Widespread anti-vaccination misinformation on social media regressing trust in medical experts

New research published in the HKS Misinformation Review investigates the surge of anti-vaccination misinformation on social media.

3 min read

In recent years, anti-vaccination misinformation has surged among the U.S. public assumably the result of exposure to untrustworthy sources on social media, new research indicates.

A new study, as published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, showcases what a research team at Annenberg Public Policy Center found after examining vaccine beliefs, particularly during the measles outbreak in recent times, of nearly 2,500 adult participants residing in the U.S.

To reach their findings, researchers set out to answer two key questions: “How does the use of traditional media vs social media affect the belief in false information regarding vaccines in the US population?” and “What is the relationship between trust in medical experts and acceptance or rejection of common anti-vaccination claims?”

In the study, researchers investigated non-traditional beliefs commonly refuted by experts in the scientific community, such as vaccines containing toxins, vaccination causing autism, and the practice of natural immunity through contraction of a disease as a safer option than vaccination.

According to researchers, while the majority of the participants surveyed did not endorse such beliefs, a consequential amount did, indicating a lower level of trust in medical experts on such claims than previously established.

The study on nearly 2,500 participants was initiated during a measles outbreak throughout 2019. What researchers determined was that the participants who received information from traditional media were less likely to back anti-vaccination claims.

“People who received their information from traditional media were less likely to endorse common anti-vaccination claims,” said Dominik Stecula, the study’s lead author.

“The result is consistent with research suggesting that social media contain a fair amount of misinformation about vaccination while traditional media are more likely to reflect the scientific consensus on its benefits and safety,” a news release states.

Moreover, most of the participants, or 81%, regardless of their belief on vaccinations, were fixated on the information they trusted more, holding such beliefs even five months after the initiation of the study.

“To the experimental studies of misinformation persistence, our work adds information about whether and how a national sample’s level of vaccine misinformation changed over a five-month period in which the media were focusing on a measles outbreak,” researchers stated.

“This conclusion is consistent with research suggesting that social media contain a fair amount of misinformation about vaccination, while traditional media are more likely to reflect the scientific consensus on its benefits and safety. Future research should focus on determining whether these associations are causal.”

© Image courtesy of dougchayka.com