Newswise – EAST LANSING, Mich. – Effective population-level vaccination campaigns are essential to public health. Countercampaigns as old as the first vaccines have the potential to disrupt distribution and threaten public health worldwide.

Even before March 2020, vaccine hesitancy was directly linked to misinformation – false, inaccurate information that was promoted as factual – on social media. When COVID-19 reached pandemic status, social media was considered the epicenter of information that led to vaccine hesitancy, which the World Health Organization (WHO) defines as “a delay in accepting or refusing vaccination despite the availability of vaccination services.”

The young Anna ArgyrisAssociate Professor at Michigan State University Media and Information Departmentis part of an international team studying the harmful effects of vaccine misinformation on social media and interventions that can increase vaccination behavior.

The team led by a Columbia College professor Kai Ruggerirecently had one Study published in the British Medical Journal, or BMJ, which ranks eighth among all research journals worldwide. “Misinformation is not new and its harmful consequences are not insurmountable, but its impact on vaccine hesitancy on social media represents an urgent global threat to public health,” Argyris said. “Increasingly robust evidence shows the drivers and impacts of this phenomenon, but there are few successful interventions.”

Argyris has been researching vaccine hesitancy, misinformation and social media since 2018. In 2022, she and her fellow graduate students published one study to intervention-based social media campaigns. The study caught the attention of Ruggeri, who then asked Argyris to contribute to the BMJ article.

“My research aims to mitigate bias, misperceptions and delays in decision-making, thereby improving effectiveness and efficiency – and therefore equity and quality of life in our society,” Argyris said.

In the BMJ article, Argyris and her co-authors outline ten insights based on existing research that aim to help provide a clear, specific and evidence-based toolkit for reducing vaccine hesitancy:

1. Negative sentiment on social media could increase vaccine hesitancy faster than interventions reduce it.

There is ample evidence that anti-vaccination messages are increasingly being spread on social media, leading to organized offline actions and increased hesitancy. There is less evidence that efforts to specifically curb misinformation have had a reliable effect on adoption in practice.

2. Messaging seems to work best when it is tailored to what groups know and care about.

Once misinformation and conflicting views prevail, it is critical to speak directly to the audience, understand the reasons for hesitation, and frame information in a way that is meaningful to the individual.

3. Simple communications about benefits and risks based on probabilities are not sufficient.

Messages must be delivered in a way that reinforces individual cultural values, addresses topics that are important to the individual – not just health facts – and uses credible sources of information. Visual images also help convey effective messages.

4. Correct misinformation towards parents and their children.

Of course it’s worth contacting your parents, but young people also get information on the Internet. Directly involving parents and young people in designing messages could strengthen the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns for children.

5. Trust It depends: the message, the messenger and the (vaccinated) provider.

Trust is perhaps the most salient feature of successful vaccination campaigns, including those conducted via social media. The source of the message, be it a healthcare provider, a politician or a social media influencer, is likely to play an important role in whether individuals and communities find information credible. These interventions have great potential when delivered to the right populations.

6. Debunking efforts have had mixed effects on social media.

Disseminating information from public institutions or providing contradictory information from third parties can help counter misinformation, reduce the intention to spread misinformation, and promote health behaviors, but the process is not always smooth. The backfire effect is a worrying pattern in which refuting misinformation reinforces it and deepens false beliefs.

7. Improving the quality and visibility of reliable information can counteract misinformation.

The high level of misinformation that appears in online searches can override more reliable sources and limit the effectiveness of information about how, where and when to get vaccinated. Graphics, posters and videos help audiences see and interact with accurate and accessible information.

8. Formulating vaccination messages is important.

A public campaign cannot cover all vaccines, diseases, populations and reasons for hesitancy. Formulating messages that are directly tailored to the needs of a population – that is, addressing the specific benefits and risks of the population group – has led to a significant increase in vaccination rates.

9. Blanket bans can drive groups and activities forward underground.

Sweeping social media bans on individuals or specific content can paradoxically lead to the spread of misinformation and disrupt echo chambers by driving discussions into private social media groups or closed forums.

10. Social media platforms must be part of it Solution.

Social media companies should be more proactive in addressing the abundance of misinformation on their websites. Providing data and collaborating with researchers and regulators in all countries is critical to developing effective solutions to combat misinformation.

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