The researchers also found anti-vaccination communities offer more diverse narratives around vaccines and other established health treatments—promoting safety concerns, conspiracy theories or individual choice, for example—that can appeal to more of Facebook’s approximately 3 billion users, thus increasing the chances of influencing individuals in undecided communities. Pro-vaccination communities, on the other hand, mostly offered monothematic messaging typically focused on the established public health benefits of vaccinations. The GW researchers noted that individuals in these undecided communities, far from being passive bystanders, were actively engaging with vaccine content.
“We thought we would see major public health entities and state-run health departments at the center of this online battle, but we found the opposite. They were fighting off to one side, in the wrong place,” Dr. Johnson said.
As scientists around the world scramble to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the spread of health disinformation and misinformation has important public health implications, especially on social media, which often serves as an amplifier and information equalizer. In their study, the GW researchers proposed several different strategies to fight against online disinformation, including influencing the heterogeneity of individual communities to delay onset and decrease their growth and manipulating the links between communities in order to prevent the spread of negative views.
“Instead of playing whack-a-mole with a global network of communities that consume and produce (mis)information, public health agencies, social media platforms and governments can use a map like ours and an entirely new set of strategies to identify where the largest theaters of online activity are and engage and neutralize those communities peddling in misinformation so harmful to the public,” Dr. Johnson said.