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This article is the author’s final published version in Journal of Medical Internet Research, Volume 22, Issue 12, December 2020, Article number e21451.

The published version is available at Copyright © Massey et al.


BACKGROUND: The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is a major advancement in cancer prevention and this primary prevention tool has the potential to reduce and eliminate HPV-associated cancers; however, the safety and efficacy of vaccines in general and the HPV vaccine specifically have come under attack, particularly through the spread of misinformation on social media. The popular social media platform Instagram represents a significant source of exposure to health (mis)information; 1 in 3 US adults use Instagram.

OBJECTIVE: The objective of this analysis was to characterize pro- and anti-HPV vaccine networks on Instagram, and to describe misinformation within the anti-HPV vaccine network.

METHODS: From April 2018 to December 2018, we collected publicly available English-language Instagram posts containing hashtags #HPV, #HPVVaccine, or #Gardasil using Netlytic software (n=16,607). We randomly selected 10% of the sample and content analyzed relevant posts (n=580) for text, image, and social media features as well as holistic attributes (eg, sentiments, personal stories). Among antivaccine posts, we organized elements of misinformation within four broad dimensions: 1) misinformation theoretical domains, 2) vaccine debate topics, 3) evidence base, and 4) health beliefs. We conducted univariate, bivariate, and network analyses on the subsample of posts to quantify the role and position of individual posts in the network.

RESULTS: Compared to provaccine posts (324/580, 55.9%), antivaccine posts (256/580, 44.1%) were more likely to originate from individuals (64.1% antivaccine vs 25.0% provaccine; P<.001) and include personal narratives (37.1% vs 25.6%; P=.003). In the antivaccine network, core misinformation characteristics included mentioning #Gardasil, purporting to reveal a lie (ie, concealment), conspiracy theories, unsubstantiated claims, and risk of vaccine injury. Information/resource posts clustered around misinformation domains including falsification, nanopublications, and vaccine-preventable disease, whereas personal narrative posts clustered around different domains of misinformation, including concealment, injury, and conspiracy theories. The most liked post (6634 likes) in our full subsample was a positive personal narrative post, created by a non-health individual; the most liked post (5604 likes) in our antivaccine subsample was an informational post created by a health individual.

CONCLUSIONS: Identifying characteristics of misinformation related to HPV vaccine on social media will inform targeted interventions (eg, network opinion leaders) and help sow corrective information and stories tailored to different falsehoods.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

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