UM professor honored for study of vaccine discourse on social media

By LaReeca Rucker

School of Journalism and New Media

An assistant professor of integrated marketing communications from the University of Mississippi earned honorable mention in the Nafziger-White-Salwen Thesis Prize Juried Competition.

Amanda Bradshaw’s three-part dissertation examined vaccine-related social media advertising and biological vaccine discourse on social media during the early months of COVID-19, from March to May 2020.

“Notably, the World Health Organization identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to our societal health in early 2019, long before the novel coronavirus spread,” Bradshaw said. “Thus, this work has implications beyond COVID-19 and is not limited to the current health crisis, but rather contributes to the formulation of effective social media messaging strategies to holistically address reluctance to vaccination – including COVID-19.

Bradshaw said she became interested in the topic while managing strategic communications for a medical group specializing in pediatrics.

“Anecdotally, we were seeing more and more pregnant women and new mothers who were unprepared to make childhood vaccine choices and were choosing to delay or decline one or more standard childhood vaccines,” he said. she declared. “The policy of the practice, at the time, was to discharge these patients rather than engage in dialogue or shared decision-making.”

When Bradshaw began working on her PhD at the University of Florida, she sought to explore better ways to communicate about vaccines with pregnant women and new mothers – both in clinical settings and through media platforms. social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which mothers frequently access in search of health care. information.

His first study used the theoretical foundation of framing theory to explore the framing of vaccine-related ads in Facebook’s ad library. Bradshaw believes this is only the second study to use the Facebook Ad Library tool, invented in 2018, to examine vaccine-related ads, and the only study since Facebook implemented policies to eliminate vaccine misinformation on its platform.

“I compared my findings with previous baseline findings to determine whether vaccine ads were presented differently on Facebook following a series of steps taken by the largest social media platform to actively reduce misinformation about health in its sponsored posts,” she said.

Bradshaw’s second study used public countersphere theory to explore discourse related to #DoctorsSpeakUp, a hashtag invented by pro-vaccine doctors to collectively promote vaccines on Twitter, but which was instead hijacked by advocates. anti-vaccine. The analysis found that the majority of tweets reversed the original message and instead advocated against vaccines, she said.

Her third study explored which sources of credibility mothers rely on to assess the trustworthiness of vaccine messages on social media, and whether a mix of positive and negative comments, such as those that appear organically on Facebook, influences willingness. mothers to share these messages.

“In its entirety, this work illuminates the strategies that pro-vaccine social media campaigns should employ to resonate as much as possible with their target audience and to achieve greater reach, awareness and ultimately increase awareness. uptake of the vaccine, taking into account potential backlash such as what was experienced in the #DoctorsSpeakUp hashtag hack,” she said.

Presented by the Association for Journalism and Mass Communication Education, the Nafziger-White-Salwen Award is the gold standard for excellence in communications memoir, said Gregory P. Perreault , associate professor of digital journalism at Appalachian State University.

“Our entire search committee, which includes academics with impressive qualifications in all aspects of mass communication, reads and evaluates all finalists for this award,” he said. “This year’s competitiveness is impressive, not only because of the number of submissions – one of our highest – but because of the quality of the submissions, which was absolutely remarkable considering the challenges the PhD students faced. to carry out their research in the midst of the pandemic.

“Dr. Bradshaw’s dissertation is emblematic of the analytical quality that we demand in the price, but could never have hoped for under such difficult conditions. His work demonstrates the kind of scholarship that deserves recognition and attention in our domain.

Deb Wenger, associate dean of the UM School of Journalism and New Media, said the award helps confirm what school officials knew about Bradshaw when they hired her.

“Dr. Bradshaw is already making an impact in the field of communication and in our classrooms,” Wenger said. “We are lucky to have someone with her skills as a researcher and as a teacher in as part of the integrated marketing communication programme.”

Key findings from Bradshaw’s study include:

Vaccine hesitancy is not new

“Vaccine hesitancy existed long before COVID-19 and was, in fact, ranked among the top 10 global threats in early 2019, before the pandemic,” Bradshaw said. “So it’s not a new phenomenon.”

Vaccine decision-making is complex and multifaceted, and there is no single public service announcement or communications campaign that will encourage everyone to get vaccinated, she said. Vaccine choices are nuanced and influenced by many factors, including perception of safety and effectiveness, antigen, individual factors related to a person’s health and background, and social influence.

“But pro-vaccine campaigns can be used to move the needle and encourage some fence seekers who are still undecided about which vaccines to vaccinate,” Bradshaw said.

They can also encourage pro-vaxxers to share vaccine-positive messages that can influence others in their peer network to make similar choices by helping normalize vaccination, she said.

Effective pro-vaccine messages are two-way

Since COVID-19, the topic of vaccination has become more politicized and pro-vaxxers are more hesitant to engage with the topic, especially on social platforms, due to concerns over controversy or the perception that deciding whether to vaccinate is a personal choice, Bradshaw said.

“Thus, effective pro-vaccine messages should seek to be two-sided and encourage dialogue rather than being shameful or judgmental,” she said.

Participants in Bradshaw’s third study, all of whom identified as pro-vaccine, disliked messages that had a moralistic overtone or shameful message, such as “Everyone who’s smart vaccinates no questions asked,” she said.

“They were actually more about the idea of ​​good parents asking questions — and looking for credible sources to answer those questions,” she said.

Bradshaw said he learned that messages that focus on personal health benefits tend to be more effective in promoting childhood vaccinations than those that encourage individuals to get vaccinated for the benefit of others in the community.

“These posts should be research-based and direct users to credible links/sources for further research, especially for those who tend to process information more centrally and want to access more than peripheral clues. on vaccination,” she said.

Stakeholder buy-in and credibility are key

Before embarking on a social media vaccination campaign, Bradshaw advises that the effort be carefully thought out and strategic, garnering buy-in from key stakeholder groups.

“In the case of the #DoctorsSpeakUp campaign, the voices of the medical community were quickly drowned out by anti-vaccine advocates, and only a small minority of tweets investigated – less than 17% – were from pro-vaccine doctors, despite the campaign’s original intention to bring the medical community together to promote vaccines,” she said.

Bradshaw said the campaign could have been more successful if organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had endorsed it, actively participated in it and encouraged their members. to do the same.

“Interestingly, at the time of data collection in Study 1, most of the aforementioned organizations, state health departments, universities, and other major medical entities were silent and only published. no paid vaccine content on Facebook, which was a bit surprising due to the timing and context of the search (March-May 2020),” she said.

Study 1 also found that 26% — out of a sample of 41 — of advertisers representing a range of positions on vaccines were individual political candidates or their political campaign representatives, Bradshaw said. This may have contributed to the continued politicization of vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, which was unavailable at the time.

“In short, despite the potential backlash, healthcare professionals and organizations have an important role to play in communicating about vaccines on social media,” she said.


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