According to findings from the Journal of Health Communication, a type of persuasive messaging may offer a key strategy for countering vaccine misinformation. Researchers found that two-sided refutational messages increased positive attitudes toward vaccines through reducing anger.
The spread of health misinformation has escalated in recent years, most likely due to the expansion of social media. Such false information can have harmful consequences on public health. For example, anti-vaccine misinformation can lead to increased fear and avoidance of vaccinations.
Some studies have suggested that strategies to counter misinformation such as fact-checking are ineffective and may even backfire, strengthening belief in false information. However, there is some evidence that a type of persuasive communication may be more effective — specifically, something called a two-sided refutational message.
As researchers Jieyu Ding Featherstone and Jingwen Zhang explain, two-sided refutational messages address a false claim by presenting both sides of the issue rather than solely discussing the correct information. These messages challenge the opposing arguments with concrete evidence, then present supporting arguments for the other side.
Featherstone and Zhang devised an experimental study to explore whether refutational messages would be helpful in countering vaccine misinformation. The study, conducted in 2018, included 609 participants and five different conditions. Depending on the condition, the participants were either confronted with one of two misinformation texts, one of two refutational messages, or a control text.
The first misinformation text argued that the government and pharmaceutical companies participated in covering up the truth about the safety of the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. The second misinformation text stated that scientists and health authorities are conflicted on the safety of the MMR vaccine. For each of these misinformation texts, a refutational message was created that addressed the argument and then provided evidence against it. The control text did not discuss vaccines.
The researchers found that the texts appeared to have different effects on the respondents’ attitudes toward vaccines. Compared to the control, those who read either of the vaccine misinformation texts demonstrated a more negative attitude toward vaccines when asked at the end of the survey. Compared to those who read the misinformation texts, those who read either of the refutational texts showed a more positive attitude toward vaccines.
Interestingly, the researchers found that anger mediated these effects. Those who read either of the misinformation texts reported more anger after reading them, and this anger was indirectly linked to a more negative attitude toward vaccines. Those who read either of the refutational messages reported less anger, and this anger was indirectly associated with a more positive attitude toward vaccines. Thus, the two-sided messages appeared to boost vaccine approval by lowering anger.
The study authors explain how anger might be influencing this change in attitudes. “In this study, participants felt angry after reading the misinformation messages that argue about the dangerous side effects of the MMR vaccine, coupled with claims on governments purposefully hiding information, or scientists promoting vaccines with uncertainty, manifesting violations,” the researchers say. “The feeling of anger could then motivate people to defend themselves and attack the threat (Lazarus, 1991). As a result, people formed unfavorable attitude toward the threat.”
Importantly, the refutational messages did not show any evidence of a backfire effect on vaccine attitudes. The two refutational message groups showed no worse attitudes toward vaccines than the control group. Featherstone and Zhang say their findings suggest that communication strategies for countering misinformation should focus on refutational messages that alleviate anger instead of trying to target particular beliefs.
The study, “Feeling angry: the effects of vaccine misinformation and refutational messages on negative emotions and vaccination attitude”, was authored by Jieyu Ding Featherstone and Jingwen Zhang.