In-depth: How social media influences opinions on COVID-19 vaccines

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Posted at 5:45 AM, Jul 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-09 07:35:37-04

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — When Andrea, a mother of two from Blue Springs, Missouri, scrolls through her social media feeds, there’s always something about COVID-19.

“I just kinda keep scrolling,” she explained.

She doesn’t give much credence to what she reads about COVID-19 vaccinations on social media.

“People are going to say what they want on social media and that’s not always necessarily factual,” added Jordan, an avid social media user.

So, does the information people view on social media truly influence their real-world actions?

Young Argyris, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Media and Information Department at Michigan State University, is working to answer that question.

She first got involved in the research after giving birth and realizing how much misinformation existed online about childhood immunizations.

Now, her attention is turning toward the COVID-19 vaccine.

A machine-learning algorithm her team developed is analyzing posts and Tweets; categorizing them as either pro-vaccine, neutral or anti-vaccine.

“Very few studies have shown the causal relationship between how we engage with anti-vax messages and our own immunization rate” Argyris explained.

Her study is in the early stages, but she’s been able to draw some takeaways. First, visual posts like memes and pictures draw the most attention.

“Visual stimuli have a greater impact on our information-processing and decision-making,” she explained.

Argyris pointed out many posts spreading misinformation focus on personal and immediate wins. Those views gain traction when friends, family and other trustworthy peers share the posts on social media.

Conversely, posts with scientifically proven vaccine information highlight long-term, societal benefits, which have less personal and immediate appeal.

“This is more a medical doctor wearing a white gown delivering a lecture,” Argyris gave an example.

She said many posts focused on misinformation misspell words or rely on graphics that can sneak past filters dedicated to flagging and removing posts with certain words. She said most cyber filters look for the word “vax,” so posts spreading misinformation now use “vacs” or “vaks” to go undetected.

“It’s very challenging to completely keep our cyberspace free from misinformation,” Argyris admitted.

Her advice is to not believe everything posted on social media and find the true source of a post before taking it to heart.