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Study: Vaccine Opposition Unites Around Idea Refusal Is a Civil Right

As anti-vaccination discourse ramped up on Facebook over the last decade, it coalesced around the argument that refusing to vaccinate is a civil right, according to a study including a University of Maryland public health researcher that was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Led by George Washington University, UMD School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins University researchers, the study examined more than 250,000 posts on 204 Facebook pages expressing opposition to vaccines between October 2009 and October 2019. While opposition to vaccines historically takes many forms, from concerns about safety to conspiracy theories about government malfeasance, the researchers found the civil rights argument gave vaccine opponents a method to sidestep science and turn the debate toward values like freedom of choice, said study lead David Broniatowski, an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at GWU.

The study also showed that anti-vaccine discourse online evolved following three distinct events: the measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2015, the release of the film “Vaxxed” in 2016 and a worldwide measles outbreak in 2019.

After the release of “Vaxxed,” directed by a discredited former physician, the researchers found the proportion of civil liberties topics discussed actually decreased while discussion of the film itself increased.

“We found Facebook pages that promoted vaccine choice narratives were also sharing ‘Vaxxed’-related promotional content,” said Amelia Jamison, a faculty research assistant at UMD’s Center for Health Equity. “This continued even after the film was released and linked civil liberties-based arguments with broader anti-vaccine claims,”—suggesting the movie producers hijacked the pages to lay the groundwork for a political movement, the researchers said.

In a second article in the same issue, the researchers adapted and extended an existing classification system for vaccine misinformation on Twitter—for the first time categorizing discussion topics in pro-vaccine posts as well as anti-vaccine ones. Led by Jamison, this updating of the typology combined manual annotation with machine-learning methods to estimate the distribution of vaccine arguments to facilitate communication efforts that better promote vaccines and avoid amplifying anti-vaccine rhetoric on Twitter.

Sandra C. Quinn, professor and chair of the Department of Family Science and associate director of the Maryland Center for Health Equity, was a co-author on both papers.

Find the full article on the School of Public Health website.

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