Pro-vaccination messages can be surprisingly effective when delivered through humorous Internet memes, according to new findings published in the journal. Computers in human behavior. A series of studies found that exposure to sarcastic anti-vaccine memes increased UK residents’ willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The researchers suggest that the humorous memes were able to circumvent the typical defense processes of people who are hesitant to get vaccinated.
As a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus emerged, public health officials in Western countries scrambled to convince people to get vaccinated. Misinformation about vaccines was widespread, and officials used educational campaigns backed by expert sources to persuade the public that the vaccine was safe and effective.
Unfortunately, such educational campaigns can backfire, as people who are hesitant to get vaccinated are likely to believe in conspiracies and tend to mistrust authoritative sources. Informational campaigns are also not designed to go viral on social media and can easily be overtaken by anti-vaccine messages. A team of psychology researchers led by Shawn N. Geniole proposed the need for newer interventions that use messages that are shareable, scalable, and unlikely to be perceived as corrupt—something like an Internet meme.
“I think memes are interesting because they can spread and be processed by viewers pretty quickly; therefore, any message/text within memes may have the potential to efficiently persuade/inform others,” explained Geniole, an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“In addition, being processed and disseminated quickly also means that they can reach and influence people who might not otherwise find, or even try to avoid, such information. For example, the type of humor within memes, which often belittles or makes fun of certain groups of people or their beliefs, can lead some to rethink their views or distance themselves from others who hold these views. Can exposure to these types of memes change one’s beliefs or the extent to which they identify with certain groups? These were the kinds of ideas/questions that interested me when we started this project.”
The researchers designed six studies involving a total of 1,584 UK residents. In each of these studies, participants were randomly assigned to an experimental or control condition. The experimental group viewed a series of eight vaccination-related Internet memes that had been collected by researchers using Google image search, and the control group viewed control images. While the memes varied slightly by study, most of them expressed sarcasm toward anti-vaccines.
After viewing the images, participants were asked if they intended to be vaccinated against COVID-19. A pooled analysis of all six studies revealed that exposure to vaccine memes increases participants’ intentions to get vaccinated, even after accounting for gender, age, and political orientation.
“Little is known about the extent to which memes can change beliefs or intentions,” Geniole told PsyPost. “Our studies provided some preliminary evidence that memes about vaccination, specifically, memes that support vaccination or that don’t support anti-vaccines, can increase viewer intentions to get vaccinated. In other words, our studies suggest that exposure to memes, under certain circumstances, can actually change beliefs or intentions.”
In their study, Geniole and her team also offered some explanations for why Internet memes may have been particularly persuasive to participants. Unlike traditional public health messages, the memes were not perceived as coming from scientific or expert sources and did not explicitly attempt to counter misinformation. Instead, they were sarcastic and funny and were likely perceived as entertainment rather than persuasion. This reduced psychological reactance, making vaccine hesitant participants less likely to react defensively to threats to their beliefs.
Another possibility is that satirical memes have delegitimized anti-vaccines, causing participants to distance themselves from the anti-vaccine movement and its associated beliefs. Similarly, the memes may have produced the impression that anti-vaccines are outside the norm and disliked by others, leading participants to want to conform to the alternative norm of getting vaccinated. “Unlike other pro-vaccination messages or interventions that target (mis)information and beliefs about vaccines, the memes may have been effective, in part, because they instead targeted social groups who support such beliefs,” the study authors explained.
Interestingly, although the effect was strong, it seemed to weaken once the vaccine was close to launch. The first three studies were conducted between August and October 2020, before the announcement of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, while the next three studies were conducted in November 2020, after the announcement. Comparing the findings of the first three studies with the last three, the effect of meme exposure on intention to get vaccinated was weaker after the vaccine was announced.
“Once the first safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine was announced and discussions/opinions about vaccination became more common (and divisive), memes no longer affected these vaccination intentions,” Geniole said. “It appears, then, that memes, and this type of humor that is often found in memes, can only change beliefs or intentions about issues or decisions that have not been carefully considered or contemplated.”
The study authors say that future research will be needed to explore the psychological processes through which Internet memes may affect vaccine attitudes and behaviors. It will also be important to test how this effect may change depending on contextual factors, such as stages of vaccine development.
The study, “Preliminary evidence that brief exposure to vaccination-related internet memes may influence intentions to get vaccinated against COVID-19”, was written by Shawn N. Geniole, Brian M. Bird, Alayna Witzel, Jordan T. McEvoy and Valentina Proietti.