Evidence of disorientation towards immunization on online social media after contrasting political communication on vaccines. Results from an analysis of Twitter data in Italy

Samantha Ajovalasit, Veronica Dorgali, Angelo Mazza, Alberto d' Onofrio, Piero Manfredi

Background. Recently, In Italy the vaccination coverage for key immunizations, as MMR, has been declining, with measles outbreaks. In 2017, the Italian Government expanded the number of mandatory immunizations establishing penalties for families of unvaccinated children. During the 2018 elections campaign, immunization policy entered the political debate, with the government accusing oppositions of fuelling vaccine scepticism. A new government established in 2018 temporarily relaxed penalties and announced the introduction of flexibility. Objectives and Methods. By a sentiment analysis on tweets posted in Italian during 2018, we aimed at (i) characterising the temporal flow of communication on vaccines, (ii) evaluating the usefulness of Twitter data for estimating vaccination parameters, and (iii) investigating whether the ambiguous political communication might have originated disorientation among the public. Results. The population appeared to be mostly composed by serial tweeters tweeting about everything including vaccines. Tweets favourable to vaccination accounted for 75% of retained tweets, undecided for 14% and unfavourable for 11%. Twitter activity of the Italian public health institutions was negligible. After smoothing the temporal pattern, an up-and-down trend in the favourable proportion emerged, synchronized with the switch between governments, providing clear evidence of disorientation. Conclusion. The reported evidence of disorientation documents that critical health topics, as immunization, should never be used for political consensus. This is especially true given the increasing role of online social media as information source, which might yield to social pressures eventually harmful for vaccine uptake, and is worsened by the lack of institutional presence on Twitter. This calls for efforts to contrast misinformation and the ensuing spread of hesitancy.

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