Editor’s Note: As people rely more on social media networks, professionals and businesses are increasingly trying to figure out whether they should participate, and if so, what opportunities exist for them. We are pleased to announce that Dr. Margaret Stager agreed to author this month’s News and Views article related to this topic. Dr. Stager, MD, FAAP, is the Director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and a clinical researcher and medical educator. Dr. Stager is a “#tweetiatrician” on Twitter and a spokesperson and social media ambassador for the American Academy of Pediatrics. We want to extend our sincerest gratitude to Dr. Stager for sharing her expertise using social media with our readers. We hope you enjoy the article.

As social media becomes more and more integrated into our daily life, the pressure to participate increases. Many healthcare professionals and organizations have an online presence where interesting and relevant conversations occur, including dialogues about vaccines. So if you have considered posting about vaccines on social media and are wondering where to begin, consider the level of engagement you want to have online. Some healthcare providers have a more engaged presence on social media; others, less.

Which one sounds most like you?

The Educator

This person uses social media channels to “push information out” in a one-way direction. The information posted is driven by evidence-based medicine and is not at all controversial. It’s like a steady drumbeat of sound information and facts. The role of the Educator is to disseminate information to the public using trusted resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), offering links to published studies, charts or graphs which convey key messaging points. In general, the Educator posts on her own time schedule, rather than in relationship to current events. For example the Educator might use a blog, a Facebook page, or their practice website to post information about the importance of flu vaccine in early October and throughout the flu season via a series of scheduled posts. On the other hand, the Educator might not respond in real time to a flu outbreak or provide current statistics on the number of flu deaths to date. This role is a good match for someone who wants to be known as a trusted resource for sound vaccine information, have a consistent online presence, yet has limited time for social media.

The Engager

This person participates in social media with a higher level of engagement.  The Engager posts regularly in a time-sensitive manner, often responding to current issues, campaigns, or news stories.  For example, not only is the Engager an active vaccine promoter, but she is also a vaccine champion willing to correct misinformation from other posts and counter anti-vaccine messaging. The Engager is willing to respond quickly and decisively to misleading posts about vaccines by posting pro-vaccine research-based information.

Public health-oriented, the Engager wants to be certain that the public sees pro-vaccine messages more often than anti-vaccine messages. She won’t respond directly to an attack from an anti-vaxxer or “troll” as that’s not her style. The Engager typically doesn’t seek out or confront anti-vaxxers, but prefers to respond indirectly in a measured manner with evidence-based vaccine information. In addition, the Engager will retweet and share pro-vaccines posts from other trusted resources to amplify pro-vaccine messages. In doing so, the Engager uses multiple social media platforms, understands the strengths and limitations of each, and “cross pollinates” her posts between the sites.

The Advocate-Activist

This person is an advanced user of social media and is very comfortable networking online. She is highly engaged and thoroughly enjoys participating in conversations with specific users or groups. For example, she actively pursues, identifies and squashes vaccine misinformation. In doing so, she stays up to date on anti-vaccine sites, messengers, and strategies.

Like the Engager, the Advocate-Activist works in real time responding quickly to current events, articles or pop culture with facts, resources and published research. She isn’t afraid of backlash or getting into a heated discussion online; in fact, she enjoys it.

The Advocate-Activist is actively involved with raising awareness around misleading information and making sure that vaccines myths are debunked in no uncertain terms. She’s keenly aware of anti-vaccine strategies and works to stay one step ahead of them — ready with her response or counterattack. Furthermore, she uses social media as a major communication tool to promote awareness of pending legislation related to vaccine or other healthcare issues and builds community support for them. Toward this end, the Advocate-Activist may use a Twitter storm or a Twitter chat to get pro-vaccine messaging “trending,” or spreading through online networks and gaining positive attention. The Advocate-Activist has fully integrated social media into her busy days and enjoys being known as a leader and defender of pro-vaccine messaging on social media.

About anti-vaccine advocates

Those considering engaging in pro-vaccine messaging through social media should be aware of some characteristics of and common strategies used by anti-vaccine advocates. First, these people typically ignore the major body of vaccine research choosing, instead, to promote irrational myths and misconceptions about vaccines. Second, while relatively small in number, they are determined to have their point of view heard. Third, anti-vaccine advocates tend to utilize very aggressive strategies, including “attacking” the pro-vaccine expert, diminishing or seeding doubt about the authenticity of published research, or promoting conspiracy theories. Furthermore, in some cases, anti-vaxxers have organized to post negative reviews about pediatric practices that post pro-vaccine messaging. This strategy is meant to discredit the messenger, affect the success of the business, and cause the practice or individual to be less effective in delivering science-based vaccine messaging by diverting their attention and resources to addressing the attack.

To that end, those engaging in pro-vaccine messaging should maintain vigilance in monitoring online and social media accounts. However, don’t let these strategies dissuade you from maintaining an online presence. Attacks of this type are relatively rare in comparison with the volume of pro-vaccine messaging on social media, and keeping pro-vaccine advocates on the sidelines is part of the anti-vaccine group’s goal.

Getting started or changing your approach

If you have decided now is the time to engage online, consider the following:

  1. Think about which level of engagement is a match for your time commitment and interest in social media.  You may opt to start slowly and work your way toward another level of commitment over time. 
  2. Define what you want to accomplish. Are you working to stay in touch with your patients and their families, seeking new patients, staying in touch with colleagues from around the country, or something else?
  3. Follow people who you consider to be effectively modeling the type of presence you seek to develop.
  4. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your messaging and see what works. Ultimately, social media offers you a new way to communicate with your existing network or expand your network.

Perhaps you are already on social media as a pro-vaccine voice and are looking to step up your involvement? Or, maybe you are currently a hybrid of two types oscillating between levels of engagement depending on the amount of time and energy you have to devote to the topic? Either way, your voice and messaging about the importance, safety and efficacy of vaccines is an important part of the chorus of respected scientists, clinicians and public health experts, ensuring that parents have access to reliable information about vaccines.

You can find Dr. Stager on Twitter @DrStager. Say hello and be sure to tell her if you think you’re an Educator, Engager or an Advocate-Activist.

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.