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Network Diffusion of Anti-Vaccine Sentiment

The attached article details the rise of the anti-vaccine movement in recent years, specifically following a 1999 paper that linked vaccines to autism (which has since been disproven). More specifically, the article talks about how how anti-vaccine sentiment has grown due to social media. This can be tied into the larger hot button issue of “fake news” on social media websites, which has been dominating recent discussions. Despite the fact that vaccines have had a huge effect in nearly eliminating infectious diseases like polio, smallpox, and others, an increasing percentage of parents in the United States, as well as in the world in general, have decided to forgo vaccinating their children. A big factor in the decreasing amount of vaccinations has been the use of social media in delivering anti-vaccine sentiment and false scientific statements to a large number of people. Referring to these falsities as conspiracy theories, the article goes on to blame social media influencers for the recent trends. These are people with a large following on social media, who air out their anti-vaccine messages to a significantly large audience. The article also emphasizes the influence of “echo chambers.” This refers to the tendency of anti-vaccine citizens to ignore information that betrays their previously held beliefs, and to communicate mostly in groups that share their opinion. However, there is still hope, as there have been methods taken by health care professionals to disband the spread of false information, and promote correct scientific facts.

When it comes to the content displayed in this article, the concept of behavior diffusion in networks seems to connect rather significantly. In order to conceptualize this, one can think of social media environments as networks, with individual users operating as nodes. In this sense, anti-vaccine information can cascade through a network, reaching many individuals. This is because when nodes are connected between weak ties, such as when nodes are connected across separate clusters through local bridges, information can still be passed between them with relative ease. Thus, anti-vaccine information is capable of reaching a large number of people, but isn’t necessarily capable of influencing people’s behavior (i.e. vaccinating kids or not). When information is diffused through a network, people’s decisions in adopting it are based not just on the value of the information, but also on the decisions of their neighboring nodes. So we can establish that a distinct individual has their own value associated with their child potentially getting autism from vaccinating, and their own value of their child potentially getting an infectious disease. These values aren’t constantly held, but are rather influenced by the behaviors that connected nodes (or people that one is associated with) adopt. Thus, citizens who place a higher value on vaccinating their kids can still be influenced into not doing so if the community they associate with is primarily against it. Additionally, the article brings up the role of celebrities with a large presence on social media, who, subsequently, have a vast number of connections. These celebrities act as “influential nodes” in a network, as they have the capability to reach a multitude of nodes. Because of their vast amount of connections, these celebrities are capable of creating large behavioral cascades, as their opinions on vaccination can influence more susceptible people, who can influence members of their local communities further.

The concept of “echo chambers” also plays a role in this instance.These are online forums for anti-vaccine citizens to share their viewpoints, and filter out information they disagree with. These online groups act as clusters. Clusters occur in the instance when each node inside of one has a certain fraction of their neighbors inside of it as well. These clusters are separated and connected by weak ties, and they are the only effective way of stopping a cascade of behavioral adoption. Basically, we are far more likely to adopt a behavior that is widely adopted by our cluster. So, because an echo chamber occurs primarily when people close themselves into groups with similar ideas, anti-vaccine community members weigh the benefits of their behavior in terms of their community as well. Even while public health officials are searching for ways to break this cycle of self-affirming information, it is still very difficult to do. These clustered groups of anti-vaccine individuals have adopted a collective behavior. The only way that members of a cluster can effectively adopt a new behavior is if they can implement pro-vaccine citizens in these networks, and attempt to influence nodes on the fringe.


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November 2018