Background: During the period surrounding the approval and initial distribution of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, a large number of social media users began to use their platforms to voice their opinions about the vaccine. They have formed pro- and anti-vaccination groups with the aim of influencing vaccine or non-vaccination behaviors. Persuasion and manipulation methods to convince online audiences can be characterized within a framework of social cyber maneuvers known as BEND maneuvers. Previous studies have been conducted on the spread of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. However, these previous studies lacked comparative analyzes over time of community positions and competing techniques of manipulating both narrative and network structure to persuade target audiences.
Objective: This study aimed to understand community response to vaccination by dividing Twitter data from the initial Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine rollout into pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine stances, identifying key players and groups, and assessing how different communities use social networks. – cyber maneuvers, or BEND maneuvers, to influence their target audiences and the network as a whole.
Methods: Data on the Twitter COVID-19 vaccine was collected using the Twitter application programming interface (API) for periods of 1 week before, during, and 6 weeks after the initial rollout of Pfizer-BioNTech (December 2020 to January 2021). Bot identifications and linguistic cues were derived for users and tweets, respectively, to use as metrics to assess cyber-social maneuvers. The ORA (Organization Risk Analyzer)-PRO software was then used to separate the vaccine data into pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine communities and to facilitate the identification of key players, groups and BEND maneuvers for comparative analysis between each community and the entire network. .
Results: The pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine communities used combinations of the 16 BEND maneuvers to persuade their target audiences of their particular positions. Our analysis showed how each side attempted to build its own community while simultaneously shrinking and neglecting the opposing community. Pro-vaccine users primarily used positive maneuvers such as excitement and explanatory messages to encourage vaccination and supported leaders within their group. In contrast, anti-vaccine users relied on negative maneuvers to scare and distort messages with stories of side effects and death and attempted to neutralize the effectiveness of leaders within the pro-vaccine community. Additionally, nuking via platform policies has proven effective in reducing the size of the anti-vaccine online community and the amount of anti-vaccine messaging.
Conclusions: Social media continues to be a domain for the manipulation of beliefs and ideas. These conversations can ultimately lead to concrete actions such as whether or not to vaccinate against COVID-19. In addition, social media policies should be further explored as an effective means of tackling disinformation and misinformation online.