The “online competition” between pro- and anti-vaccination views

This GEITP topic might be appropriate — following on the recent concerns (by Drs. Kerkvliet, Eaton & Tanguay) concerns that risk-assessment toxicology is becoming increasingly polluted by pseudoscience and political views. Another big example is climate science (e.g. Michael Shellenberg, recipient of numerous prizes for pro-global warming rhetoric, wrote a 1700-word article in Forbes Magazine within the past week, which included the statement “On behalf of environmentalists everywhere, I would like to formally apologise for the climate scare we created over the past 30 years,” — which was immediately not only attacked, but removed from the internet within a few hours. This is not an action that scientists would ever do, but is the action that politically-motivated pseudoscientists are now doing very often). Directly or indirectly, we can assume that the internet has greatly enhanced this route of misinformation. Social media companies are strongly involved in controlling online health disinformation and misinformation; e.g. during the last five months of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the “frenetic news” that “vaccines against the SARS-Cov-2 virus are imminent” (with no need for 1-2 years of clinical trials) or “medicine X, Y or Z is beneficial or not beneficial” (in a small quick study of N=12 or 35 or 80 individuals).

Authors [see attached article] provided a system-level analysis of the multi-sided ecology of nearly 100 million individuals expressing views regarding vaccination — which have been emerging from the ~3 billion users of Facebook from across many countries, continents and languages (e.g. Figs. 1 & 2 show clusters of pro- and con-vaccine opinions; each red node is a cluster of fans of a page with anti-vaccination content; each blue node a cluster that supports vaccinations). Authors ask “Why have negative views about vaccination become so robust — despite a considerable number of news stories that supported vaccination and were against anti-vaccination views, during the measles outbreak of 2019?” Seven observations and possibilities are discussed herein [see attached article].

[1] Although anti-vaccination clusters are smaller numerically, anti-vaccination clusters have become central in terms of

the positioning within the network; this means that pro-vaccination clusters in the smaller network patches may remain ignorant of the main conflict and have the wrong impression that “they are winning.”

[2] Instead of the undecided population being passively persuaded by the anti- or pro-vaccination populations, undecided individuals are highly active; these findings challenge our current thinking that undecided individuals are passive in the battle for “hearts and minds.”

[3] Anti-vaccination individuals form more than twice as many clusters, compared with pro-vaccination individuals, by having a much smaller average cluster size. This means that the anti-vaccination population provides a larger number of sites for engagement than the pro-vaccination population.

[4] Authors’ qualitative analysis of cluster content shows that anti-vaccination clusters offer a wide range of potentially attractive narratives that blend topics such as safety concerns, conspiracy theories and alternative health and medicine, [and also now ‘the cause and cure’ of COVID-19]. In contrast, pro-vaccination views are far more monothematic.

[5] Anti-vaccination clusters showed the highest growth during the measles outbreak of 2019, pro-vaccination clusters the lowest growth; again, this is consistent with the anti-vaccination population being able to attract more undecided individuals by offering many different types of negative narratives.

[6] Medium-sized anti-vaccination clusters have grown most; this finding challenges a broader theoretical notion of

population dynamics that claims that “groups grow though preferential attachment (i.e. a larger size attracts more recruits).

[7] Geography is a favorable factor for the anti-vaccination population; anti-vaccination clusters are either self-located within cities, states or countries — or remain global.

Distrust in scientific expertise (and trust in internet ‘chatter’) is dangerous — but, sadly, growing among the misinformed. The authors’ theoretical framework reproduces the recent explosive growth in anti-vaccination views — predicting that these views might dominate in a decade. Perhaps new insights provided by this framework can be informative in providing new policies and approaches to interrupt this shift to negative views? This study: [a] challenges conventional thinking about undecided individuals in issues of contention surrounding health, [b] sheds light on other issues of contention such as climate change, and [c] highlights the key role of network cluster dynamics in multi-species ecologies.


Nature 11 June 2020; 582: 230-233

This entry was posted in Center for Environmental Genetics. Bookmark the permalink.