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Tracking anti-vaccination sentiment in Eastern European social media networks

This year's European Immunization Week will be from 22 - 27 April, as part of a global initiative to promote the use of life-saving vaccines, one of the world’s most potent tools to immunize children against killer diseases. Follow us on Twitter with #vaccineswork.

By Lely Djuhari

GENEVA, 22 April 2013 - An innovative UNICEF working paper has tracked the rise of online anti-vaccination sentiment in Central and Eastern Europe. Using state-of-the-art social media monitoring tools, the paper provides evidence that parents are actively tapping into social media networks to decide whether to immunize their children. It also details key language and arguments used, as well as the influencers shaping the online conversation.

The paper was presented by Sebastian Majewski, Impact Analysis Coordinator of UNICEF Social and Civic Media Section, and Oya Zeren Afsar, Immunization Specialist of the Regional Office for CEE/CIS, today at the start of the European Immunization Week in Geneva. The presentation and discussion with partner organization was reported live on Twitter with the #vaccineswork and on Facebook.

Download the publication in PDF format here

Vaccination coverage in this region is generally high. As a result, vaccine-preventable childhood diseases like polio and measles have been absent in most countries for the past few decades. This has led to complacency toward the diseases and has unfortunately made vaccines, rather than the diseases, the focus of debate and discussion. Meanwhile, poorly-managed immunization campaigns in some countries have caused widespread mistrust of vaccines and government vaccination programs. Most countries have run sluggish, high-handed public communication campaigns while avoiding transparent dialogue with the public on possible side effects, coincidental adverse events and other safety issues. Moreover, when new vaccines have been introduced, they have often just exacerbated the public’s existing doubts, hesitations or outright resistance. Into this mix, rapid penetration of the internet in the region has provided a powerful, pervasive platform for anti-vaccine messages to be disseminated.

Researchers have selected social media channels, languages and formulated key word strings for online searches from 1 May till 30 June 2012.  Messages from over 22,300 participants using English, Russian, Romanian and Polish were monitored by volume (using mentions, views, postings), by channels through which users exchange content, by engagement (how users respond, like, share) and by sentiment analysis to detect positive and negative attitudes.

The main findings are:

  • In all four languages, blogs are the most frequently used channel for posting anti-vaccine content in social media (86 per cent in Romanian, 85 per cent in Polish, 65 per cent in Russian and 47 per cent in English). Facebook is the second largest channel among all four languages. Twitter is the second largest channel in Russian, with 24 per cent of total volume.
  • While conversations on forums only make up 2 per cent of total conversations, they account for 25 per cent of interactions. The data skews towards female audiences on issues such as developmental disabilities (59 per cent), chemical and toxins (56 per cent), and side effects (54 per cent). Men focus on arguments around conspiracy theory (63 per cent) and religious/ethical beliefs (58 per cent). Participants discussing anti-vaccination sentiments are approximately 56 per cent female and 44 per cent male.

During the observed time period, the most messages in English recorded used key words stemming from conspiracy theories, distrusts against governments and pharmaceutical industry. Religious and ethical beliefs, distrust against U.S. and western governments drive the Russian speaking discussions.

Anti-vaccination opinion leaders in the online world show varying characteristics. Often they appear well educated in alternative medicine. Some have no college education while others are in the medical field (such as nurses). They often subscribe to social channels of homeopaths and alternative medicine advocates.

Recommendations 

UNICEF is urging governments and partners to invest further in identifying this sentiment and map the extent to which they influence parental decisions not to immunize children. International agencies and other partners will need to combine forces and support governments to reverse this counterproductive trend and develop common strategies to promote immunization, as one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions known in the world.


 

 
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