Pro-vaccination messaging may be surprisingly effective when delivered through humorous internet memes, according to new findings published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour. A series of studies revealed that exposure to sarcastic memes about anti-vaxxers increased UK residents’ intention to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The researchers suggest that the humorous memes were able to bypass the typical defense processes of people who are vaccine-hesitant.
As a vaccine emerged to combat the novel coronavirus, public health officials in Western countries grappled with convincing the population to get vaccinated. Vaccine misinformation was rampant, and officials turned to educational campaigns backed by expert sources to persuade the public that the vaccine was safe and effective.
Unfortunately, such educational campaigns can backfire, since people who are vaccine-hesitant are prone to conspiracy belief and tend to be distrustful of authoritative sources. Informational campaigns are also not designed to go viral on social media and can become easily outpaced by anti-vaccine messaging. A team of psychology researchers led by Shawn N. Geniole proposed a need for newer interventions that use messaging that is highly shareable, scalable, and unlikely to be perceived as corrupt — something like an internet meme.
“I find memes to be interesting because they can spread–and be processed by viewers–quite rapidly; therefore, any messages/text within memes may have the potential to persuade/inform others efficiently,” explained Geniole, an assistant professor at University of the Fraser Valley.
“Further, that they’re processed and spread rapidly also means that they may reach and influence individuals who would otherwise not encounter–or might even try to avoid–such information. For example, the type of humor within memes, which often belittles or makes fun of certain groups of individuals or their beliefs, may lead some to rethink their views or to 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 types of ideas/questions that interested me when we started this project.”
The researchers designed six studies involving a total of 1,584 residents of the United Kingdom. In each of these studies, participants were randomly assigned to either an experimental or a 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 depending on the study, the majority of them expressed sarcasm toward anti-vaxxers.
After viewing the images, participants were asked whether they intended to get vaccinated against COVID-19. A combined analysis of all six studies revealed that exposure to the vaccine memes increase participants’ intentions to get vaccinated, even after accounting for gender, age, and political orientation.
“Little is known about the extent to which memes can shift beliefs or intentions,” Geniole told PsyPost. “Our studies provided some preliminary evidence that memes about vaccination — specifically, memes that were supportive of vaccination or unsupportive of antivaxxers — may increase the viewer’s intentions to be vaccinated. In other words, our studies suggest that exposure to memes, under certain circumstances, may actually shift beliefs or intentions.”
In their study, Geniole and his team also offered some explanations for why internet memes may have been particularly persuasive for participants. In contrast to traditional public health messaging, the memes were not perceived to be coming from expert or scientific sources and did not attempt to explicitly counteract misinformation. They were instead 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 the satirical memes may have delegitimized anti-vaxxers, causing participants to distance themselves from the anti-vax movement and its associated beliefs. Similarly, the memes may have produced the impression that anti-vaxxers 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 the social groups that endorse such beliefs,” the study authors explained.
Interestingly, although the effect was robust, it appeared to weaken once the vaccine was nearing release. The first three studies were conducted between August and October 2020, prior to the announcement of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, while the next three studies took place in November 2020, following the announcement. When comparing the findings from the first three studies to the last three, the effect of exposure to the memes on vaccine intention was weaker after the vaccine was announced.
“Once the first safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine was announced and discussion/opinions about vaccination became more common (and divisive), memes no longer affected these vaccination intentions,” Geniole said. “It seems, then, that memes–and this type of humor often found in memes — may only shift beliefs or intentions about topics 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 impact vaccine attitudes and behaviors. It will also be important to test how this effect may change depending on contextual factors, such as the stages of vaccine development.
The study, “Preliminary evidence that brief exposure to vaccination-related internet memes may influence intentions to vaccinate against COVID-19”, was authored by Shawn N. Geniole, Brian M. Bird, Alayna Witzel, Jordan T. McEvoy, and Valentina Proietti .