Facts, not fake news, created negative COVID-19 vaccine perception on Twitter

Study examined 4 million posts on social media site in 2021.

Fact-based news on social media caused negative perceptions about COVID-19 vaccines, but fake news did not – a “paradox,” according to a new study of Twitter posts.

The findings were part of the study, “Misinformation versus Facts: Understanding the Influence of News Regarding COVID-19 Vaccines on Vaccine Uptake,” published in Health Data Science.

Researchers examined 4 million Twitter posts in the United States from April 19 to June 30, 2021, to study “the scale and scope of the influence of misinformation and fact-based news about COVID-19 vaccines on social media platforms on the vaccine uptake,” according to a news release about the study. The time was based on the date President Joe Biden set for the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility target for American adults.

“Seemingly counterintuitive, the percentage of fact-related users is significantly negatively associated with the vaccination rate,” study leader Jiebo Luo, PhD, a professor with the University of Rochester Department of Computer Science, said in the news release. “A combination of a larger user-level influence and the negative impact of online social endorsement on vaccination intent may account for this paradox.”

However, no significant correlation was found between the percentage of fake-news-related users and the vaccination rate.

The researchers found 456,061 fact-related tweets and 159,283 Twitter users linked to fact-based news. There were 26,998 tweets indicating “fake news, conspiracy theories, unreliable content, or highly biased news,” from 10,925 users associated with fake news.

The researchers controlled for user-profiles and found Black or African American or other ethnicities, labor forces, and per capita income were negatively associated with vaccine uptake. Meanwhile, gender, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity and the daily counts of new cases and deaths were not associating factors.

State-level vaccination numbers came from the COVID Data Tracker published by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

The authors discussed fact-related news being associated with a lower vaccination rate, a pattern consistently found in survey-based studies and their social media study.

“The reason could be that more fact-related news about the vaccines might raise not only more discussions but also more concerns,” the study said. “This nonpositive perception of the vaccines might induce a decline in the vaccination intent among the people who were hesitant.”

Twitter users who posted fact-based news were more likely to be verified accounts with more significant online influence due to more followers, friends, status, listed memberships and favorites among posts.

“In comparison, the exclusive fake-news users were only one-fifteenth the size of the fact-oriented users with more homogenous opinions,” the news release said. Among the fake-news-related users, most of the keywords in their user descriptions were political, the study said.