Study Lights Up Anti-Vaxxers' Twitter Habits

Public Domain. Andres Rueda

With conflicting messages on social media, it can be especially hard to help parents understand vaccination and face the necessity with the confidence that it is the right decision*. Watching your babies get jabbed by vaccines would be difficult for the average parent even if they were not ravaged by unfounded fears based on retracted studies.

Most of the death and disabilities caused by preventable diseases have been so long gone, we can easily overlook how big a risk our children avoid thanks to these modern medical miracles. The fears spread by the anti-vaxxer campaigns, on the other hand, evoke our modern epidemics such as the now entirely debunked link between vaccinations and autism, and our worst parental nightmares that any harm might come to our precious offspring.

The authors of a new survey of tweets related to vaccination and/or autism hopes to develop real time maps that highlight emerging anti-vaccine trends. It is well worth clicking on the link to see for yourself the map created to demonstrate the potential power of such studies and how much change occurs in anti-vaxxer sentiment across time and place. But if you don't have time to click, the still image below represents a couple points along the timeline with low and high activity:

patterns change across the USA over time as pockets of anti-vaccine activism light up the map

Chris J. Vargo/Screen capture

The study of anti-vaxxer messages on twitter indicates that half of the tweets about vaccines are negative and that the trend is still upward in spite of the turn-about in medical evidence. The study's author, Chris Vargo, emphasizes that this does not represent the general public opinion, but rather the voices of activists on the subject.

Interestingly, the study linked the frequency of tweets against vaccines to the number of households where earnings topped $200,000. Anti-vaccine tweets also rise in areas where the number of new births in the past twelve months has trended up.

Unfortunately, our primitive human brains react strongly to emotional fears, and once the prejudice of anti-vaxxer anecdotes becomes fixed, we can be difficult or impossible to convince otherwise. Even parents who do the right thing are left to suffer unnecessarily with their concerns. Vargo expresses hope that

“monitoring anti-vaccination beliefs on Twitter can uncover vaccine-related concerns and misconceptions, serve as an indicator of shifts in public opinion and equip pediatricians to refute anti-vaccine arguments.”

Spreading the truth about vaccines faces serious difficulties. No doctor or scientist can look a parent in the eye and guarantee that the vaccines are entirely, 100% guaranteed harmless. As with any drug, a minimal but non-zero risk of negative effects exists. This complicates fighting the emotional delivery of the anti-vaxxer message with a scientific mumble about statistics and risks.

Occasionally, a strong pro-vaccine argument goes viral. But this seems not sufficient to fight the trend. Perhaps the knowledge of when and where to spread the pro-vaccine message will help to reassure young parents facing childhood vaccinations as well as encourage healthy adults to seek a flu vaccine as an altruistic act of protection by "herd immunity" for the elderly and immune suppressed who face serious threats when the flu goes around.

*in the vast majority of cases; but always talk to your doctor about individual medical decisions.