University of Pittsburgh researchers are investigating online misinformation relating to the covid-19 vaccines, thanks to a grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. The goal is to create “beneficial and educational messaging about vaccines,” the university said.
“We wanted to see what are some of the reasons why we’re seeing some of the trends we’re seeing,” said Beth Hoffman, a Ph.D. student in Pitt’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, and one of the lead researchers. “And also, what are some of the ways we can make sure people are getting the correct information?”
The grant, totalling $117,000, will fund a study into how misinformation campaign messaging is created on Twitter and how it changes over time, using a process called social network analysis.
The process involves tracing the flow of information on social media, Hoffman said, like a diagram that shows how people and messages are connected. Hopefully, she said, the researchers will be able to identify key influencers in spreading misinformation and disinformation; then, they can reach out for intervention.
The grant is funding a partnership with Pittsburgh-based Visimo, a data analytics company, which will collect regular samples of tweets about the covid vaccines. Two undergraduate researchers will read the tweets and sort them into categories — starting with positive, negative and neutral, and then further identifying which topics are discussed. Does the negative tweet express concern about mRNA technology? Is it political in nature? Does it contain myths about the vaccine causing infertility?
Hoffman said coding tweets in this way will help researchers identify which misinformation messages are most prominent, and where — based on posts’ geolocations. Once enough data has been collected, the grant funds will allow researchers to work with local community organizations in correcting the messages.
Early analysis so far has shown increasing numbers of tweets with negative sentiment, particularly when it comes to those developed using mRNA, Hoffman said.
The study will focus especially on how misinformation affects different communities, such as minority populations. Health officials in Allegheny County have expressed concern in news briefings and during public meetings that vaccine distribution is relatively low among the county’s Black residents — suggesting more vaccine distrust in communities with higher Black populations.
“Which is particularly troubling given these are some of the communities that have been hardest hit by the virus,” Hoffman said.
Jaime Sidani, assistant professor of medicine and a faculty member in the Center for Research on Behavioral Health, Media and Technology, said anti-vaccine messaging is likely to have capitalized on historic and well-earned mistrust between medical research practices and different minority populations.
“We saw some national surveys indicating many people were hesitant to get the covid-19 vaccine, even before a vaccine candidate became available, and that was increasing over time with each subsequent survey. But they didn’t really explain why or how,” said Sidani in a statement. “We’re using social network analysis to see how messages spread among groups and into other groups, but also learn more about the reasons for hesitancy and develop educational messaging to counter that.”
Misinformation and disinformation surrounding various aspects of the covid-19 pandemic have become a prominent interest for academics in the last several months. In May, researchers at Carnegie Mellon found most of the Twitter accounts tweeting about the coronavirus were bots — contributing to a storm of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
“This is the first pandemic we’ve seen in the age of ubiquitous social media use,” Hoffman said.
Pitt’s research team began noticing misinformation related to the vaccine last summer, according to a news release. Studying the misinformation vaccines during the rollout — which itself has been marred by inconsistencies and lack of clear communication — offers an ideal opportunity to measure public sentiment toward the vaccines, particularly among health care workers who are in Phase 1A, Hoffman said.
Hoffman said Pitt’s newest study was partially inspired by a different project in 2019, which examined anti-vaccine sentiment on social media, and found negativity toward vaccines goes far beyond the typical “vaccines cause autism” myth. She’s hopeful the findings of this study, focusing on the covid vaccines, can inform future research on vaccines for other diseases. Already, Hoffman said, the methods used in the covid vaccine study appear to be transferable for similar projects.
“Hopefully this is the start of future work for other vaccines and vaccine issues,” she said.
The study will continue through the end of 2021.
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