When Viral Messages Pose Health Threats

Portrait photo of UC Davis communication graduate student Jade Ding Featherstone

Like a disease detective, Jade (Jieyu) Ding Featherstone is on the hunt for a rising global threat to public health. But her territory is Twitter and her target is vaccine misinformation.

For her doctoral research in the Department of Communication, Featherstone is tracking anti-vaccination tweets. Among questions she is exploring: Are there central players behind them? If so, are they bots or humans? Who retweets anti-vaxx messages? What works best in countering their false claims? 

In a study of some 120,000 tweets about vaccines, Featherstone found only a small fraction — less than 1% — contained false information about vaccine safety, government conspiracies, and natural alternatives.

But she said those tweets, though relatively small in number, could have an outsized impact on the anti-vaccination community, which tends to distrust government sources and turns to social media for information, as well as people who are uninformed about vaccines. 

The World Health Organization has declared the anti-vaccination movement one of the top 10 global health risks of 2019

Featherstone said she hopes that her Twitter research will pinpoint areas where groups of anti-vaxxers live, alerting public health officials to communities most at risk for measles and other deadly but preventable diseases.

Kathleen Holder, content strategist for the UC Davis College of Letters and Science, wrote this story for the fall 2019 issue of the College of Letters and Science Magazine