With the anti-vaccination movement growing and measles outbreaks becoming more common worldwide, it's becoming more and more crucial for medical professionals to learn about and understand the characteristics of anti-vaxxers.
Anti-vaccination campaigns have found a particularly effective platform online, where false information can spread like wildfire.
In a new study published in the journal Vaccine, researchers examine anti-vaxxers on Facebook in a bid to characterize their behavior and figure out how to quell the growing reluctance of parents to vaccinate children.
It turns out, the link between vaccines and autism — which has been proven to be false many times over — isn't the only cause fueling the anti-vaccination movement.
Four Sub-Groups Of Anti-Vaxxers
While the sentiment against vaccinations are the same across all anti-vaxxers, there are four different sub-groups of anti-vaccine sentiments: mistrust of medical and government officials, preference for alternative treatments and medicine, fear of vaccine's safety, and conspiracy theories.
The team looked at the public profiles of 197 individuals who posted anti-vaccination comments on an informational video by Kids Plus Pediatrics about the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
The 90-second video, which was posted on Facebook on August 2017, prompted a flood of angry and threatening comments from anti-vaccination Facebook users.
Among the 197 accounts studied, 89 percent were female. Approximately 136 individuals revealed their location on their profiles, showing that the anti-vaxxers come from 36 states in the United States and 8 other countries.
The Verge notes that the biggest chunk in the United States come from California and then Texas. There were 55 profiles with obvious political affiliations, 31 (56 percent) of which supported Donald Trump and six (11 percent) supported Bernie Sanders.
While the study reveals key characteristics of the anti-vaccination groups, there are also limitations, including the relatively small sample size of the subjects. It's possible that studying a larger sample would show more themes and sub-groups.
Furthermore, the authors also only used data available on the Facebook users' public profile.
Next Steps For Public Health
Beth Hoffman, study author and researcher at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, tells CNN that previous studies have shown that anti-vaccine content are widespread on Facebook and across the internet.
"One thing that is important to be thinking about is these anti-vaccine messages are spreading rapidly," she explains. "These very vocal anti-vaxxers are extreme, but we have this full spectrum of people who are vaccine hesitant. They are now being exposed to all this information on social media that can be very persuasive."
Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media companies have already announced policies to help quell the spread of conspiracies and misinformation on their platforms.
Since there are a variety of sub-groups against vaccination, the study authors recommend health professionals to use online platforms to combat the misinformation as well. By using social media strategically, they can provide accurate information to the same groups who are targeted by anti-vaccination campaigns.