Social Media Use, Mistrust in Experts Associated with Vaccine Misinformation


A small but significant percentage of Americans believe common misconceptions about vaccines, and that misinformation was associated with social media use and lower trust of medical experts, a new study found.

Social media use and low trust in medical experts were associated with vaccine misinformation, according to a new survey.

The survey, published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, examined how the use of traditional media versus social media affected the belief in false information about vaccines. The research also looked at how trust in medical experts related to acceptance or rejection of antivaccination claims before and after extensive news coverage of an outbreak of measles in the United States.

“I think there are 3 takeaways,” Dominik Stecuła, PhD, the Martin Fishbein Postdoctoral Fellow, Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, told Contagion®. “One, vaccine misinformation is very stable (see below for more on that); 2. traditional (newspapers, TV, radio, magazines, etc.) news exposure to measles and MMR [Measles-Mumps-Rubella] content is a strong predictor of being less misinformed about vaccines to begin with, and furthermore, an increased exposure to traditional news predicts becoming less misinformed about vaccines in between our two data collection periods; 3. lastly, an increased exposure to MMR and measles content on social media is a predictor of becoming more misinformed about vaccines in between our two data collection periods.”

The survey included 2500 US adults who responded to questions from February 28 to March 25, 2019, and again between September 13 through October 2.

Common false beliefs examined included that vaccines contain toxins, vaccines can be delayed without risk, gaining immunity through contracting the disease is safer than vaccination, and vaccines cause autism. The percentage of survey respondents who considered each of those false statements very or somewhat accurate was 15%, 20%, 19% and 18%, respectively. The percentage of people who believe false information about vaccines was high enough to affect community immunity.

Vaccine misinformation remained stable despite an increase in news coverage related to the 2019 measles outbreak in the United States between the survey periods.

“For me personally, I was surprised how stable vaccine misinformation was,” Stecula told Contagion®. “… The period in between the data collections corresponded to the largest measles outbreak in a quarter century in this country, with a large increase in media attention to the topic. And yet, despite all that activity, the vast majority of the sample (81%) more or less maintained the same levels of vaccine misinformation.”

Of the 19% of respondents whose level of vaccine misinformation changed during the study, 64% became more misinformed, and 36% were less misinformed, the study noted.

Increased exposure to vaccine-related content on social media was associated with an increase in misinformation, while increased exposure to vaccine-related information on traditional media was associated with a decrease in misinformation.

Low trust in medical professionals was associated with a greater likelihood of believing false information about vaccines, with distrust being a stronger predicter of misinformation than education, income, age, religion and conservative news media consumption, the study noted.

“I think it’s good to know that, on the whole, most people trust them [health care providers], and that trust is by far the strongest predictor of being less misinformed about vaccines,” Stecula told Contagion®. “That is great, and reflected in the data that shows that overwhelming majority of Americans don’t believe that vaccines cause autism, don’t think that they’re full of toxic ingredients, don’t believe that it’s fine to delay or spread out vaccines, and done think that it is better to develop immunity by getting the disease than by vaccination. But at the same time, up to a 20% of Americans do hold erroneous views on these issues and they are much less likely to trust clinicians and health care providers.”

“These are the people who pose risk to community immunity, which helps us prevent outbreaks of the diseases like measles. Encouraging these people to get information from trustworthy, mainstream sources and resisting exposure to social media might be a good place to start. In the paper, we also discuss research that suggests that those who distrust expert sources may nonetheless accept the recommendations of their own doctor if that professional takes the time to listen and explain, and presumes the value of vaccines. Techniques called ‘motivational interviewing,’ which we highlight in the paper, would facilitate that.”

The study was taken from a larger project that involves 6 interview periods and includes data from the fourth and sixth survey periods.

“We are in the process of publishing findings from that study in academic journals, and several of these studies are currently undergoing peer review,” Stecula told Contagion®.

During last year’s outbreak, the United States saw the greatest number of measles cases since achieving elimination status, leading the CDC to warn that the country could lose its elimination status.

Even a small decreases in vaccination rates can greatly increase the risk of outbreak, according to a study that predicted Texas could be the site of the next large measles outbreak. About 92% to 95% of a population must have immunity to maintain herd immunity.

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