If antivaccine protestors have gained a stronger voice against use of the human papillomavirus virus (HPV), they should thank Facebook, according to a new study.

A report in Vaccine advises that anti-HPV vaccination social media messages may increase vaccine hesitancy and avoidance. A University of Missouri–led study looked at the first decade of public, HPV vaccine–related Facebook posts’ characteristics, engagement, and health-belief messages. Researchers examined at how variables changed over time and identifyied and analyzed posts with the most engagement.

The data sample consisted of 6,506 public HPV vaccine–related Facebook posts published within 10 years of the FDA’s first HPV vaccine approval—from June 8, 2006 to June 8, 2016.

Researcher Monique L.R. Luisi, PhD, coded post characteristics, engagement, and health-belief model messages using Krippendorf’s alpha range: 0.71 to 1.00.

Results indicated that posts discussing barriers to HPV vaccination appeared more often (47.1%) than benefits (19.8%). “Regarding the tone towards the vaccine, negative was dominant (45.0%) and the average sample sentiment was negative (M = –0.15, SD = 0.851),” the study notes. “Tone positivity was negatively correlated with barriers to HPV vaccine (r = -0.631, p < 0.0001).”

Dr. Luisi points out that the post with the most engagement—11,000 reactions, 6,100 comments, and 329,000 shares displayed—was anti-HPV vaccine, and that, overall, negative posts received significantly greater engagement. Furthermore, negative tone and barriers had a greater presence over time.

“Facebook posts about the HPV vaccine were mostly negative with a frequent focus on barriers to vaccination,” she explained. “Time effects suggest that anti-HPV vaccine posts have encouraged more anti-HPV vaccine posts. Research should continue to address the influence of time.”

The study adds, “The influence of messages that are pro-HPV vaccine, but perhaps are negative in tone, address barriers, and/or presented by individual stakeholders, should be tested inside and outside of social media channels.”

Despite the vaccine’s reported benefits of preventing multiple cancers and genital warts, Dr. Luisi said that 45% of the posts she identified displayed a negative tone toward people getting the vaccine. 

“The representation of the HPV vaccine has not only worsened, but negative posts toward the HPV vaccine have received more public engagement, and evidence shows that these negative posts have generated momentum for other related negative posts,” Dr. Luisi said. “It would be one thing if we only saw just the negative information out there. But there's also negative momentum carried by these posts, and if negative posts are encouraging more people to post other negative content, then we can predict how the conversation is going to go and that people are also being influenced by the messages they see.”
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