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Researchers Say Fewer Pricks Could Help Combat Covid Vaccine Hesitancy

Anti-vaxxers dig in their heels when challenged with facts and are more likely to soften their opinion through exposure to relatable, empathetic stories.

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If you’ve ever found yourself reeling in your chair, heart rate thumping, and skin burning red after angrily sending link and after link of CDC data to that anti-vaxxer in your life who just doesn’t get it, turns out you’re probably doing it wrong.

New research from the University of Surrey suggests that a rigid, fact-based approach to persuading anti-vaxxers could be a waste of time. The report, which looked at case studies involving vaccine hesitation in three different countries determined emotion, and particularly empathy, are more effective at understanding and limiting potential covid-19 misinformation than straight cold hard facts.


Though anti-vaxxers and their “pro-vax” foils regularly duke it out on Twitter and Facebook, relatively few of those conversations tend to end up in anything more than a hardening of positions. Part of that, the report notes, stems from the reality that both groups, be they pro, or anti-vax are, “supported and amplified by echo-chambers that legitimize their arguments.”

And while anti-vaxxers typically present factually inaccurate claims, the report says the most ardent pro-vax groups and activists find some commonality in their almost moral need to denounce their opposition. That results, unsurprisingly, in charged comments defined by negative sentiments. Further, the report’s authors argue that many pro-vaxxers have “limited capacity to engage constructively” due in part to adopting a position of inherent moral superiority that prevents them from empathizing with anti-vaxxers.


“From our quantitative analysis we conclude that pro-vax users engage with anti-vax but their messages have a negative and often recriminatory emotional tone,” the report’s authors wrote. “Most of the online engagements fail to conclude with constructive deliberation practices, such as agreement on the topic and the public expression of future collaboration amongst the groups.”

The researchers said they focused their covid-19 analysis based on online engagement from IoVaccino and LesVaxxeuse, two civil society organizations in Italy and France respectively who attempt to battle misinformation online, mostly via Facebook and Twitter. Though both of those organizations were able to present information to vaccine skeptical users online, those discussions still struggled to translate to anything productive. The researchers blamed part of that rhetorical roadblock on a lack of so-called “emotional equipment,” needed by users on both sides to effectively deal with strong arguments proposed by people who they believe to be part of an “opposite” group. That lack of emotional equipment, the researchers write, “impedes constructive forms of empathy.”

To use a somewhat tired term, tribal politics takes over.

On the pro-vax side, the researchers suggest their deep beliefs in the virtues of the positions they are arguing for create an arguably justified moral superiority position. Even though they may be factually correct, the report argues that the superiority position can lead some in the pro-vax group to “develop a paternalistic and evangelistic discourse that, again, impedes the understanding of their adversary as an equal.”


The researchers also looked at a third case study that actually had nothing to do with covid-19 at all, but arguably illustrated some productive paths people can take to break through entrenched mental barricades. In that case, which involved fierce online debate in Ireland between 2017 and 2019 over the HPV vaccine, the researchers highlighted examples of successful strategies deployed by civil society organizations.

The report zeroes in on one activist in particular, Laura Brennan, who they claimed played a pivotal role in driving vaccination rates back up. Brennan campaigned for the HPV vaccine after she herself developed cervical cancer. Though the vaccine can help reduce the risk of cervical cancer, Brennan was too late and would eventually end up dying from her disease. Before she died, Brennan engaged in a campaign, eventually coordinated with the government, to drive up vaccinations.


Brennan’s approach worked, the report argues, in part because anti-vaxxers could see themselves in her story, illustrating an example of something called a “mirroring strategy.”

“Laura’s case points at the importance of creating identification with ‘hesitant’ people and engaging with them at the same emotional level,” the authors write. “The case also emphasizes the importance of transforming negative emotional energy into positive emotional energy in order to take people out of the emotion of fear.”


With those lessons learned, the researchers recommend creating partnerships to support social media and activists, and other groups with technical and emotional support to encourage better, more empathetic conversation online. They also recommend large organizations find influencers or other activists like Brennan in Ireland and connect them with potential target audiences. That real human story, the report argues, “help[s] a campaign to go beyond scientific strategies of legitimacy and connect emotionally with the audience.”

And though the report’s findings were intended to illuminate methods for countering anti-vaccination efforts, the authors said they could also potentially be expanded to inform legislation around online harm broadly.


“Disinformation is about emotions and dealing with them means understanding and using emotions to counter that disinformation,’ Project lead and University of Surrey Associate Professor Dr. Itziar Castelló said in a statement.