1023   Individual paper

"The science is not settled": an analysis of pro- and anti-vaccine rhetoric on two South African Facebook pages

Author: Karien Connoway
Stellenbosch University , South Africa

The World Health Organisation identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019. Facebook in particular has come under fire for inaction regarding the spread of vaccine-related misinformation. The risks associated with inaccurate health information, and misinformation, shared on Facebook are well established globally. In addition, global political events have demonstrated the immense power of the new "digital public sphere", which has transformed how people communicate and share information.

We set out to gain a better understanding of the nature of pro- and anti-vaccine rhetoric as it emerged on two public Facebook pages that identify as South African "“ one in support of vaccines and one opposed to vaccines. We wanted to understand what claims were being made, how they were supported, and which sources the pages relied on. To do this, we conducted a content analysis of posts over a 12-month period (January to December 2019) on both pages. Our findings indicate that 1) the majority of the content is not specific to South Africa, 2) personal stories are often shared, and 3) both pages position themselves as "pro science" or "pro knowledge" and rely on research to support their claims. Despite this, strong themes of alienation and distrust in science emerge on the anti-vaccination page.

Our aim was to use these pages as a lens into wider vaccine-related discussions on Facebook in the South African context. Our findings provide valuable insights into broader issues around trust in science in South Africa and could inform new science communication strategies around vaccines on Facebook in the future.

This work was done pre-Covid-19. Vaccine debates have flared up globally in the context of large scale Covid-19 vaccination programmes. It would therefore be meaningful to do a follow-up study comparing 2021 rhetoric with our findings from 2019.

Co-author: Hannah Keal
Stellenbosch University, South Africa

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