“It's not all about autism”: Analyzing a Facebook-fueled anti-vaccination attack

Elizabeth Felter, Dr.P.H., assistant professor of community and behavioral health sciences at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, connected Kids Plus Pediatrics with graduate student Beth Hoffman, B.Sc., and scientists at the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health. Hoffman led the team in partnering with the pediatrics practice to perform a systematic analysis to better understand the people behind the comments and how they cluster in the digitally-connected world of social media. 

Pittsburgh says that Hoffman’s team analyzed the profiles of a randomly selected sample of 197 commenters and determined that, although Kids Plus Pediatrics is an independent practice caring for patients in the Pittsburgh region, the commenters in the sample were spread across 36 states and eight countries. 

The team also found that the majority of commenters were mothers. In those for which it could be determined, the top two political affiliations of the commenters were divergent, with 56 percent expressing support for Donald Trump, and 11 percent expressing support for Bernie Sanders.

By delving into the messages that each commenter had publicly posted in the previous two years, the team found that they clustered into four distinct subgroups:

·  “trust,” which emphasized suspicion of the scientific community and concerns about personal liberty;

·  “alternatives,” which focused on chemicals in vaccines and the use of homeopathic remedies instead of vaccination;

·  “safety,” which focused on perceived risks and concerns about vaccination being immoral; and

·  “conspiracy,” which suggested that the government and other entities hide information that this subgroup believes to be facts, including that the polio virus does not exist.

“The presence of these distinct subgroups cautions against a blanket approach to public health messages that encourage vaccination,” Hoffman said. “For example, telling someone in the ‘trust’ subgroup that vaccines don’t cause autism may alienate them because that isn’t their concern to begin with. Instead, it may be more effective to find common ground and deliver tailored messages related to trust and the perception mandatory vaccination threatens their ability to make decisions for their child.”

Todd Wolynn, M.D., chief executive officer of Kids Plus Pediatrics and a co-author of the research paper, said that although the negative comments in reaction to the practice’s video were disheartening, he’s glad it turned into a learning experience that may benefit other clinicians.

“We’re focused on keeping kids healthy and preventing disease whenever possible. In this age of social media disinformation, evidence-based recommendations from a trusted health care provider are more important than ever,” he said. “We’re thrilled to play such a key role in research that empowers pediatricians worldwide to meet parents where they are, appreciate their concerns, and communicate the incredible power and value of vaccination.”

— Read more in Beth L. Hoffman et al., “It’s not all about autism: The emerging landscape of anti-vaccination sentiment on Facebook,” Vaccine (21 March 2019) (doi: org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2019.03.003)