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The University of Southampton

Online ‘echo chamber’ can lead to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

Published: 3 June 2021
COVID syringe
Unregulated social media sources pose a particular problem in contributing to vaccine hesitancy.

Government and social media firms need to take urgent action, according to a new study from the universities of Oxford and Southampton which finds that people who look to social media for information - particularly YouTube - are less willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

University of Oxford Professor Melinda Mills, University of Southampton Professor Will Jennings and their research team, found that unregulated social media sources poses a particular problem in contributing to vaccine hesitancy. The article, published in the journal Vaccines, warns that social media users can fall prey to an ‘echo chamber’ effect – where tailored recommendations, based on an individual’s ‘watch history’, underline an individual’s concerns and rarely provide alternative or expert views.

"Misinformation proliferates on some social media platforms because users receive content suggestions aligned with their fears and watch histories, driving them into deeper rabbit holes. Information is often presented by non-experts, with limited fact checking, making it difficult to gauge the accuracy or balance the information," says Professor Mills.

The paper warns, "Those who obtain information from relatively unregulated social media sources such as YouTube, that have recommendations tailored by watch-history, are less likely to be willing to become vaccinated." Professors Mills, Jennings and team call for action from governments, health officials and social media companies - and more information to fill the ‘knowledge voids’.

The study also shows that trust is key. Professor Jennings notes: "Misinformation thrives when there is a lack of trust in government, politics and elites with a broader lesson that authorities need to communicate truthfully, clearly and consistently."

Collecting data from a survey and focus groups during the first vaccine roll-out in the UK in December 2020, they found that a low personal perceived risk from COVID-19 was linked to vaccine hesitancy. Complacency also emerged from a misunderstanding that ‘herd immunity’ had been reached and only the vulnerable need to be vaccinated. Scepticism around COVID-19 and vaccines were linked to beliefs that the unequal deaths in certain population groups was a form of population control, that herd immunity had been reached, belief the virus was man-made or not as deadly as reported.

Professor Mills adds, "There was often a knowledge void in understanding the risks. Although there are some who hold conspiratorial beliefs, many were simply trying to make sense of fragmented, dynamic and confusing information, often accessing social media for clarity."

The publication says, more than 80% of Europeans and more than 70% of Americans use the internet as a source for health information, and finds, "Growth in internet use and reliance on social media sources such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok has changed the landscape of information gathering."

The video sharing platform, YouTube – which contains a high percentage of negative claims - was particularly linked to hesitancy. The publication reveals, "YouTube users were significantly less willing to be vaccinated, with a 45% probability of vaccine willingness." A study of YouTube vaccine content found 65.5% of videos discouraged vaccine use focussing on autism, undisclosed risks, adverse reactions and mercury in vaccines.’

Action is essential, according to the team, which maintains, "Governments should establish an engaging web presence to fill knowledge gaps. Sites remain unregulated and not operating as ‘publishers’ [should be] forced to present balanced information, with misinformation or conspiracy theories quickly becoming ‘viral’."

The paper Lack of Trust, Conspiracy Beliefs, and Social Media Use Predict COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy ( is published in the journal Vaccines.


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