A comparison between online social media discussions and vaccination rates: A tale of four vaccines

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has brought the debate around vaccinations to the forefront of public discussion. In this discussion, various social media platforms have a key role. While this has long been recognized, the way by which the public assigns attention to such topics remains largely unknown. Furthermore, the question whether there is a discrepancy between people’s opinions as expressed online and their actual decision to vaccinate remains open. To shed light on this issue, in this paper we examine the dynamics of online debates among four prominent vaccines (i.e., COVID-19, Influenza, MMR, and HPV) through the lens of public attention as captured on Twitter in the United States from 2015 to 2021. We then compare this to actual vaccination rates from governmental reports, which we argue serve as a proxy for real-world vaccination behaviors. Our results demonstrate that since the outbreak of COVID-19, it has come to dominate the vaccination discussion, which has led to a redistribution of attention from the other three vaccination themes. The results also show an apparent discrepancy between the online debates and the actual vaccination rates. These findings are in line with existing theories, that of agenda-setting and zero-sum theory. Furthermore, our approach could be extended to assess the public’s attention towards other health-related issues, and provide a basis for quantifying the effectiveness of health promotion policies.

Qingqing Chen
Qingqing Chen
PhD Candidate | Data Scientist

Ph.D. candidate focuses on critically understanding urban space by leveraging big data, combined with data science and machine learning techniques.