Analyzing the Katie Couric effect on the vaccine conversation


On December 4th, 2013, Katie Couric gave the HPV vaccine center stage during a segment on her talk show, Katie. The segment, entitled “The HPV Controversy,” was 20 minutes long, but ignited a digital firestorm between pro- and anti-vaccine voices that raged for days after the stage lights went dark.

In partnership with Global Prairie, the entire online conversation surrounding this Katie segment was digitally captured using DataFarm. This powerful social media analytics tool allowed the vibrant, real-time conversation to become a tangible data set to explore. Our analysis revealed unexpected insights for those who use the Internet to promote public health messaging, with the potential to help improve and refine online efforts.

Here is an exclusive look at the social media conversation surrounding the Katie episode, as it was captured from November 30th to December 21st.

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Figure 1: Total conversation around HPV and Katie Couric

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Figure 2: Media sources and post title word cloud

*For information clarity, all word cloud images excluded the terms: hpv, #hpv, rt, katie, couric, @katiecouric, vaccines, vaccine, Gardasil.

A total of 12,049 posts were captured during this 22-day window. Figure 1 shows 2 distinct areas of conversation occurring in relation to 2 specific events. The first spike occurred around the actual airing of the Katie segment. The second spike followed the release of Couric’s statement that included her personal reflections on the content of the segment.

During this time period, the analysis revealed there were 40 online publications that were the primary catalysts driving social media conversation. For the purposes of this project, having 50 or more social media posts linking to or sharing the article defined this influential content. The text of the 40 articles was reviewed and subsequently defined as being either pro-vaccine (24 articles) or anti-vaccine (12 articles). These 36 pro- and anti-vaccine articles were responsible for 7,317 posts on Facebook and Twitter. The remaining 4 articles were interpreted as vaccine-neutral, or were written by the Katie editorial/marketing team or Couric, and were excluded from analysis.

Using DataFarm, 2 groups (those who shared the pro- or anti-vaccine articles) could be individually examined. The results of this analysis are shown below.

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Figure 3: Pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine conversation generated by influential publications

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Figure 4: Pro-vaccine media sources and post title word cloud

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Figure 5: Anti-vaccine media sources and post title word cloud

As figure 3 shows, the pro-vaccine message was the first to be amplified around the time of Katie airing. Interestingly, the social media channel was Twitter. These conversations were primarily heavy-handed criticism of the inaccuracies within the episode’s content, including challenges to the journalistic integrity of Couric herself. Shortly after Couric’s statement, however, the anti-vaccine community’s conversation rose quickly, and nearly exclusively, on Facebook. Users who shared the anti-vaccine publications came to the defense of the episode, applauding its efforts.

Critical analysis of the online conversation surrounding this specific media event led to the following insights:

1. Conversational real estate. It was no surprise that the online conversation about this media event was primarily held on Twitter and Facebook. However, the analysis revealed an unexpected and exaggerated divide between the content shared on each of those social networks. The pro-vaccine message was primarily shared on Twitter, while the anti-vaccine message was more visible on Facebook. The cause of this virtual segregation is unknown and will be the subject of forthcoming analysis. Meanwhile, being aware of the relative isolation of each group’s online location should be an important consideration when discussing critical public health issues on digital forums.

2. Anger leads to action. This distinct timing of the 2 opposing viewpoints shows each community’s rise to speak in defense of their position. The language is aggressive and full of finger-pointing. Emotion reigns.

3. Intensity of purpose. The impact of the pro-vaccine voice was swift and severe, likely contributing to Couric’s decision to write a statement 6 days after the episode aired. However, of the 7,317 Twitter and Facebook posts captured, the anti-vaccine message was actually shared 20% more, despite having half of the written content and representing an opinion held by a significant minority of Americans. This reflects the vigor and digital impact of a passionate anti-vaccine community. It also shines light onto the pathetic shortfall of pro-vaccine message amplification.

In the upcoming part 2 of this post, additional insights surrounding this digital conversation will be shared.

Natasha Burgert is a pediatrician who blogs at KC Kids Doc.


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