Schar School Master’s in Biodefense Scholar Asks, ‘Does Twitter Spread Anti-Vaccination Attitudes?’

Are the effects of anti-vaccination attitudes perpetuated by social media platforms? Annette Prieto, a Master’s in Biodefense student at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, set out to find out.

Prieto was the first in her family to be born in the United States after her family immigrated from Cuba in 1989. Her passion for biosecurity led her to the path of public service. “I have always had an interest in the spread and containment of infectious diseases,” she said.

“For my capstone project, I am taking a look at the viral spread of anti-vaccination attitudes on social media—specifically Twitter,” said Prieto. “I’m trying to see if [posters’] speech increases fear of vaccines.”

Prieto is collecting original tweets and analyzing the reactions in Twitter replies. She is using social media tracking software to create a data set of tweets and organizing the data based on whether or not the tweet author views vaccines in a positive or negative light.

“So far, it looks like Twitter is not spreading rhetoric as significantly as expected,” she said. “One tweet pushing anti-vaccination speech has many more replies contradicting them.”

While studying microbiology and immunology in her hometown of Miami, Fla., Prieto found herself wanting to learn more about biodefense. “I became interested in biodefense once I heard about infectious diseases being used in terror attacks,” she said. “In one of my classes, there was a single slide discussing bioterrorism, and after learning more, I knew I wanted to explore further.

“I chose to continue my education at the Schar School, because the program offered biodefense, security studies, and global health security,” she said. “The classes cover accidental biothreats, natural events, and intentional acts of bioterrorism.”

While Prieto chose the Schar School for the wide array of curriculum, she was also drawn in by the impressive faculty. For instance, associate professor and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute A. Trevor Thrall “has no problem telling students what works and doesn’t work," she said. “He keeps the class up to date on his research and current events.”

“Annette Prieto is a great example of the intellectual ambition and concern for public policy you see in the biodefense program here at the Schar School,” said Thrall, who has led a student-conducted investigation of social media’s use in campaign fundraising.

“Annette’s capstone project investigates an important new source of anti-vaccination rhetoric: social media. Her project both helps explain why the anti-vaccination movement is gaining traction and provides public health officials a better understanding of what a successful communication campaign will have to look like.”

After graduation in May of 2019, Prieto plans to spend a few years working in biosecurity before returning to the Schar School for a PhD in Biodefense or a related field.