Media expert: Facebook giving anti-vaxxers stronger voice against HPV vaccine

COLUMBIA, Mo. – There’s no question that social media has changed the world. While these platforms bring many positives, they can also aid in spreading negative information too. One media expert says that concerning trend is now affecting how the public views childhood vaccinations.

A study by media expert Monique Luisi finds a growing movement against the vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV) on Facebook. The assistant professor at the University of Missouri studied over 6,500 public Facebook posts related to the HPV vaccine. Luisi says 45 percent of the posts have a negative tone about people receiving the vaccination.

Anti-vaxxers and HPV vaccine

HPV is a common sexually transmitted infection that has no cure. It’s also been linked to six different types of cancer. Although many people who have the virus don’t show any symptoms, they can still infect others.

Doctors recommend that children receive two doses of the vaccination against the virus between ages 11 and 12. Luisi says a negative trend, in turn, has been growing since the vaccine’s inception in 2006.

“The representation of the HPV vaccine has not only worsened, but negative posts toward the HPV vaccine have received more public engagement, and evidence shows that these negative posts have generated momentum for other related negative posts,” says Luisi in a media release.

“It would be one thing if we only saw just the negative information out there,” she adds. “But there’s also negative momentum carried by these posts, and if negative posts are encouraging more people to post other negative content, then we can predict how the conversation is going to go and that people are also being influenced by the messages they see.”

Opponents of vaccinations, known as anti-vaxxers, continue to fight against the HPV drug despite its proven benefits. Their posts regularly target the vaccine’s safety, efficacy, and question whether it encourages sexual behavior.

Social media’s power of perception

Luisi plans to investigate how negative social media content impacts parents’ decisions related to the HPV vaccine.

“People talk about a lot of things on social media,” the professor adds. “While someone might not be directly involved in a conversation on a particular topic, they still might see that conversation while scrolling through their social media. Therefore, I think it’s important to think about intent when sharing content. Even the simple act of sharing — intentional or unintentional — can influence others.”

Despite the negative narrative on Facebook, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the vaccine is extremely safe and there is no evidence of side-effects such as infertility.

The study is published in the journal Vaccine.

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