Vaccines, Myths, and Social Media?>
Health News

Vaccines, Myths, and Social Media

by Jamie Kopf  

People who get information about vaccines from social media are more likely to be misinformed than their peers who get information from traditional news outlets. That’s according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania in the inaugural issue of the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

A nationally representative panel of almost 2,500 Americans was surveyed in February or March 2019 and again about five months later. The period coincided with the largest measles outbreak in the U.S. in 25 years. It also coincided with an uptick in measles-related content both in traditional news media (such as newspapers, television, radio, or the online versions of these) and on social media.

At both time points, it was relatively common for respondents to be misinformed about vaccines, with 15 to 20 percent subscribing to anti-vaccination myths such as that vaccines cause autism or are full of toxins.

But among respondents whose level of misinformation changed during the five-month period (about one in five of them), those who reported being exposed to increased content about measles or the measles vaccine on social media were likely to have grown more misinformed; those who saw increased reports on these topics in traditional news media (which generally conveyed the opinions and recommendations of public health experts), in contrast, were more likely to have grown better informed—that is, to know the facts. The findings “underscore the importance of decisions by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest to reduce or block access to anti-vaccination misinformation,” the authors wrote.

Interestingly, in many cases, those respondents who reported low trust in medical experts were the same ones who believed vaccine misinformation. In other words, distrust of medical experts was positively related to being misinformed about vaccines. Of note, this was true across different demographic groups and political beliefs—liberal, conservative, and in between.

Also see Life Before Vaccines: My Story.