Published: 2021-12-15 08:10 | Updated: 2021-12-15 10:28

Good vaccine news counters online skepticism, but only for a limited time

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Media coverage of positive vaccine research can have a positive effect on overall social media sentiment – countering vaccine misinformation – but the effects wane over time. Researchers at Oxford University and Karolinska Institutet have analysed social media to investigate associations between vaccine-related major news announcements, and attitudes towards vaccines.

The researchers looked at nearly two million tweets from the UK during November 2020 to January 2021, a period that coincided with news on the major vaccine trials being announced or published, and approvals by the UK Medicine and Health Regulations Authority (MHRA).

They found that each major news announcement related to vaccine releases was associated with a large decrease in negative sentiment on the same day, dropping from around 40% to 20% of all daily tweets.

However, this effect was short-lived, and the proportion of negative tweets reverted back to the background average within a few days. They also observed a similar decrease in negative sentiment when Pfizer/BioNTech announced its phase III vaccine trial results.

Professor Seena Fazel of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry, who led the research, said: “Vaccine hesitancy isn’t a new phenomenon, but social media has exponentially increased the ability for rumours, half-truths and outright fallacies to spread globally in seconds. This research was informative because it showed that providing clear, positive messaging around new research does actually combat this negative tide, but that the positive trend lasts for a limited period of time."

Portrait of Zheng Chang
Assistant professor Zheng Chang Photo: Gunilla Sonnebring

Changes in attitudes possible

Dr Zheng Chang from the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Karolinska Institutet, who co-led the research, said “It also suggests that attitudes to vaccination may, at least in some people, be malleable and permeable to public health messaging, and highlights the need for developing more effective campaigns aimed at promoting vaccine take-up.”

Several COVID-19 vaccines have been approved globally and broad scale vaccination is currently underway, but attitudes towards vaccination and in particular what has been termed vaccine hesitancy, present a potential threat to achieving coverage and community immunity.

The nearly 2 million tweets from 522,893 persons in the UK was focused on content about vaccines and major scientific news announcements about vaccines. The proportion of tweets with negative vaccine content varied, with reductions of 20–24% on the same day as major news announcement. However, the proportion of negative tweets reverted back to an average of around 40% within a few days. Engagement rates were higher for negative tweets.

Publication

The full paper, “Harnessing Twitter data to survey public attention and attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines in the UK” can be read (open access) in Scientific Reports: www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-02710-4