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Facebook Posts and the Spread of Incorrect Information About Perceived Risks of HPV Vaccination


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The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HPV is associated with health problems—including cancers—but a vaccine for the virus has been available since 2006. The CDC reports more than 12 years of data support the HPV vaccine's safety and efficacy, yet HPV vaccination rates across the U.S. still remain low.

Social media has a history of being a popular place for sexual health discussions, and the HPV vaccine is one of the most discussed vaccines on the internet. Monique Luisi, PhD, Assistant Professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, has studied more than 6,500 public HPV vaccine–related posts on Facebook from 2006 to 2016, the first 10 years after the vaccine’s FDA approval. In a previous study published in the journal Vaccine, Dr. Luisi used these Facebook posts to identify a negative trend on Facebook related to how people perceive the HPV vaccine.

Monique Luisi, PhD

Monique Luisi, PhD

Now, she suggests this negative trend on Facebook may also cause people to develop a false perception of the health risk of the vaccine, according to a second study on the topic also published in Vaccine. After looking at the percentage of posts that made the vaccine seem more dangerous, less dangerous, or neither, Dr. Luisi found nearly 40% of Facebook posts about the HPV vaccine amplified a perceived risk—and the data suggest these posts had momentum over time.

HPV vaccine risk amplification messages appeared in 39.5% of posts (n = 2,568), attenuated in 2.9% of posts (n = 186), with the remaining 57.7% (n = 3,752) doing neither. Risk-amplifying messages were also significantly more likely to receive greater counts of reactions, comments, and shares.

“We should not assume that only the disease is perceived as a risk, but when research supports it, that medical treatments and interventions might unfortunately also be perceived as risks,” she explained. “It's more likely that people are going to see things on social media, particularly on Facebook, that are not only negative about the HPV vaccine, but will also suggest the HPV vaccine could be harmful. It amplifies the fear that people may have about the vaccine, and we see that posts that amplify fear are more likely to trend than those that don't.”

“It's more likely that people are going to see things on social media, particularly on Facebook, that are not only negative about the HPV vaccine, but will also suggest the HPV vaccine could be harmful. It amplifies the fear that people may have about the vaccine, and we see that posts that amplify fear are more likely to trend than those that don't.”
— Monique Luisi, PhD

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Dr. Luisi suggested the spread of this negative information may lead people to have a false perception of the vaccine, so people should consult their doctor or health-care provider before making an informed decision.

“Facebook remains a very popular social media platform for adult audiences, which necessitates action to address HPV vaccine risk messages,” she said. “People are going to see what they are going to see on social media, so it's important to not only take what you see on social media, but also talk to a doctor or health-care provider. Just because it's trending doesn't mean it's true.”

Disclosure: For full disclosures of the study authors, visit sciencedirect.com.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.
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