Social media is feeding the anti-vaccination movement

Research shows U.S. adversaries like Russia are pedaling fake health propaganda on sites like Twitter and Facebook.

vaccinePhoto/Getty Images

Disinformation about vaccines is on the rise on social media and leading to decreases in vaccination rates over time, according to a new study co-authored by Brandeis politics professor Steven Wilson. Now, he’s calling on countries like the U.S. to step up the fight against bogus health-related propaganda showing up online.

The study, titled “Social media and vaccine hesitancy,” which Wilson compiled with global health professor Charles Wiysonge of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, says much of the vaccine talk on sites like Twitter and Facebook consists of fake information pedaled by bots and promulgated by foreign adversaries like Russia.

The situation is leading to an increase in vaccine hesitancy, which the study notes is not only on the World Health Organization’s list of top 10 threats to global health overall, but also promises to be a major factor as governments roll out a COVID-19 vaccine.

Wilson, an expert on Russia and digital politics, said his involvement in this research project began in February after the WHO started bringing together scholars to study connections between health and democracy.

“We were honestly surprised at what we found,” Wilson said. “Normally, with findings this statistically significant, we start to wonder if there were variables we forgot to control for — results are never this cut and dry.”

Wilson and Wiysonge surveyed social media data and vaccination rates globally. Next, they tabulated their findings on a five-point scale.

Their findings show that mean vaccination rates drop 12 percent per decade with every one-point upward shift on the disinformation scale.

They also modeled the connection between foreign disinformation and negative social media activity about vaccinations. Wilson and Wiysonge’s surveys showed a 15 percent increase in negative vaccine tweets for the median country based on the substantive effect of foreign disinformation.

Wilson said the study sheds light on foreign disinformation about vaccines generally, and does not exclusively blame Russia. However, the study cites other research that states Russian bots and troll farms are pushing anti-vaccination messages on a large scale on Western social media in conjunction with Russia’s foreign broadcast network.

“Someone needs to be doing something about Russia,” Wilson said. “There is ample research that Russia is pushing anti-vaccination propaganda in various places around the world, and that disinformation is affecting health outcomes consistently.”

Another approach to stopping the anti-vaccination talk online is for governments to hold social media companies accountable by mandating them to remove false anti-vaccination content, regardless of whether it’s from genuine domestic actors or a foreign propaganda operation.

Though he doesn’t agree with the argument, Wilson acknowledges there may not be the political will to take that step out of fear of infringing on freedom of speech.

“It’s not censorship if what you’re doing is removing lies,” Wilson said. “It’s not censorship when you’re not allowing people to yell ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theater.”

“You’re perfectly free to make a health decision even when it’s to your detriment, but it’s not always about you,” he added. “If a significant population is making the wrong choices, it’s not so cut and dry. You want people making these determinations with correct information in the first place.”

Categories: General, Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

Return to the BrandeisNOW homepage