Social media data shows negative impact of vaccine suspension

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An analysis of social media sentiment found that levels of vaccine hesitancy in SA may have been lower, had it not been for government’s decision to temporarily halt the administration of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J’s) COVID-19 vaccine in April.

This is according to a study by research firm BrandsEye, which analysed close to 200 000 tweets relating to COVID-19 vaccines in SA between 1 February and 30 April 2021.

The study found that, while not all Twitter authors expressed an explicit intention or refusal to get vaccinated, of those who did, 68.3% expressed willingness to receive the vaccine.

With vaccine hesitancy being a major threat to fighting the COVID-19 epidemic in SA, the study points out the levels of those not keen on vaccination may have been lower had it not been for a temporary suspension in SA’s vaccination programme.

The study highlights the sudden drop in social media net sentiment toward the vaccine in April, following the announcement of the suspension, and a slight increase after the rollout was resumed.

In April, SA opted to voluntarily suspend its vaccination programme, following a similar decision made by the US Food and Drug Administration. The decision was made after health authorities discovered the development of rare blood clots associated with the administration of the J&J vaccine.

This was the second temporary suspension of the vaccine, after the AstraZeneca vaccine was suspended in the wake of the new research finding that it showed less protection against the SARS-CoV2 variant.

These findings, according to BrandsEye, are in line with both theNational Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey and the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change and Human Sciences Research Council’s online study, which found that, respectively, 71% and 67% of South Africans would take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“While government understandably had their reasons for suspending the rollout of the J&J vaccination, the data shows how events of this nature have the potential to create a lasting fear that erodes public confidence and ultimately increases vaccine hesitancy on a large scale,” says BrandsEye CEO Nic Ray.

While the vaccine rollout has since resumed, the levels of those willing to vaccinate still remain lower than the levels indicated in February.

Building on sentiment analysis, Ray says social media data is also able to provide a granular view of themes impacting hesitancy.

“In analysing the top themes of vaccine conversation on social media, we found that the vaccine rollout itself remained the largest topic of conversation between February and April 2021, underpinning the importance of continuous, clear and specific communication from government at every stage of the vaccination process,” he points out.

Other topics of interest shared on Twitter include: health and safety (23%), procurement (12%), mandatory vaccines (6%), conspiracy theories and misinformation (3%), and registration (3%).

BrandsEye has in the past accurately predicted Donald Trump’s 2016 US election win and the UK’s Brexit referendum outcome, based on social media sentiment.

The new data demonstrates how social media conversations can serve as an accurate, real-time measure of vaccine hesitancy in the country, continues Ray.

“At a relatively low price point, social media data can also provide specific insights around the key drivers of vaccine hesitancy, as well as measure the impact of communications and interventions.”

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