Vaccination beliefs are reinforced in online forums, study finds

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Attitudes and beliefs about influenza vaccination are unlikely to change when discussed in online forums, found a new study from researchers at the University of Waterloo.

To study the role that online discussion and web forums play in the vaccination decision-making process, the researchers examined 33 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation articles reporting on the influenza vaccine between September 2015 and October 2016, analyzing over 2,000 user-generated comments.

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What they found, said author Richard Violette, is that the decision to vaccinate is not a simple “yes or no binary.”

“Research shows that vaccination decisions are complex, involving information from multiple sources and taking into account personal, cultural, and social factors,” said Violette, who worked with UW professors Samantha Meyer and Nancy Waite on the project.

The researchers focused on the influenza vaccination in their study because the vaccine is optional, and is recommended for a wide population throughout their lives.  In examining the online discussions, “we found that comments tended to stray far from the actual article content, often representing very strong views for or against vaccination,” Violette said. “Only those with extremely polarized views actively engaged in debates in the comments sections on these articles.”

Through discourse analysis and identifying key themes, the researchers saw that these online forums tended to turn into echo chambers, where users employed rhetorical devices to further reinforce their own views and denigrate the views of the opposing side.

“Instead of informed discussion of the article’s content, we instead saw that individuals are using these forums to connect with each other and reinforce pre-existing beliefs about vaccines more broadly. This finding has led us to question the efficacy of existing public health strategies on vaccination, which call for staff engagement in online forums to spread information and enrich user knowledge about vaccination.”

The researchers believe that instead of dedicating public health resources to a forum where fruitful discussion is unlikely to occur, they should focus on observing online platforms to better understand the context surrounding vaccination debates.

“By understanding the social mechanisms that may contribute to, or reinforce, attitudes and beliefs about vaccination refusal in these spaces, we can develop more informed strategies for engaging people in effective discussion,” said Violette.

The study, titled Vaccine hesitancy and web 2.0: Exploring how attitudes and beliefs about influenza vaccination are exchanged in online threaded user comments, was recently published in the journal Vaccine.

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