Anti-vaxxers could rule Facebook within a decade, researchers warn

Health groups are worried about the growing anti-vaccination sentiment brewing online.

Health groups are worried about the growing anti-vaccination sentiment brewing online. Photo: Getty

Anti-vaxxers could rule the social media conversation in a decade if authorities don’t step in, an analysis of Facebook activity in the United States has found.

Despite vaccination being a critical factor in the protection of communities from highly infectious diseases, a growing number of people are refusing vaccines – even in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

It comes after several NRL players polarised the sporting community by refusing to get a flu shot before the soon-to-resume season.

In a move that dealt the league a major blow, the Queensland government effectively banned anti-vax players by enforcing a ‘no jab, no play’ policy backed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But the anti-vaxxer movement doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

A new US study has revealed anti-vaccination views are likely to spread even further over the next decade.

As part of the study, researchers from George Washington University mapped the communication of nearly 100 million Facebook users grouped into clusters: Anti-vaxxers, people neutral about vaccination and people pro-vaccination.

The size of each cluster was determined by the number of fans for a particular Facebook page.

The researchers found the anti-vaccination clusters engaged more with the people who were undecided about vaccination, whereas pro-vaccination clusters largely kept to themselves.

As a result of their findings, the authors suggested anti-vaxxers were able to influence neutral clusters more easily, which could lead to the recruitment of more and more people who previously held neutral views on vaccination.

They predicted that anti-vaccination views, though a minority, could dominate in a decade unless new policies and approaches were developed to interrupt this trend.

How do anti-vaxxers spread their views?

People who want to spread conspiracy theories or pseudoscience on social media will often post stories that deliberately incite a strong emotion, RMIT University digital marketing lecturer Dr Torgeir Aleti told The New Daily.

“Stories that stir up emotions – especially high emotions like outrage – are more likely to be shared,” Dr Aleti said.

“Universities or government organisations that are fact based don’t tend to produce compelling or emotional stories, which means people are much less likely to share it because it doesn’t have that ‘wow’ factor.”

Dr Aleti also said it was difficult for people to detect fact from fiction on their social media feeds.

“On social media, people have their guards down,” he said.

“The sites are designed to make you want to stay online so it’s hard for people to decipher what comes up in the feed is real or not, and what content comes from your friends or other sources.”

He said anti-vaxxers were “falling into the same basket as climate change deniers”.

“Those theories are well and alive on the dark side of the internet and flourishing within certain echo chambers of people who want to believe in them,” Dr Aleti said.

“But in a time of crisis, people seem to come back to what used to be our society’s cornerstones of trust and information – to universities and researchers.”

Topics: Facebook
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