Impact of COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation on Social Media Virality: Content Analysis of Message Themes and Writing Strategies

Cindy Sing Bik Ngai*, Rita Gill Singh, Le Yao

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Background: Vaccines serve an integral role in containing pandemics, yet vaccine hesitancy is prevalent globally. One key reason for this hesitancy is the pervasiveness of misinformation on social media. Although considerable research attention has been drawn to how exposure to misinformation is closely associated with vaccine hesitancy, little scholarly attention has been given to the investigation or robust theorizing of the various content themes pertaining to antivaccine misinformation about COVID-19 and the writing strategies in which these content themes are manifested. Virality of such content on social media exhibited in the form of comments, shares, and reactions has practical implications for COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. Objective: We investigated whether there were differences in the content themes and writing strategies used to disseminate antivaccine misinformation about COVID-19 and their impact on virality on social media. Methods: We constructed an antivaccine misinformation database from major social media platforms during September 2019-August 2021 to examine how misinformation exhibited in the form of content themes and how these themes manifested in writing were associated with virality in terms of likes, comments, and shares. Antivaccine misinformation was retrieved from two globally leading and widely cited fake news databases, COVID Global Misinformation Dashboard and International Fact-Checking Network Corona Virus Facts Alliance Database, which aim to track and debunk COVID-19 misinformation. We primarily focused on 140 Facebook posts, since most antivaccine misinformation posts on COVID-19 were found on Facebook. We then employed quantitative content analysis to examine the content themes (ie, safety concerns, conspiracy theories, efficacy concerns) and manifestation strategies of misinformation (ie, mimicking of news and scientific reports in terms of the format and language features, use of a conversational style, use of amplification) in these posts and their association with virality of misinformation in the form of likes, comments, and shares. Results: Our study revealed that safety concern was the most prominent content theme and a negative predictor of likes and shares. Regarding the writing strategies manifested in content themes, a conversational style and mimicking of news and scientific reports via the format and language features were frequently employed in COVID-19 antivaccine misinformation, with the latter being a positive predictor of likes. Conclusions: This study contributes to a richer research-informed understanding of which concerns about content theme and manifestation strategy need to be countered on antivaccine misinformation circulating on social media so that accurate information on COVID-19 vaccines can be disseminated to the public, ultimately reducing vaccine hesitancy. The liking of COVID-19 antivaccine posts that employ language features to mimic news or scientific reports is perturbing since a large audience can be reached on social media, potentially exacerbating the spread of misinformation and hampering global efforts to combat the virus.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere37806
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Volume24
Issue number7
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Health Informatics

User-Defined Keywords

  • antivaccine misinformation
  • content analysis
  • content themes
  • COVID-19
  • social media
  • virality
  • writing strategies
  • Social Media
  • Humans
  • COVID-19 Vaccines/therapeutic use
  • Writing
  • COVID-19/prevention & control
  • Communication

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