On Twitter, journalists and politicians have more credibility on vaccines than medical experts, study finds

A droplet falls from a syringe after a health care worker is injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I., on Dec. 15, 2020. AP Photo by David Goldman

Black, Indigenous, and other non-white people in the United States are more likely to rely on trusted voices within their own communities for information about the pandemic and the coronavirus vaccine, finds a new study led by researchers from Northeastern.

And, at least on Twitter, all people are more receptive to information shared by journalists and politicians on both the left and right than by epidemiologists, scientists, and medical professionals. 

These findings—released amid rampant distrust of the COVID-19 vaccine, especially among Black people, as doses start to be distributed across the country—are the result of a study that tracked the behaviors and interactions of 1.5 million people on Twitter to determine who they consistently turned to for COVID-19 information.

Brooke Foucault Welles, an associate professor in the communication studies department at Northeastern. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Researchers from Northeastern’s Network Science Institute and the Center for Data Science at New York University sought to identify people whose voices are the most influential in guiding the national conversation around the coronavirus and vaccine distribution.

Brooke Foucault Welles, an associate professor in the communication studies department at Northeastern and one of the researchers who conducted the study, says the report outlines findings that could be key to addressing skepticism and combating rampant misinformation amid the largest mass vaccination campaign in the nation’s history. 

“We believe that there are different types of people that need to be engaged in order to spread public health information, particularly as people are using social media, because the messages from the federal government are all over the place, and there are big regional differences in COVID-19 exposure and risk,” she says.

Welles and her colleagues collected and analyzed both quantitative and qualitative data from a database of Twitter users matched to public U.S. voter registration records. The researchers found that across lines of race, geography, and political affiliation, people are more likely to engage with accounts that are relevant to their beliefs and background. 

Black people, for example, were more likely to share posts about the coronavirus from a Black journalist or elected official. Researchers found that non-white Twitter users were 71 percent more likely than white users to share non-white news sources.

The Black community, which is disproportionately getting sick and dying of the coronavirus, is also more susceptible to COVID-19 misinformation, the researchers note. And Black Americans are also less likely to get a vaccine compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. Their reticence speaks to the long history of medical racism in the U.S., as well as the mixed messaging about COVID-19, says Welles, whose research focuses on online communication by or about marginalized groups in the U.S. 

Rather than stigmatizing members of this group, Welles recommends a campaign strategy to enlist trusted non-white public figures, such as opinion leaders and influencers, to disseminate reliable information about COVID-19 to their respective communities.

“I would suggest we engage folks by finding who they’re already listening to and partnering with those people to transmit important information in a way that is meaningful to the population you’re trying to reach,” she says.

Even more effective, adds Welles, would be to employ those intermediaries in a messaging strategy that could yield healthy behavior change.

“For example, to encourage vaccination, we might want to think about, ‘OK, here’s all the exciting things you can do if you get the vaccine,’ rather than, ‘You’re going to die, or kill your neighbors if you don’t,’” she explains.

Studies that have looked at vaccine compliance have found that there is no universal framing approach—that it really depends on how people feel about the vaccine. 

“Which is all the more reason to enlist insiders who can help assess the general feeling about the vaccine in their sub-group and message appropriately,” says Welles.

According to the Northeastern report, more and more people in the U.S. are turning to social media for up-to-date and localized information about COVID-19. And when they’re online, they’re clicking on the profiles of elected officials and political pundits. Non-white Twitter users tend to crowdsource fewer right-wing figures and engage more with the accounts of Democratic politicians, rather than general left-wing accounts. 

The combined absence of unanimous guidance from federal and local health officials could explain how responses to the pandemic have become increasingly politicized over time, the researchers say. 

While trust in scientists and medical professionals remains high in the midst of the pandemic among people of different ages, races, genders, origins, and ideological stripes, the study found that scientists, public health officials, and medical professionals are not playing a central role in driving conversations about COVID-19 on Twitter.

It could be that professionals from those communities lack the established followings to amplify their messages, the researchers hypothesize, or that their messaging itself is ineffective. It’s also possible those figures just don’t post about the pandemic as much as, say, politicians and journalists do.

To address this issue, the researchers recommend that public health officials work to improve the way they communicate their messages to the public online. And social media platforms, they suggest, can do more to ensure that experts are brought to the center of COVID-19 discussions.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.