Background Understanding the threat posed by anti-vaccination efforts on social media is critically important with the forth coming need for world wide COVID-19 vaccination programs. We globally evaluate the effect of social media and online foreign disinformation campaigns on vaccination rates and attitudes towards vaccine safety.
Methods We use a large-n cross-country regression framework to evaluate the effect of social media on vaccine hesitancy globally. To do so, we operationalize social media usage in two dimensions: the use of it by the public to organize action (using Digital Society Project indicators), and the level of negatively oriented discourse about vaccines on social media (using a data set of all geocoded tweets in the world from 2018-2019). In addition, we measure the level of foreign-sourced coordinated disinformation operations on social media ineach country (using Digital Society Project indicators). The outcome of vaccine hesitancy is measured in two ways. First, we use polls of what proportion of the public per country feels vaccines are unsafe (using Wellcome Global Monitor indicators for 137 countries). Second, we use annual data of actual vaccination rates from the WHO for 166 countries.
Results We found the use of social media to organise offline action to be highly predictive of the belief that vaccinations are unsafe, with such beliefs mounting as more organisation occurs on social media. In addition, the prevalence of foreign disinformation is highly statistically and substantively significant in predicting a drop in mean vaccination coverage over time. A 1-point shift upwards in the 5-point disinformation scale is associated with a 2-percentage point drop in mean vaccination coverage year over year. We also found support for the connection of foreign disinformation with negative social media activity about vaccination. The substantive effect of foreign disinformation is to increase the number of negative vaccine tweets by 15% for the median country.
Conclusion There is a significant relationship between organisation on social media and public doubts of vaccine safety. In addition, there is a substantial relationship between foreign disinformation campaigns and declining vaccination coverage.
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Handling editor Seye Abimbola
Correction notice This article has been corrected since it published online to fix table 2 layout.
Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.
Competing interests None declared.
Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.
Patient consent for publication Not required.
Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
Data availability statement All data except the tweets are available in a public, open access repository. Complete list of unique ids of vaccination related tweets are available for replication purposes upon request.
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