A systematic study of Facebook posts by anti-vaccine groups revealed that these accounts were spreading distrust in COVID-19 vaccines as far back as February 2020 — before the US government even launched its COVID-19 vaccine development program. The findings, published in the Journal of Public Health, highlight how anti-vaccine groups got a running start on public health messaging and impeded the vaccine rollout.
Vaccine hesitancy continues to get in the way of efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, and studies suggest that anti-vaccine groups on social media played a huge role in stoking distrust in vaccines. Researchers Seth C. Kalichman and his team conducted a study to explore the activity of anti-vaccine groups during the initial wave of the pandemic. In particular, they focused on anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, a platform known to attract conspiracy and anti-vaccine groups.
The researchers identified the four most active anti-vaccine groups on Facebook — Dr. Tenpenny on Vaccines, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), Vaccination Information Network (VINE), and Vaccine Machine. These groups, which all operate under mission statements that explicitly oppose vaccinations, not only post vaccine misinformation several times a week, but frequently broadcast conspiracy theories and suggest alternatives to vaccines such as “natural immunity.”
Kalichman and his team collected Facebook posts shared by the four anti-vaccine groups, posted between February and May 2020, resulting in a total of 2,060 posts. The researchers then used search terms to locate all posts related to COVID-19, discovering that almost half of all posts discussed COVID-19, and about 17% discussed the COVID-19 vaccine.
Alarmingly, both Dr. Tenpenny on Vaccines and the NVIC posted content discussing COVID-19 in early February 2020, with posts about COVID-19 then increasing each month. By March, posts discussing COVID-19 made up the majority of posts from the two groups, dominating 61% of Dr. Tenpenny on Vaccines posts and 51% of NVIC posts. Notably, these posts came months before the US government even launched Operation Warp Speed, the US COVID-19 vaccine development program.
In April, 60% of posts by the four vaccine groups discussed COVID-19, and these posts had been shared 16,000 times — 20% of these posts discussed the vaccine in particular. The content of these posts included insinuation that the COVID-19 vaccine was a conspiracy for profit, and the posts often targeted the government, pharmaceutical companies, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, and Dr. Paul Offit. The messaging also contained claims that COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe, such as wrongly suggesting that messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines can alter genes.
The study pinpoints how anti-vaccine groups got the jump on public health messaging, spreading distrust in a COVID-19 vaccine before one was even created. The researchers say that social media can instead be a tool to promote accurate information and encourage vaccination. “Facebook and other social media platforms have the capacity to disseminate accurate information, create influential public health messages and facilitate the rollout of vaccines,” the study authors say. When accurate information about vaccines is nowhere to be found on these platforms, skepticism easily takes its place.
The researchers caution that their study was limited since it was focused only on the activity of four specific anti-vaccine groups operating on Facebook. Future research will be needed to extend the findings.
The study, “Faster than warp speed: early attention to COVD-19 by anti-vaccine groups on Facebook”, was authored by Seth C. Kalichman, Lisa A. Eaton, Valerie A. Earnshaw, and Natalie Brousseau.