2 May 2019

The Detail - The anti-vaccination conversation

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 2 May 2019

Facts alone, it seems, are not enough to dissuade the growing number of people with anti-vaccination sentiments.

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Photo: 123RF

Bred in the petri dish of social media platforms such as Facebook, anti-vaxxers have their ideas reinforced in echo chambers and evidence that emerges backing the science can even have the effect of reinforcing their ideas.

A new study out of Pittsburgh University has shed some light on who these people are, and build their arguments. The research divided them into four sub-groups: 'trust', 'alternatives', 'safety', and 'conspiracy'.

Those with ‘trust’ issues were suspicious of the scientific community and its institutions; ‘alternatives’ were those who preferred homeopathic remedies and, for example, thought that eating yoghurt cures HPV (human papillomavirus); ‘safety’ worriers focused on the risks of vaccination and morality of it; and ‘conspiracy’ theorists tended to believe the government was hiding information – such as that the polio vaccine does not actually exist, or that man did not really land on the moon.

The research, titled “It’s not all about autism: The emerging landscape of anti-vaccination sentiment on Facebook”, analysed a sample of 197 people who reacted to a video on Facebook promoting the HPV vaccine. It looked at their social media activity, discovering they also tended to post about other health issues such as fluoridation. The vast majority – 89 percent – were women, and in spite of the video coming from a local Pittsburgh GP practice, responders came from nine different countries.

The work has provided insights into the type of tactics that are unlikely to work with each group of people. For example, those with trust issues are not going to be convinced by bombarding them with messages from the public health agencies.

Research lead author Beth Hoffman said she hoped the work would provide tools to combat the spread of fake news over vaccines. Something that might work, she said, is to get GPs from around the globe more engaged on social media to create a pro-vaccine network, with tailored messages for people who are vaccine-hesitant.

“They could create messages that have a connection with them saying ‘I, too, am concerned that my children and your children have too many chemicals in them, that’s why I make recommendations to limit soda consumption ... vaccines are a way to boost the body’s natural immunity’.

"Right there we are taking back the conversation and reframing these words that resonate with people such as ‘natural’, or ‘safety’ to hopefully better meet parents where they’re at with their specific concerns.”

Using fiction to combat fictitious messages is another idea. Ms Hoffman cites the plotline of a recent Madam Secretary episode in the US where there is a global measles outbreak. Health authorities have since commented that the show portrayed the issue well.

“It is a blurring of the line between fiction and reality but at the same time if 14 million people are watching that episode on TV, that’s a lot of people,” she said. The issue was also handled recently in an episode of Call the Midwife.

Ms Hoffman said anti-vaxxers were skilled communicators on social media – and health officials were asking how they can also become skilled at delivering their points.

“Identifying these groups may be a way to provide more effective messages that don’t backfire,” she said.

Photo: RNZ