Using Social Media to Better Understand Perspectives on Vaccination

Researchers compared pro- and anti-vaccination responses to a high-profile Facebook photo post.

Assessment of language used in response to one prominent Facebook post about childhood vaccination showed that more analytical thinking was evident in anti-vaccination comments, as were references to health and the body, whereas pro-vaccination comments showed more comparative anxiety with a particular focus on family and social processes, according to a study published in Vaccine.1

Researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and La Sierra University in Riverside, California, analyzed comments to a photo posted by Mark Zuckerberg holding his baby daughter in January 2016 with the caption, “Doctor’s visit – time for vaccines.” The 1489 responses garnered in 1 week allowed the researchers to compare language use in pro- and anti-vaccination comments under the same circumstances. The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) text analysis program was used to code all the comments as pro-vaccination, anti-vaccination, or unrelated.

The researchers observed higher analytical thinking in the anti-vaccination comments vs either the unrelated (U=85.51, P <.001) or pro-vaccination (U=85.11, P <.001) comments. Compared with pro-vaccination comments, anti-vaccination comments contained fewer social and family-related words, showed less use of tentative language, used fewer body words, used more health-related words, and referenced more work-related words.

The findings indicate that “contrary to expectations, the anti-vaccination comments not only showed evidence of more linguistic markers of analytical thinking than either the pro-vaccination or unrelated comments, they also contained fewer anxiety words than did the pro-vaccination comments.” The anxious nature of the pro-vaccination comments along with a greater focus on family-related words may indicate an individual’s “greater awareness and understanding of the scientific data…and thus [be] a greater cause of worry,” the researcher noted.

One of the limitations of this study is that the language used may not only have been conveying the commenter’s views but was also attempting to persuade others. Therefore, the anxiety expressed in pro-vaccination comments may have been an attempt to persuade those with an opposing view, since protecting the vulnerable members of society necessitates anxiety. Thus, the investigators noted, “the arguments that those supporting vaccination think are compelling may not be particularly well matched with the concerns of those opposed to vaccination.”

“Education targeted toward enhancing understanding of science and the scientific method, and accurate messaging around health and biological mechanisms of vaccination, may be more effective in shifting views of the vaccine-hesitant compared to messages with a focus on the importance of immunization for protecting vulnerable members of society,” the researchers concluded.

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  1. Faasse K, Chatman CJ, Martin LR. A comparison of language use in pro- and anti-vaccination comments in response to a high profile Facebook post. Vaccine. 2016;34:5808-5814. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2016.09.029