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Anti-vaccine opinions increasing on Twitter — and 5 states are the hot spots

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
Yahoo Beauty
Photo: Getty Images

Along with being the unofficial home of White House statements and the place to find out what’s trending, Twitter is a hot spot for anti-vaccine opinions — with the number of tweets on the topic growing, and those from California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania leading the pack, according to the findings of a new study out of the University of Colorado Boulder.

“The debate online is far from over. There is still a very vocal group of people out there who are opposed to vaccines,” said study co-author Chris Vargo, an assistant professor in the College of Media Communication and Information, through a press release. “Half of the talk online that we observed about vaccines was negative.”

For the study, published in the October issue of Social Science and Medicine, Vargo and co-author Theodore Tomeny, an autism researcher at University of Alabama, created an algorithm to examine more than a half-million tweets from around the country between 2009 and 2015. “This study was particularly difficult to do and took many revisions,” Vargo tells Yahoo Lifestyle. To make the sample a manageable size, they looked only at tweets that referred to both autism spectrum disorder and vaccines.

“Our principal researcher here [Tomeny] is an autism researcher, so it matched with his expertise,” Vargo explains.

Other specifics observed about anti-vaccine tweeters, a group that grew between 2010 and 2015: Regions around the country with higher household income (over $200,000) and/or a large number of new moms were most likely to be the source of tweets on this topic. Tweets are also “responsive to news coverage, both for and against vaccines,” Vargo says, pointing to a chart from the study, which shows a spike in tweets out of California between 2014 and 2015 — not surprising, considering that vaccine mandates were fiercely debated and ultimately tightened through a legal change during that time.

But at least part of those study’s findings — that the most vocally anti-vaccine population may be wealthy — is one that’s been debated. While research by Jennifer Reich, of the University of Colorado, has also found this to be true, recent statistics by the Pew Research Center dispute the idea.

“Reports that affluent communities have lower vaccination rates lead some to speculate that people with higher incomes hold more concerns about the safety of the MMR vaccine. The Pew Research Center survey finds, however, that people with higher family incomes tend to rate the risk of side effects from the MMR vaccine as low,” the report on the survey of 1,549 Americans, from Feb. 2017, reads. “Those with higher family incomes are especially strong in their support for a requirement that all children be required to be vaccinated against MMR in order to attend public schools.”

In any event, Vargo said the aim of his research was two-fold: to find out how prevalent the sentiment is online and whether it’s growing, as well as where it clusters geographically. He stressed that he doesn’t see the Twitter posts as a representative sample of overall public opinion, but as taking the pulse of anti-vaccine activism in an area.

A sampling of anti-vaccine tweets like those noted in Vargo’s study, from just this past week, include the following:

But autism was not the only fear expressed by skeptics; themes of other anti-vaccine tweets included distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and worry over the range of vaccine injuries — more than 16,000 claims of which have been examined through the government’s National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program since 1988. (Of those adjudicated claims, 5,680 have been compensated, at a total cost of approximately $3.7 billion. The rest were dismissed.)

Ultimately, Vargo envisions using his study’s algorithm to create real-time maps for pediatricians to use in gauging anti-vaccine sentiment in their communities — as well as leading to targeted campaigns about vaccine safety developed by public health agencies.

“Monitoring anti-vaccination beliefs on Twitter,” he said, “can uncover vaccine-related concerns and misconceptions, serve as an indicator of shifts in public opinion, and equip pediatricians to refute anti-vaccine arguments.”

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