The White House has been sharply critical of how social media has helped circulate misinformation about coronavirus vaccines. President Biden put it bluntly when he said, “They’re killing people.” The day after Biden’s statement, Facebook posted a blog entry asserting that it isn’t responsible for U.S. vaccination rates leveling off. The company emphasized that, in a large survey by Carnegie Mellon, supported by Facebook, 85 percent of Facebook users reported being vaccinated or wanting to be vaccinated.
It’s hard to say who is right in this heated debate. Survey data can’t prove conclusively whether using Facebook affects vaccine acceptance and resistance. However, the data can indicate whether people who get their news from Facebook have higher or lower vaccination rates than those who don’t. In the Covid States Project survey we conducted, we find a surprisingly strong relationship. If you rely on Facebook to get news and information about the coronavirus, you are substantially less likely than the average American to say you have been vaccinated. In fact, Facebook news consumers are less likely to be vaccinated than people who get their coronavirus information from Fox News.
Facebook’s rebuttal is unconvincing
While it’s hard to establish whether Biden is right, Facebook’s rebuttal doesn’t provide convincing evidence that he is wrong. It doesn’t compare Facebook users with nonusers, which could help us understand whether there is a meaningful difference in the two groups’ attitudes. More important, it doesn’t talk about the vaccination rates among people who don’t just use Facebook but actually get their coronavirus-related information from it.
People use Facebook for many reasons. Only some go to the platform specifically to get news and information about the coronavirus. These are the people the Biden administration worries are at risk of exposure to vaccine misinformation. It’s important to know how many of those people are out there and whether they are more or less likely to be vaccinated than others.
Many Americans rely on Facebook for coronavirus news
Our Covid States Project has used large-scale surveys to track coronavirus-related issues since the start of the pandemic. The results below are based on a non-probability online sample of 20,699 Americans from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We apply state-level demographic quotas and weight the data to match the U.S. population with respect to race, ethnicity, age, gender, education, region and residence in urban, suburban or rural areas. In June and July, we asked respondents whether they got any coronavirus news from Facebook, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, the Biden administration or Newsmax.
The figure above shows the percentage of respondents who got news about the coronavirus from each of those sources in the 24 hours before completing our survey. Respondents could select multiple sources, which is why the bars add up to more than 100 percent. We find that Facebook is a major source of information about the coronavirus, comparable to Fox News and CNN.
People who rely on Facebook are less likely to say they’ve been vaccinated
We also asked the respondents whether they had been vaccinated, whether they might get vaccinated in the future or alternatively whether they would not get vaccinated.
Respondents who get news about the coronavirus via Facebook are less likely to get vaccinated than the average American and than non-Facebook users. Sixty-one percent of those Facebook users said they had been vaccinated, vs. 68 percent of the eligible U.S. population and 71 percent of non-Facebook users. The relationship was stronger for those who said that they had received coronavirus news or information only from Facebook and not from any of the other sources mentioned. Sixteen percent of all respondents fall into this category, and only 47 percent of them report being vaccinated, with 25 percent saying they will not get vaccinated.
Strikingly, those who relied exclusively on Facebook reported lower vaccination rates and higher vaccine resistance than those who rely exclusively on the often vaccine-critical Fox News. Newsmax was the only information source we examined that had lower levels of vaccination and higher vaccine resistance than Facebook, among people who rely on it for information. According to our data, Facebook users were also among the most likely to believe false claims about coronavirus vaccines.
This pattern holds, even when we look for other explanations
We further tested whether these patterns were a misleading byproduct of demographic factors. For example, people who largely get their news from Facebook might be younger and hence less likely to be vaccinated, independent of their news consumption. We used standard statistical techniques to evaluate this possibility, as you can see here.
Even after accounting for demographic and other differences, we still find that getting coronavirus-related news from Facebook — especially when it’s exclusively from Facebook — is associated with lower vaccination levels and higher levels of vaccine resistance. That relationship is stronger only with Newsmax, which is a much less commonly used source.
What this all means
We cannot definitively conclude that Facebook caused individuals to choose not to get vaccinated. People who rely heavily on Facebook for news might differ from the rest of the population in a number of other ways. For instance, people who rely on Facebook are less trusting of the news media and other institutions, from government agencies to science. Only 37 percent of the people who got coronavirus news only from Facebook report trusting the news media “some” or “a lot,” compared with 47 percent for everyone else.
Perhaps vaccine skeptics rely more on Facebook because they distrust the media. Alternatively, they may distrust the media because of what they are exposed to on Facebook. Again, our data cannot conclusively disentangle cause and effect.
While we can’t say that Biden is right in claiming that Facebook is actually “killing” people, we find that relying on Facebook’s informational environment is associated with lower trust in institutions, lower vaccination rates and higher vaccine resistance. We need further research to figure out what content people are consuming on the platform and whether it may be affecting their behavior.
David Lazer (@davidlazer), Jon Green (@_Jon_Green), Katherine Ognyanova (@Ognyanova), Matthew Baum (@matthewabaum), Jennifer Lin (@jennifer_lin16), James Druckman, Roy Perlis (@royperlis), Mauricio Santillana (@MauSantillana), Matthew Simonson (@mattysimonson) and Ata Uslu (@Atauslu) are scholars studying the U.S. coronavirus response.
Note: Facebook donated $10,000 of ad credits through which the Covid States Project recruited subjects. The resulting data was not included in the above analyses.