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Study Examines Facebook User Comments on Vaccines

OCT 11, 2016 | EINAV KEET
The recent study zeroed in on the language of Facebook users surrounding the issue of vaccination, examining the response to a prominent photograph posted by Mark Zuckerberg of his daughter, with the caption “Doctor’s visit—time for vaccines!” At the time of the study, the picture had received more than 3.4 million likes and 84,000 comments. The researchers used a text analysis program to compare the statements and claims in the comments. Their aim was to investigate the types of arguments and language used by pro- and anti-vaccination individuals within the same conversational context in an effort to better understand underlying thought processes and inform future attitude- and behavior-change attempts. They hypothesized that due to the science supporting the safety and efficacy of vaccines, comments by those who were vaccine-hesitant would show less evidence of analytic thought and would use more risk-related, anxiety-related, and health-related words.
What the study found was not the expected irrational or emotional argument style from those whose comments were against vaccines. “The anti-vaccination comments contained linguistic markers of analytical thinking, characterized by categorical language use, often appearing as factual (or in this case, pseudo-factual) and logically structured statements that mimic valid scientific information. This, as well as relatively lower use of anxiety-related words (giving the impression of confidence in one’s correctness), may make anti-vaccination arguments particularly compelling for uncertain parents seeking information about childhood vaccination,” write the authors about their findings. “This suggests a group attempting to provide scientific explanations for an unscientifically-backed perspective, as well as broader concerns about the monetary motivations of medical professionals, scientists, pharmaceutical companies, and governments.”
The researchers also noted that pro-vaccination comments had a significantly more anxious nature, along with their greater family-related content. “It may be that these individuals have a greater awareness and understanding of the scientific data,” write the authors, “and thus, a greater cause to worry, especially about their own families whom they believe may be harmed by the failure of others to accept vaccinations.”
These linguistic profiles show an apparent mismatch between the concerns and focus of pro- and anti-vaccination comments, say the authors. Their findings provide insight into how the medical community can better develop education to enhance the public’s understanding of science and create accurate messaging around the health and biological mechanisms of vaccination to effectively shift the views of those who are vaccine-hesitant.
“Taking steps to foster trust in health officials, perhaps including greater openness and education about scientific research and how recommendations are formulated, may be a useful step,” say Drs. Faasse and Martin. “We may also need to consider other people who are considered trusted sources of health information who might more effectively communicate information about vaccinations. One of the challenges with social media is to actually reach the people who hold negative perceptions of vaccinations—they may well not be the same people who regularly connect with official social media health channels.”
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