I'm not an antivaxxer, but...: Spurious and authentic diversity among vaccine-critical activists

Florian Cafiero, Paul Guille-Escuret, Jeremy Ward

Contact: florian.cafiero@gmail.com

In the past two decades, vaccine hesitancy has spread across the world. The most common explanation for this trend is that the Internet has allowed vaccine science deniers to reach a wider audience. But this explanation is challenged by the growing success of critics who present themselves as different from antivaccinationists, using slogans such as “green our vaccines”, phrases such as “I’m not antivaccine but…” or promoting “alternative vaccination schedules”. This could mean that antivaccinationists are merely adopting a communication strategy aimed at appearing moderate. But it could also mean that vaccines are being taken on by new activists whose less radical stance is perceived as credible by a larger segment of the public. * Classifying our websites In this presentation, we analyse the contents (texts and hyperlinks) of a corpus of 254 French-speaking vaccine-critical websites to compare these two explanations. After close reading of a sample of our web pages, we annotated each website with various characteristics. We classified those websites according to two factors. First, do they criticize all vaccines (“radicals”) ? Or do they think only one or a few of them are questionable (“reformists”)? Then, are vaccines the major concern for the website’s owner(s) (“single-issue”) ? Or is it just a question among others (“multi-issue”) ? * Prestige inside and outside the movement We then analyze the hyperlinks on the 27292 pages we collected. From the citation network obtain, we compute the prestige of our actors inside their community. To understand the actual impact of our actors on people outside the vaccine-critical community, we checked for each actor’s appearance in French, Swiss, Belgian and Canadian national and regional press (Europresse and INA database). The discrepancy between centrality in the community and media exposure is blatant. The most cited actors inside the anti-vaccine movement are in a vast majority radical actors. But they are not invited to talk to the press, which mostly pick reformists marginally invested in the topic of vaccines. * Boundaries and strategies We run community detection algorithms (Louvain), and build ERG models to understand the importance of various determinants of hyperlinks formation (type of website / actor, position in our typology, structural factors etc.). Our analyses reveal that the French vaccine-critical milieu is fragmented. On one side, radical antivaccinationists constitute a tightly-knit community, exchanging any type of content from any kind of actors as long as it is critical of one or more vaccines. On the other side, the most prominent and publicized activists only criticise one vaccine, some vaccines or precise features of vaccination, and strive to disassociate themselves from this community. In particular, they strictly avoid to cite even once the radical actors. We also found that some of these activists only criticise some vaccines, while being deeply embedded in the community of radicals. This seems to indicate that their “moderate” stance is merely a communication strategy, helping them getting access to the media.

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