Geographic and Demographic Correlates of Autism-Related Anti-Vaccine Beliefs on Twitter, 2009-15

Soc Sci Med. 2017 Oct;191:168-175. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.08.041. Epub 2017 Sep 4.

Abstract

This study examines temporal trends, geographic distribution, and demographic correlates of anti-vaccine beliefs on Twitter, 2009-2015. A total of 549,972 tweets were downloaded and coded for the presence of anti-vaccine beliefs through a machine learning algorithm. Tweets with self-disclosed geographic information were resolved and United States Census data were collected for corresponding areas at the micropolitan/metropolitan level. Trends in number of anti-vaccine tweets were examined at the national and state levels over time. A least absolute shrinkage and selection operator regression model was used to determine census variables that were correlated with anti-vaccination tweet volume. Fifty percent of our sample of 549,972 tweets collected between 2009 and 2015 contained anti-vaccine beliefs. Anti-vaccine tweet volume increased after vaccine-related news coverage. California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania had anti-vaccination tweet volume that deviated from the national average. Demographic characteristics explained 67% of variance in geographic clustering of anti-vaccine tweets, which were associated with a larger population and higher concentrations of women who recently gave birth, households with high income levels, men aged 40 to 44, and men with minimal college education. Monitoring anti-vaccination beliefs on Twitter can uncover vaccine-related concerns and misconceptions, serve as an indicator of shifts in public opinion, and equip pediatricians to refute anti-vaccine arguments. Real-time interventions are needed to counter anti-vaccination beliefs online. Identifying clusters of anti-vaccination beliefs can help public health professionals disseminate targeted/tailored interventions to geographic locations and demographic sectors of the population.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Beliefs; Big data; Machine learning algorithms; Social media; Twitter; Vaccines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Vaccination Movement / psychology*
  • Attitude to Health
  • Autistic Disorder / etiology*
  • Autistic Disorder / psychology
  • Geographic Mapping*
  • Humans
  • Social Media / instrumentation*
  • Vaccination / adverse effects*