A new study suggests that public figures spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine on Twitter had a significant impact on public opinion.
Celebrities have long had a positive influence on public health. For example, when the famous actress Angelina Jolie publicly announced undergoing a double mastectomy, the increased number of high-risk patients screenings for the BRCA1 gene that causes breast cancer was recorded months later.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some celebrities actively spread misinformation, showing distrust in the vaccines that proved to be safe and effective.
To evaluate the influence of celebrities on public sentiments, researchers at the University of Tennessee and Rollins School of Public Health looked at approximately 13 million Twitter posts from January 1, 2020, to March 1, 2022, about COVID-19 and vaccines.
They chose athletes, politicians, and news personnel who publicly made statements considered anti-vaccine or misinformation. Those figures were commentator Joe Rogan, TV host Tucker Carlson, rapper Nicki Minaj, tennis player Novak Djokovic, former U.S. President Donald Trump, and others.
The researchers used a fine-tuned DistilRoBERTa model, which labeled tweets as positive or negative and determined their sentiment. The model also analyzed tweets that mentioned these public figures. In total, 45,255 COVID-19 vaccines and celebrities related tweets by 34,407 unique authors were used for the study, the findings of which were published in the BMJ Health & Care Informatics.
The research found that sentiment about COVID-19 and vaccines in the tweets was overall more negative than positive. The content was also found to influence public opinion and largely stimulate online public discourse.
In the athletes/entertainers’ subgroup, most negative comments were associated with NFL star Aaron Rodgers and Nicki Minaj, who caught the media’s attention by falsely claiming that the COVID-19 vaccine caused impotence in her cousin’s friends. Researchers say that singer Eric Clapton was the least favorite figure of the subgroup and was largely criticized by the public.
Among politicians, Donald Trump and Republican Senator Ted Cruz had the most impact, with many users questioning whether they have enough public health knowledge to give medical advice.
In the most liked tweet mentioning Cruz, a user wrote: "'I called Ted Cruz’s office asking to make an appointment to talk with the Senator about my blood pressure. They told me that the Senator was not qualified to give medical advice and that I should call my doctor. So I asked them to stop advising about vaccines."
Tweets in the news personnel subgroups were more typically related to anti-vaccine controversy or death rather than news about vaccine development. Moreover, sentiment for this subgroup was overwhelmingly negative. For example, the most liked tweet associated with Joe Rogan stated: "I love how the same people who don’t want us to listen to Joe Rogan, Aaron Rodgers about the covid vaccine, want us to listen to Big Bird & Elmo."
The study authors concluded that "messaging shared by influential members of society can have considerable effects on the directionality of public emotion and shared health decision-making."
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