delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite the availability of vaccination services. In contrast, the term “vaccine resistance” refers to a ‘conscious decision to refuse the recommended vaccination’, or ‘the arguments critical of vaccination policy’, and implies a collective action, at times stemming from a ‘fundamental opposition to the dominant biomedical understanding of health and disease’.

HOW DO VISUAL CONTENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCE VACCINE HESITANCY?

Visual content shared on social media such as memes, videos, photos, posters and emojis are processed faster, accepted without being questioned, and remembered for a longer period than text posts. Especially since the visual often includes a personalized dramatization of vaccine injuries — like an individual having a life-threatening seizure after receiving a vaccine.

Since social media has rapidly grown as an alternative source of news, more and more people are obtaining health information from social media. As a result, visual messaging on social media has significant associations with people’s intentions to get vaccinated — not only against COVID-19, but also for other immunizations. The latest studies have shown that individuals’ engagement with anti-vaccine messages on social media has a negative impact on their intentions to get vaccinated, while their engagement with pro-vaccine messages has no significant association.

WHAT PROPAGANDA TECHNIQUES ARE USED BY ANTI-VACCINATION GROUPS TO INFLUENCE THE CONVERSATION AROUND VACCINES?

Anti-vaccination groups use four propaganda techniques known to be effective in political campaigns. They define the pressing issue as vaccine safety/injuries and inefficacy and blame pharmaceutical companies for “cutting corners” to rapidly produce vaccines. They also make moral judgments by suggesting a coalition between corrupted politicians and profit-driven health care industries and recommend rejecting vaccines as a remedy to this problem.

IS IT AN ALGORITHM ISSUE ONLY?

The real influence of social is not necessarily down to algorithms nor amplification as focus elements. The most significant harm comes from your first connection, and the capacity to plug into the thoughts of people you know, something that wasn’t possible in times past. An example: Let’s say you’re fully vaccinated against COVID, you fully trust the science, and you’re doing what health officials have advised, no problems, no concerns about the process. But then you see a post from your old friend – let’s call him ‘Dave’ – in which Dave expresses his concerns about the vaccine, and why he’s hesitant to get it.

You may not have spoken to Dave for years, but you like him, you respect his opinion. Suddenly, this isn’t a faceless, nameless activist that you can easily dismiss, this is somebody that you know, and it makes you question whether there may be more to the anti-vax push than you thought. Dave never seemed stupid, nor gullible, maybe you should look into it some more.

So you do – you read links posted by Dave, you check out posts and articles, maybe you even browse a few groups to try and better understand. Maybe you start posting comments on anti-vax articles too, and all of this tells Facebook’s algorithms that you’re interested in this topic, and that you’re increasingly likely to engage with similar posts. The recommendations begin to change in your feed, you become more involved with the topic, and all of this drives you further to one side of the argument or the other, fueling division.

HOW CAN YOU TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HIGH-QUALITY VACCINATION INFORMATION ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND PROPAGANDA OR MISINFORMATION?

Discerning accurate information from misinformation is a challenge that individuals may not be able to completely resolve. Social media puts us in a bubble called, “Echo chambers” where we are surrounded by like-minded individuals who reinforce our own existing views rather than being challenged by different views. Studies have shown that debiasing individuals especially from anti-vaccine beliefs is an extremely challenging task because health beliefs are deeply ingrained in our cultural backgrounds, political/religious beliefs and lifestyle choices. Thus, it is recommended to prevent populations that are especially vulnerable and susceptible to health misinformation from being exposed to it in the first place. It is essential to suppress the propagation of vaccine misinformation via social media. These solutions can be embedded in tools like fact-checkers installed in our web browsers that warn readers if the information to be presented is likely to be false.

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