Negative Tweets About Flu Vaccine Are 'Contagious'

Social media giant Twitter relies on human workers to make sense of odd hashtags. (Image credit: Twitter image via Shutterstock)

Twitter posts with anti-vaccine sentiments are "contagious," while posts with a positive take on vaccines are not, a new study suggests.

The study analyzed more than 300,000 tweets that expressed an opinion about the H1N1 flu vaccine in 2009.

Twitter users who saw anti-vaccine posts in their Twitter feed tended to tweet anti-vaccine sentiments themselves, the results show. However, those who saw positive vaccine sentiments didn't tweet positive sentiments themselves. 

What's more, positive tweets about vaccines sometimes had the opposite effect — a high number of pro-vaccine posts seemed to encourage people to tweet negatively about vaccines, said study researcher Marcel Salathé, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State University.

"In other words, pro-vaccine messages seemed to backfire when enough of them were received," Salathé said.

The reason for this phenomenon is not clear. But it's possible that “many people had latent negative opinions about the vaccine, and when they were intensely exposed to enough positive messages, they felt the need to express their negative sentiment," Salathé said.

Future studies may reveal what it is about negative tweets that makes them contagious. The results of those studies could help public health officials “send positive messages in a way that would be more likely to have the intended effect," Salathé said.

The study was published April 4 in the journal EPJ Data Science.

Pass it on: Anti-vaccine tweets "spread" more easily than positive ones.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.