Quantcast
Connect with us

Anti-vaxxers appear to be losing ground in the online vaccine debate

Published

on

Little boy looking at his arm while receiving vaccine (Shutterstock)

As measles outbreaks spread across the U.S., our new look at how information about vaccine safety and reliability spreads online suggests that the tide may be turning against the anti-vaccination movement.

Between Jan. 1 and March 28, 387 people contracted measles in 15 U.S. states. Mumps is also coming back, with 151 infections in just the first two months of 2019. Both of these dangerous and deadly diseases can be prevented by getting the MMR vaccine, which is so safe and effective, and so widely used, that measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. But more recently, new outbreaks have struck areas with large pockets of unvaccinated people.

ADVERTISEMENT

Many states allow parents not to vaccinate their children if they have religious or philosophical beliefs against immunizations. Online disinformation campaigns are spreading false claims about vaccine dangers, boosting the numbers of people seeking those exemptions – and inviting disease into their homes and communities.

Our research lab has spent years tracking the spread of misinformation on social media, including about vaccine safety and effectiveness. Our most recent update of the data has found that pro-vax information and activity is beginning to push back against, and even overtake, anti-vax disinformation.

Mapping the spread of vaccine (mis)information

In 2016, we mapped the online debate around a 2015 California bill that eliminated the personal-belief exemption to mandatory vaccination rules. We found that several of the most-retweeted accounts using the bill’s main hashtag #SB277 were highly automated, appearing to come from bots.

Two years later, other researchers revealed that some of those accounts belonged to the same Russian trolls that influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Those now-suspended accounts tweeted both pro- and anti-vaccine messages to stoke discord.

We recently updated this work, looking at vaccine-related Twitter hashtags between September 2016 and September 2018, to see how the vaccine debate continues to play out.

ADVERTISEMENT

We took a random sampling of 10 percent of the public tweets during that time period. We identified 41,998 posts containing the most popular pro- and anti-vax hashtags. We then classified the 27,590 accounts that generated those tweets as pro-vax (blue) or anti-vax (green) based on whether each one used more hashtags from one side or the other.

We used retweets to visualize the diffusion of vaccine information. A node represents a Twitter account; a link from @alice to @bob indicates one or more vaccine-related retweets of @alice by @bob. We then mapped the largest network of connected accounts for each of four six-month intervals. The two communities of pro- and anti-vax information are quite segregated in the network, indicating that the accounts in one group do not generally retweet messages from the other. In the last year, however, we observe some blue nodes connected to the green clusters, suggesting that pro-vax information is beginning to penetrate the anti-vax community.

Accounts likely controlled by bots are depicted as red nodes in the network. They are prominent on both sides of the online discussion: Consistent with prior research findings, bots share both pro- and anti-vax content.

ADVERTISEMENT

In late 2016, the anti-vax movement (in green) was much larger than the pro-vax movement (in blue). Over time, the pro-vax movement expanded and now dwarfs the anti-vaxxers.
Filippo Menczer and Pik-Mai Hui, Indiana University, CC BY-ND

Our analysis reveals the most influential accounts on each side – the accounts whose tweets are retweeted the most. On the pro-vax side are organizations like @WHO, @UNICEF and @gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, as well as celebrity advocate @ChelseaClinton and pediatrician @luciapediatra.

On the anti-vax side, one account dominates all the others: @LotusOak, which gave as its full name “Vira Burnayeva.” That account was suspended by Twitter in late 2018 or early 2019. Interestingly, another account @ViraBurnayeva (full name “LotusOak”) that posts similar anti-vax misinformation and propaganda is currently among the most influential anti-vax nodes. The names suggest this account is controlled by the same source, illustrating how easy it can be to circumvent social media companies’ efforts to curb vaccine misinformation.

ADVERTISEMENT

We have found some possible signs of good news: Initially most of the information on Twitter was dominated by people who opposed vaccinations. But in 2017, the scenario appears to have reversed: Anti-vaccine content is now shared only by a minority of users.

If that preliminary finding is confirmed by other research, it could provide evidence that the combined efforts of social media platforms, health organizations, public policy campaigns and grassroots advocacy may eventually overcome anti-vax junk science.

Who profits from vaccine opposition?

The modern anti-vax movement is still around, at least in part, because it makes money. It originated from a disproven, false claim about a link between vaccines and autism in a fraudulent, retracted 1998 paper by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. Reportedly driven by financial profit motives, Wakefield falsified data and allegedly abused developmentally delayed children.

ADVERTISEMENT

His U.K. medical license was revoked in 2010 for unethical behavior, misconduct and dishonesty. But he continues to oppose state bills against vaccine exemptions and profit from promoting anti-vax disinformation, including through his propaganda film “Vaxxed,” which is available on popular streaming platforms.

Others profit from spreading this misinformation, too. For example, InfoWars and Natural News discredit medical science while earning money from the sale of alternative medicine products. The disinformation spreads quickly on social media through a well-connected network of activists and concerned parents.

When enough parents in a specific local community are misled into forgoing vaccination of their children, that area’s vaccination rate falls below the level necessary to confer what is called “herd immunity” on the entire population. For measles, 96 percent or more of a population need to be vaccinated to protect everyone.

Communities with lower vaccination rates are where outbreaks happen. For example, the 2017 measles outbreak in Minnesota followed an anti-vax disinformation campaign targeting Somali immigrants. The current outbreak in Washington affects mostly Slavic immigrants.

ADVERTISEMENT

Some of the parents may be making their decisions based on what they learn online about vaccination.

On the legislative agenda

Much of this online activity appears to relate to debate in the real world. For instance, many of the tweets refer to legislation or other policy discussions. And there is a fair amount of disagreement in the political world.

At the moment, almost all states grant religious exemptions and 17 states allow parents to refuse vaccinations on philosophical grounds. Congress is studying the issue.

ADVERTISEMENT

Some states, like Arizona, are working to expand those exemptions, although the state’s governor has vowed to veto such bills.

Other states are pushing in the opposite direction: Mississippi doesn’t have a religious exemption and has rejected attempts to create one. Washington is considering a bill that would grant exemptions only to parents of children with religious or medical reasons to refuse immunizations, much like California’s SB277 did. Rockland County, New York, has banned unvaccinated minors from public places to curtail the spread of disease.

This may be a legislative reflection of the same trend our research has observed online – where pro-vax information is beginning to push back effectively against the anti-vax movement. Children’s lives are at risk.The Conversation

Filippo Menczer, Professor of Informatics and Computer Science, Indiana University and Pik-Mai Hui, Ph.D. Student in Informatics and Network Science, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ADVERTISEMENT


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Trump’s decision to block coronavirus aid to hard-hit states will cost 4 million jobs: analysis

Published

on

President Donald Trump's refusal to provide federal aid to states hit hard by the economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic would cost the country 4 million jobs, according to an analysis by Moody's Analytics.

Negotiations over the next phase of coronavirus relief have stalled as Trump attempts to circumvent Congress with unworkable and legally dubious executive orders that fall far short of the aid that would be included in any Congressional proposal. Though House Democrats already approved a $3 trillion relief bill including an extension on federal unemployment benefits and $1 trillion in aid to states and cities whose tax revenues evaporated amid coronavirus lockdowns, Trump and Senate Republicans have balked at both provisions.

Continue Reading

CNN

GOP’s use of Kanye West to help Trump has been a spectacular flop: CNN host

Published

on

On CNN Saturday, Michael Smerconish examined rapper Kanye West's presidential campaign — and how the GOP efforts to boost it to siphon voters from former Vice President Joe Biden don't appear to be working.

"Is Kanye West serious about running for president or is it all part of a dark twisted fantasy?" said Smerconish. "NPR has documented how several operatives, some with Trump ties, are actively helping the superstar get on general election ballots in various states. Kanye West officially on the ballot in Vermont, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and has filed recently in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Jared Kushner met privately with West in Colorado, where the two par took in a friendly conversation ... the RNC and Trump has denied involvement in West's campaign. but the president isn't exactly discouraging the competition."

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Greenland’s ice sheet has melted past the point of no return

Published

on

Greenland's ice sheet may have shrunk past the point of return, with the ice likely to melt away no matter how quickly the world reduces climate-warming emissions, new research suggests.

Scientists studied data on 234 glaciers across the Arctic territory spanning 34 years through 2018 and found that annual snowfall was no longer enough to replenish glaciers of the snow and ice being lost to summertime melting.

That melting is already causing global seas to rise about a millimeter on average per year. If all of Greenland's ice goes, the water released would push sea levels up by an average of 6 meters -- enough to swamp many coastal cities around the world. This process, however, would take decades.

Continue Reading
 
 
You need honest news coverage. Help us deliver it. Join Raw Story Investigates for $1. Go ad-free.
close-image