A Cultural Typology of Vaccine Misinformation

Christensen, Michael | $42,090

Ontario Carleton University 2021 SSHRC

As Canada moves into the second year of the pandemic, attempts to control the novel coronavirus through public health measures have been confronted by two specific problems that started long before 2020. The first is the systematic under-funding of public health institutions leading to reduced capacity, and in turn, an erosion of public trust. The second is a media ecosystem in which misinformation, conspiracy theories and rumors travel faster and farther than accurate information. This proposed research project develops a new way to understand and address these intersecting problems, and specifically the related persistence of vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccination campaigns, at a time when vaccine distribution has become the central focus of public health institutions. In this project, we ask why anti-vaccination messages have continued to resonate with portions of the population, despite public efforts to communicate accurate information with a “just the facts” strategy. While a growing number of studies have focused on the phenomenon of increased vaccine misinformation on social media, our project offers a nuanced approach for tabulating the underlying cultural narratives that connect vaccine misinformation to other social and political issues (such as right-wing politics or religious ideology), leading to online communities that are resistant to fact-checking campaigns. Such an approach sees misinformation on social media as representative of complex community formations, and not simply as the pathological spread of “bad” information that could be countered with “good” information.

Our project’s main contribution will be a cultural typology that we develop by examining vaccine related misinformation posted on Twitter over the course of several months. To analyze this data, we rely on a methodology that blends interpretive social science research with new tools in the field of computational social science that help us find patterns of meaning within large amounts of social media data. With the help of a small data annotation team, recruited based on their knowledge of science communication and media literacy, we exam the underlying cultural narratives found in individual examples of vaccine misinformation. We draw on theories from the field of cultural sociology to identify the deep cultural structures that communities use to define their boundaries and give meaning to their actions. In this sense, our research looks at how vaccine misinformation relies on moral concepts such as “freedom” or “choice,” as well as spreading specific concerns about a given vaccine.

The unique blend of theory and methodology in this research will advance knowledge in the fields of cultural sociology, public health research, and computational social science. Likewise, it contributes to debates in the field of health communications grappling with the limitations of fact-checking and literacy programs that fail to address the reasons why health misinformation can be so difficult to dispute convincingly. For social scientists, journalists and public health teams searching for practical ways to counter vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaccination campaigns, our typology could be a useful tool for connecting with people where they are, instead of making assumptions about how and why people consume vaccine misinformation. Our knowledge mobilization strategy includes a focus on academic outlets, however we also will develop a guideline for using our typology in health communication. The computational processes we develop will be published on open-sourced platforms so future researchers can test and implement our findings.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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