Evidence of disorientation towards immunization on online social media after contrasting political communication on vaccines. Results from an analysis of Twitter data in Italy

Piero Manfredi, Samantha Ajovalasit, Veronica Maria Dorgali, Angelo Mazza, Alberto d'Onofrio

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Abstract

Background In Italy, in recent years, vaccination coverage for key immunizations as MMR has been declining to worryingly low levels, with large measles outbreaks. As a response in 2017, the Italian government expanded the number of mandatory immunizations introducing penalties to unvaccinated children's families. During the 2018 general elections campaign, immunization policy entered the political debate with the government in-charge blaming oppositions for fuelling vaccine scepticism. A new government (formerly in the opposition) established in 2018 temporarily relaxed penalties and announced the introduction of forms of flexibility. Objectives and methods First, we supplied a definition of disorientation, as the "lack of well-established and resilient opinions among individuals, therefore causing them to change their positions as a consequence of sufficient external perturbations". Second, procedures for testing for the presence of both short and longer-term collective disorientation in Twitter signals were proposed. Third, a sentiment analysis on tweets posted in Italian during 2018 on immunization topics, and related polarity evaluations, were used to investigate whether the contrasting announcements at the highest political level might have originated disorientation amongst the Italian public. Results Vaccine-relevant tweeters' interactions peaked in response to main political events. Out of retained tweets, 70.0% resulted favourable to vaccination, 16.4% unfavourable, and 13.6% undecided, respectively. The smoothed time series of polarity proportions exhibit frequent large changes in the favourable proportion, superimposed to a clear up-and-down trend synchronized with the switch between governments in Spring 2018, suggesting evidence of disorientation among the public. Conclusions The reported evidence of disorientation for opinions expressed in online social media shows that critical health topics, such as vaccination, should never be used to achieve political consensus. This is worsened by the lack of a strong Italian institutional presence on Twitter, calling for efforts to contrast misinformation and the ensuing spread of hesitancy. It remains to be seen how this disorientation will impact future parents' vaccination decisions.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0253569
JournalPLoS ONE
Volume16
Issue number7
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jul 2021

Keywords

  • Italy
  • vaccination coverage
  • immunizations
  • immunisations
  • MMR
  • 2018
  • general election campaign
  • Twitter
  • tweets
  • disorientation
  • social media
  • misinformation
  • parents
  • vaccine decisions

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