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Provaccination tweets outnumbered antivax sentiment almost four to one in new research that canvassed a whopping 75 million COVID-19 comments on Twitter at the height of the global pandemic.
Shattering public perception that antivax messaging ruled the airwaves, the collaborative study published today, led by the University of Melbourne in partnership with Curtin University, assessed vaccination-related tweets between March 2020 and March 2021.
Study coauthor Dr Mengbin “Ben” Ye, from the Centre for Optimisation and Decision Science within Curtin’s School of Electrical Engineering, Computing and Mathematical Sciences, said provax discussion significantly dominated antivax discussion in contrast to public perceptions.
“We used a language detection algorithm to classify tweets as ‘antivax’ or ‘provax’ and examined the main topics of discourse using sophisticated machine learning techniques,” Dr Ye said.
“Among 75 million tweets in total, 37 million—or almost half—were provaccination, far outnumbering antivaccination tweets at 10 million. The remaining 28 million tweets were vaccination-related but classified as neutral, neither antivax or provax.”
Dr Ye said the study aimed to compare views expressed by both sides of the vaccination debate, their activity patterns, and how the commentary correlated with vaccine-related events.
“While provax tweets overwhelmingly focused on tracking the vaccine developments over time, antivax tweets involved a large dose of falsehoods, including conspiracies. Jokes and memes dominated antivaccination sentiment despite some antivax tweets expressing genuine concerns,” Dr Ye said.
One of the most surprising findings was the large number of people who held a “dual-stance,” sending out tweets that were both provax and antivax during the study period.
They were also some of the most active: 85% antivax and 66% of provax tweets came from people who posted both provaccination and antivaccination tweets during the observation period.
“Discovering these dual-stance users was unexpected and quite puzzling,” Dr Ye said.
“It took us a while to understand this phenomenon. Contrary to general perception, antivax discussion was often carried out by users who also posted tweets in support of COVID-19 vaccines.
“The presence of dual-stance users is very encouraging, suggesting there is room for genuine dialogue with users who opposed vaccines over social media.
“We believe the changing views of some of these users can be attributed to the huge uncertainty and concern among the general public during the first year of the pandemic.”
Dr Ye said the study of 75 million English-language tweets provided a greater understanding of the public’s feelings toward vaccinations, underlined the substantial amount of misinformation on social media and the difficulty dealing with it, and highlighted the need for future studies to examine the role of memes and humor in driving online social media activities.
The research published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research entitled “Topics in Antivax and Provax Discourse: Yearlong Synoptic Study of COVID-19 Vaccine Tweets” can be viewed online here.
Zaidi Z, Ye M, Samon F, et al. Topics in Antivax and Provax Discourse: Yearlong Synoptic Study of COVID-19 Vaccine Tweets. J Med Internet Res 2023;25:e45069
About Curtin University
Curtin University is Western Australia’s largest university, with close to 60,000 students. In addition to the University’s main campus in Perth, Curtin also has a major regional campus in Kalgoorlie, and a campus in Midland, as well as four global campuses in Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai and Mauritius. Curtin staff and students come from Australia and over 120 other countries around the world, with half our international students studying at Curtin’s offshore campuses.
Curtin is ranked in the top one per cent of universities worldwide, with the University placed 9th in Australia according to the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) 2022 and has achieved a QS Five Stars Plus rating, the highest available for a tertiary institution, and one of only five to do so in Australia.
The University has built a reputation around innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit, being at the forefront of many high-profile research projects in astronomy, biosciences, economics, mining and information technology. It is also recognised globally for its strong connections with industry, and for its commitment to preparing students for the jobs of the future.
For further information, visit curtin.edu.au.
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