(USA and CANADA) COVID-19 vaccines have once again become a hot topic in the United States as President Joe Biden pushes on with vaccination mandates in a bid to manage concerns around the Omicron variant ahead of the winter flu season. Despite vaccination rates reaching 60%, vaccination coverage remains uneven across the fifty states, with many Americans identifying with and embracing labels such as 'anti-vaxxer' as a form of social identity.
Leveraging proprietary Artificial Intelligence (AI) built to understand online human behavior in a completely anonymous way, SQREEM Technologies' recent U.S. COVID-19 Vaccine Study provides a striking insight into the attitudes and motivations of anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant. The study utilizes anonymized digital engagement scores as the main metric to understand audience relevance to topics/aspects surrounding COVID-19 vaccination. In the study, 'anti-vaxxers' are audiences that do not agree with the COVID-19 vaccine and its use, while 'vaccine-hesitant' are audiences that are reluctant to use the COVID-19 vaccine despite its availability. For both groups, digital engagement scores with values greater than 5 signify awareness, while values greater than 10 signify a strong engagement with the topic.
Overall, the study found that anti-vaxxers are confused about the topic of COVID-19 vaccination, considering vaccines to be an inconvenience and ineffective. On the other hand, vaccine-hesitant persons are significantly more confused and tend to have misconceptions about vaccines; however, they showed stronger engagement towards topics and content directly related to various vaccine brands.
"At SQREEM, we believe in the power of tech for good, to uplift lives and bring social and economic progress for all. We recognize that many challenges still exist in the fight against this global pandemic, including people's hesitancy towards vaccination. The goal of this study was to develop a better understanding of the attitudes and rationales behind vaccine resistance to help healthcare professionals, regulators and policymakers find innovative ways to tackle the challenges," said Ian Chapman-Banks, CEO and co-founder of SQREEM.
Safety, level of protection worries anti-vaxxers
Taking a closer look, the study found that anti-vaxxers are highly concerned about vaccine ingredients (10.45) and often search for information regarding COVID-19 vaccines and live viruses. Unwilling to get vaccinated because they fear that vaccines may contain live viruses (6.05), they however show an interest in knowing about the efficacy rate of various vaccines (5.8). Safety of vaccines administered (8.06) and concerns about the duration of protection offered (7.96) are top reasons that shape the attitudes of anti-vaxxers who predominantly worry about blood clots as a possible adverse side effect of COVID-19 vaccinations (5.77). Anti-vaxxers also showed a high interest in anti-vaccine protests (8.68) and were found to be heavily influenced by opinions of vaccine skeptics (11.86), including public and political personalities
Anxiety outweighs health protection interests for the vaccine-hesitant
In comparison, vaccine-hesitant people turned to pro-vaccine key opinion leaders (10.14) such as medical professionals for information significantly more than they referenced vaccine skeptics (5.6). Interestingly, they also demonstrated a strong interest in vaccine myths and conspiracies (9.74). Curious about the ingredients (23.99) and mechanism of action (12.66) for various vaccine brands, this group also showed a strong interest in searching about vaccine appointments online (12.25). But despite being highly interested in the long-term personal health protection offered by COVID-19 vaccines (26.3), their vaccine-resistant behavior is driven by skepticism around the efficacy of vaccines and concerns over possible side effects, with blood clots (13.53) and death (9.23) being their primary fears.
Resistance heightens as the pandemic prolongs
The study also noted important changes in the online behavior of both groups as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed. While both groups showed a greater affinity towards religious leaders, the vaccine-hesitant increasingly placed value on the opinion of celebrities. Notably, mainstream media such as TV and radio become the main sources of information for both groups.
While concerned about the higher severity of infections (9.55), anti-vaxxers' rejection of vaccines was driven by longer-term concerns, including the inefficiency of vaccines against new variants and severe infections (5.32), and increased interest in side-effect myths, particularly the belief that vaccines alter a person's DNA (6.25). This group also felt strongly that people with underlying conditions should not get vaccinated (17) and showed high engagement on topics surrounding vaccines and fertility.
Despite their fears about the greater risk of transmission (9.9), the vaccine-hesitant remain skeptical about the technology used to develop vaccines (5.38) and believe it is unsafe for children (6.43) and breastfeeding women (5.09) to be vaccinated. Their pre-existing belief in myths compounded their fears of vaccine side effects, including concerns about increased susceptibility to COVID-19 (9.3), links to Bell's Palsy (7.13) and cancer caused by altered DNA (8.11), harmful effects from shedding of vaccine components (7.39) and human magnetism (6.81).
Ian added, "Insights from this study indicate that an important aspect of overcoming vaccine resistance lies in understanding the behavior of people and applying this knowledge to address their concerns. Tailoring messages to be meaningful and to resonate with different audiences can be effective in countering misinformation and conspiracy theories. Promote open, honest conversations by leveraging people's existing trust in their own doctors and health care providers to direct vaccine-resistant people to professionals for reliable information."