You might think of Pinterest mainly as the social media channel rife with pictures of Halloween costumes, crock pot recipes and wedding table settings featuring mason jars. But it's also got a surprising political side.
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University recently discovered an unexpected theme when combing 800 pins for vaccine-related rhetoric. Of the sample, a whopping 75 percent of the pins analyzed were found to be anti-vaccine or "vaccine-hesitant," which lead researcher Jeanine Guidry describes as anywhere from simply questioning the safety of an inoculation to outright declarations of government control and abuse of the public health tools.
"The significance of this finding is that, prior to this study, we did not even know there were vaccine-centered conversations on Pinterest, and with so many being negative, these pins can influence conversations, and perhaps opinions of those who are not sure," Guidry, a PhD student at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains in an e-mail.
Here's an example of the kind of image circulating on Pinterest:
A secondary, but equally intriguing finding is that 20 percent of the pins directly suggested vaccine-specific conspiracy theories involving the government, healthcare industry or big pharma. "That gives us an indication of some of the fears we need to figure out how to address on this platform," Guidry says.
The researchers found that even though most of the pins didn't use any narrative or statistical information, for the ones that did, the pro-vaccine pins featured more statistical information while the anti-vaccine pins featured more narrative information. "Several studies have noted that narrative information referring to adverse vaccination events will decrease vaccination intentions, as well as narratives having an overall stronger influence than statistical information. As such, health educators should consider using more narrative information about the protective effects of vaccines," they wrote.
Guidry got the idea for the survey because she's been involved in social media research for the past four years and is also a frequent user of Pinterest. The phenom site, which is largely dominated by visual content, boasts 176 million registered users.
"I was curious to see, a few years back, if there were health-issue-focused conversations on Pinterest. Vaccines and vaccinations are one of my health interests because of the great benefit to public health they provide," says Guidry. "I started searching for vaccine(s) and vaccination-themed pins — and to my surprise they were plentiful."
She has a theory as to why so many of the pinners were opposed to vaccines. "Part of it has to do with Pinterest's demographics — still more than 80 percent of Pinterest's users are female, and many of those are moms who may be more concerned about a topic like vaccines. In addition, studies have shown that women make the majority of healthcare decisions in most families. The other aspect is likely that information can spread so quickly. But we need more research to really figure out why this is the case."
There's no denying the internet's ability to spread information (and misinformation) like wildfire. The relative youth of social media has left health communications experts scrambling to figure out how to address vaccine fears and concerns as effectively as they are propagated. "One of my passions is that we, as public health and health communications specialists, need to get better at communicating on social media, and being part of conversations. It's one thing to broadcast a good message, but it's an entirely different thing to participate in a conversation," Guidry says.
Visual channels, such as Pinterest and Instagram, are especially precarious and influential because, as the old saying goes, a picture really does speak a thousand words. "A platform like Pinterest lends to a behavior of showing approval or repinning items that are of interest. So, items that people disagree with will not get much traction and would be difficult for a researcher to spot unless they start digging through pins of users who are much-followed that have gotten little to no response," explains marketing expert Melissa Forziat via email.
Often, users become unwitting participants in the spread of misinformation, simply through the casual sharing, pinning or "liking" of a post. "Social media is the fastest form of media, so if you're going to the computer or scrolling through your newsfeeds on your phone while on the couch watching a debate or breaking news, you aren't really giving yourself enough time to formulate your own opinions," e-mails JoJo Gutfarb, director of media relations & digital strategy at Goodwin Group PR. "You're quickly reading everyone else's opinions and yes, maybe liking similar thoughts but the more sharing, liking and [retweeting], the more that opinion gets out there to followers and the more 'legitimate' it may make a post."