Does social media use affect Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy?

Emma McGowan 26 Oct 2021

Our related research examines global attitudes toward the internet, including how — or if — the Covid-19 pandemic has affected internet usage

In July 2021, US President Joe Biden made headlines when he said social media platforms are “killing people” by failing to curb the spread of Covid-19 vaccine disinformation and misinformation. And while Facebook first took action against misinformation in February — with Twitter following in March — numerous studies examining the relationship between social media and vaccine mistrust suggest that it may have been too little, too late. 

For example, a study from media researchers at the University of Michigan, published in the June 2021 issue of JMIR Publications, found that engaging with anti-vaccine messaging on social media was correlated with people choosing not to get vaccinated. However, there was no “significant association” between engaging with pro-vaccine messaging and getting vaccinated.

Zooming in on the issue, a survey of over 20,000 people conducted by researchers from Northwestern, Harvard, Northeastern, and Rutgers universities found that “people who rely on Facebook as their primary source of news” about Covid-19 are less likely than people who get their Covid-19 news from other sources to be vaccinated. And while the researchers point out that their data “cannot conclusively disentangle cause and effect” — meaning they can’t say that being on Facebook caused people not to get vaccinated — they do note a strong correlation.

And, according to reporting by Recode, there’s no real way to determine just how bad the vaccine mis- and disinformation problem is on social media because the companies will not give researchers access to real-time data. As a result, researchers and public policy experts are forced to conduct their own examination — like the Avast Digital Citizenship Report — in order to get a deeper understanding of the issue.

Is there a correlation between preferred social media platforms and vaccine hesitancy?

For Avast’s Digital Citizenship report, we teamed up with market research institutions YouGov to conduct a global representative study of over 14,000 people in 14 countries. The survey was conducted between June 15 and June 27, 2021, and it examined global attitudes toward the internet, including how — or if — the Covid-19 pandemic has affected internet usage. 

With the news around vaccine hesitancy and social media picking up globally, we decided to examine whether there was a correlation between where people spend time online and their attitudes toward the vaccine. We asked three questions of six age groups — 18 to 245; 25 to 34; 35 to 44; 45 to 55; 55 to 65; and 65+ — related to this issue:

  • Which social media platforms do you use?
  • Have you discussed matters relating to Covid-19 with others on social media?
  • Have you or will you book a Covid-19 vaccination appointment?

Social media and vaccine hesitancy in the US

In the US, the age group that’s least likely to book a Covid-19 vaccine appointment is ages 45 to 54, coming in at 31%, closely followed by 35 to 44, coming in at 29%. They’re also the most likely to have discussed Covid on social media, with 31% and 29%, respectively. Across all age groups, the numbers are pretty consistent for those who don’t plan to get vaccinated and who discussed Covid on social media: 18% of 18-25; 17% of 25 to 34; 15% of 35 to 44; 18% of 45 to 54; 17% of 55 to 64; and 16% of 65+.

In these age groups, a higher percentage of people use Facebook than any other social media platform (70% and 73%, respectively). However, they’re not the age groups with the highest percentage — that’s 55 to 64, coming in at 76%, and 65+, coming in at 79%. Additionally, it’s important to note Facebook is the most-used social media platform for every age group, ranging from 50% for 18 to 25-year-olds to 79% for those 65 and older.

Social media and vaccine hesitancy globally

Globally, between 21% and 23% of almost all age groups did not plan on booking a Covid vaccine appointment at the time of the survey. The one outlier is ages 65+, where the number drops to 16%. This is likely due to the fact that people of that age group are at very high risk of severe illness and death from Covid-19.

In contrast with the US numbers, the highest percentage of people who have talked about Covid on social media globally are ages 18 to 25, and ages 25 to 34, which both come in at 28%. Ages 35 to 44 and ages 45 to 54 come close, with 23% and 22%, respectively, after which the number drops to 23% in ages 55 to 64. 

Correlation, causation, social media, and vaccine hesitancy

While we don’t know exactly what people are doing online, we can see what percentage of each age group is on which platforms. In the US, Facebook is used by the highest percentage of all age groups, followed by Facebook-owned Instagram for 18 to 34-year-olds. Globally, it is the most used social media platform for all age groups except 18 to 24, who prefer Instagram. 

However, the data does not dive into how much time people are spending on each platform. In other words, while only 39% of 18 to 25-year olds are on TikTok, they may only be on TikTok or they may spend more time on TikTok than on other platforms. 

While these numbers do not appear to show a correlation between which social media platform people use the most and vaccine hesitancy, the US — but not the global — statistics point to a possible correlation between people not planning to book the vaccine and whether or not they discussed Covid on social media. For ages 35 to 44, 29% do not plan on getting vaccinated and 31% discussed Covid on social media. For ages 45 to 54, the numbers are reversed with 31% not planning on getting vaccinated and 29% having discussed Covid on social media. 

The Avast Digital Citizenship Report appears to line up with previous findings from researchers. There is some correlation between social media use and vaccine hesitancy, but cause and effect are not yet clear.

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