Newswise – Increased social media use during the coronavirus pandemic brought an unprecedented rise in the spread of misinformation. Of particular importance were conspiracy theories surrounding the virus and the vaccines developed to combat it. Although conspiracy theories about vaccines are not a new phenomenon, this is the first time they have been seen elevated to the level of national political discourse. A new study led by researchers at the University of Tokyo shows that online political engagement, conspiracy theories and spirituality played a crucial role in shaping the anti-vaccine beliefs of various groups.

The pandemic was a world-changing event that will likely be examined from many different perspectives for a long time to come. Researchers around the world are studying the effects on people, institutions, health and even the environment. Professor Fujio Toriumi from the Systems Innovation Department studies how public opinion is formed by analyzing communication data such as news media or social networks. His group examined the phenomena of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, focusing on Japanese Twitter records, and drew some conclusions about the effects and causes of such beliefs.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a surge in anti-vaccination sentiment on social media, and our study aimed to understand the triggers that led individuals to adopt an anti-vaccination stance,” Toriumi said. “We found that anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, so-called anti-vaxxers, showed greater political engagement compared to pro-vaccine people. Although some Japanese users express right-wing tendencies, a majority lean towards left-wing ideologies, in contrast to what has been observed in the West.”

Long-time opponents of vaccination showed strong political commitment and often allied themselves with liberal parties; However, those included in the anti-vaccine group due to the pandemic showed weaker political interest overall, but terms related to conspiracy theories and spirituality appeared strongly and frequently in their Twitter profile descriptions. Although the study does not prove a causal relationship, it highlights the potential role of conspiracy theories and spirituality as gateways that lead individuals to support more divisive politicians and political parties.

“Spirituality, naturalism, alternative health practices and anti-vaxxers all have something in common: their indifference or even contempt for scientific knowledge,” Toriumi said. “People interested in these topics tend to select the scientific facts that fit their opinions. They also show strong resistance to the incorporation of artificial substances into their bodies under the guise of naturalism. It is believed that these similarities serve as a gateway for anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.”

It may be tempting to believe that the views and opinions of marginalized groups online have no real-world consequences, but there have been some high-profile cases of conspiracy theories pushing the boundaries of the online realm; For example, in the US, the so-called Capitol riot and the far-right conspiracy group QAnon, which is hindering vaccination efforts, and in Japan, the rise of the controversial Sanseito political party, which is built on a variety of conspiracy and anti-immigration theories, including rhetoric, but also environmental protection. And while the spread and impact of conspiracy theories is a global problem, there are some cases that are specific to Japan.

“The uniqueness of left-wing conspiracy theorists in Japan can be traced to the impact of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011,” Toriumi said. “While anti-nuclear sentiments have long been associated with left-wing ideologies, the addition of fears of radioactive contamination has led to the spread of conspiracy theories, particularly on the left, that are believed to be linked to fears of foreign incorporation Substances related to the human body. This may have increased fear, hesitancy and distrust of vaccines during the pandemic and was likely reinforced by increased online representation.”

Across the world, not just in Japan, social media is seen as an important vector for the spread of misinformation. The most important factors include the rapid spread of information and its wide reach, as well as the influence of the echo chamber, which is the way social media platforms present users with things that are likely to support – and reinforce – their prejudices. These unique characteristics of social media make them more vulnerable to the spread of misinformation compared to traditional media, which are more likely to have editorial oversight or even legal regulation of content and which are typically absent on social media. Social media platforms also contain a huge amount of data, which makes monitoring and analyzing them much more difficult.

“The biggest challenge in conducting this research was applying machine learning and data analysis techniques to massive Twitter data feeds that are constantly changing,” Toriumi said. “This was done to classify patterns of people’s attitude changes towards the COVID-19 vaccine and to differentiate between die-hard anti-vaxxers and pandemic-related new anti-vaccinators. In the future, we want to examine the effectiveness of different communication strategies in combating vaccine hesitancy and misinformation. Additionally, we plan to examine the role of social media platforms and their algorithms in amplifying or curbing the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation. Understanding these dynamics is critical to developing effective interventions to promote public health and combat misinformation.”

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