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Social Media Study Reveals Pervasive HIV Vaccine Conspiracy Theories


Posts claim COVID-19 vaccines cause HIV

Vaccine conspiracy theory word cloud ©


Even though vaccines are safe and essential, they have long been a hot-button topic for conspiracy theorists. Tensions were especially high during and after the COVID-19 pandemic when the COVID-19 vaccine sparked nationwide debates on vaccine safety. These have cooled but not gone away, as evidenced by the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Although there is currently no vaccine against HIV, scientists have been working for the past three decades to develop one. The recent success of messenger RNA (mRNA) in COVID-19 vaccines has led scientists to adopt it for HIV vaccine development.

This connection and potential advancement in HIV prevention has caused skeptics to flock to social media, where vaccine discussion is widespread.

To examine the patterns of public discourse on social media, a research team led by Jueman M. Zhang, M.S., Ph.D., M.A., associate professor of journalism at Long Island University, Brooklyn, reviewed 36,424 original posts about HIV vaccines on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) from Jan. 1, 2022, through December 31, 2022.

Results were published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research in early March 2024.

Of the original posts identified, researchers ranked the top 1,000 negative posts with the most engagement. The most discussed topics were the connection between HIV and COVID-19, mRNA HIV vaccine trials, and HIV vaccines and immunity.

The most popular conspiracy theories claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine caused HIV and that COVID-19 resulted from unsuccessful HIV research. Researchers also discovered posts about the fabricated syndrome VAIDS, short for vaccine-acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

Most (51%) of the negative comments about HIV and COVID-19 were replies to other posts. Self-composed posts accounted for 41.6% of studied content, and the remaining interactions were quote-posts, which is a repost feature where they can add their own comment.

Examples of collected conspiracy theories are paraphrased below:

  • “The COVID vaccine contained a spike protein derived from HIV. I was banned from saying this and ridiculed for months. Also, pharmacies stock up HIV self-tests.”
  • “By coincidence again, the development of a new mRNA HIV vaccine began just before the emergence of the new HIV strain.”
  • “HIV was first identified 40 years ago, yet we still lack a vaccine, with only 3 cures. COVID emerged just over 2 years ago, and highly effective vaccines have saved over a million American lives.”

“The results highlight COVID-19 as a significant backdrop for public discourse and reactions on the X platform regarding HIV vaccines,” Zhang writes. “These findings could provide further insights into public health communication strategies to combat conspiracy theories.”

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