People who frequently interact with low-quality news websites tend to express more reservations about COVID-19 vaccines, according to new research that examined behavior on the social media platform Twitter. The findings have been published in the scientific journal PNAS Nexus.
Survey-based research has indicated that political polarization and exposure to misinformation on social media may have detrimental effects for vaccine uptake. But there hasn’t been much research conducted to find out if real-world social media behavior is associated with people’s opinions on vaccines and the pandemic.
“I was interested in exploring the relationship between social media behavior and vaccine hesitancy after seeing extremely polarized attitudes emerge about the vaccine and the coronavirus pandemic in the United States,” explained study author Steven Rathje (@stevepsychology), a postdoctoral researcher at New York University.
“There have been concerns about an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation on social media, and I wanted to explore in depth how following certain accounts (specifically the accounts of politicians and low-quality news sites) was associated with vaccine hesitancy.”
The researchers conducted two studies to collect data on people’s social media behavior and their views on getting vaccinated for COVID-19. In Study 1, Rathje and his colleagues examined whether the number of conservative politicians and hyper-partisan websites one follows on Twitter was associated with vaccine hesitancy. To this end, the researchers collected data from 1,246 participants using a survey platform called Prolific Academic.
The participants indicated the extent to which they believed that the vaccine was safe and effective. Of these participants, 464 provided their Twitter handles, which the researchers then analyzed. The researchers conducted a network analysis using data from Twitter to examine whether the participants clustered into unique “echo chambers” based on their attitude toward the COVID-19 vaccine.
In Study 2, the researchers examined whether the likelihood of receiving the vaccine was associated with the quality of news articles shared and liked on Twitter. They collected data from participants who used an app called “Have I Shared Fake News.” Participants who agreed to take part in the research were asked about their likelihood to get vaccinated for COVID-19 on a scale of 1 to 100.
Data collection started in April 2021 and ended in October 2021, with most participants using the app in May and June of 2021. The final sample size was 1,600 participants after excluding those who followed more than 50,000 people or did not answer the vaccine likelihood question.
“We linked Twitter data to survey data about vaccine beliefs — in other words, we had data about people’s Twitter activity and their self-reported confidence in the vaccine. And we found that following, favoriting, or retweeting news sites that have previously shared misinformation was associated with self-reported vaccine hesitancy,” Rathje told PsyPost.
The researchers used NewsGuard to assess whether the websites being shared on Twitter produced low-quality content and misinformation.
“We also found that the most vaccine hesitant individuals in our sample followed conservative-leaning politicians and news sources, such as Candace Owens, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Rand Paul, or Tucker Carlson,” Rathje said. In contrast, the least vaccine hesitant individuals in the sample followed left-leaning politicians and news sources such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michelle Obama, and the Washington Post.
But the researchers observed a striking difference when comparing samples from the United States and the United Kingdom.
“We didn’t find that following U.K. conservative politicians was associated with vaccine hesitancy, suggesting that perceptions of the vaccine in the United States were more polarized than in the United Kingdom,” Rathje explained.
“Additionally, we saw ‘echo chambers’ in the United States such that vaccine-hesitant and vaccine-confident participants were in different Twitter networks. These largely resembled political echo chambers, with vaccine-hesitant participants mostly residing in a more conservative online Twitter network. We did not see strong echo chambers surrounding vaccine attitudes in the United Kingdom.”
“I was surprised to find such a strong association between offline attitudes and online Twitter behavior,” Rathje told PsyPost. “This association persisted even when controlling for a number of demographic variables, such as age, gender, and political affiliation. I was also surprised at how much polarization about the vaccine differed cross-culturally. I think the cross-cultural differences demonstrate how different the political elites and media environment is in the United States as compared to other countries.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“The study is correlational, so it is unclear whether following certain Twitter accounts causes vaccine hesitancy, or whether vaccine-hesitant individuals simply self-select into Twitter networks of people who share their beliefs,” Rathje said.
“We’re currently running a study testing the causal impact of following certain accounts on social media behavior. This planned study involves asking people to temporarily unfollow a number of accounts on Twitter for a month. So, we will have some of these future questions about causality addressed in future studies.”
The study, “Social media behavior is associated with vaccine hesitancy”, was authored by Steve Rathje, James K. He, Jon Roozenbeek, Jay J. Van Bavel, and Sander van der Linden.