Sarah Dulaney on Understanding Vaccine Misinformation

Published by Emile Creel on

By Bethany Deuel

Sarah Dulaney Portrait

Sarah Dulaney has discovered the perfect blend of sociology, biology, and health communication in her position as an undergraduate assistant in the SSRC’s Message Laboratory. Since the spring of 2020, Dulaney, a senior, has worked under Holli Seitz, lab director and an assistant professor in the Department of Communication.

The Vicksburg native was born and raised into a family full of Mississippi State University (MSU) alumni and fans. After making the decision to attend MSU herself, Dulaney chose to study microbiology with a concentration in pre-medicine and a minor in sociology. While she initially felt pressure to get involved with research in the microbiology field, Dulaney became attracted to Seitz’s research at the Message Lab after hearing her speak in a class freshman year.

“I saw communication as another way to well-round my education,” Dulaney said. “I feel like there is an intersection there between microbiology and sociology and health communication in general that ties into vaccine misinformation. It’s a way to help me think outside the parameters of science.”

Dulaney assumed a role in the vaccine misinformation project, a research study focused on health communication, a specialty for Seitz. There Dulaney worked on coding messages taken from social media that contained vaccine “misinformation,” or anything outside of accepted science, and identifying the most common themes.

“One of the main themes was fear. Most people who were discussing vaccines and utilizing misinformation were talking about being afraid of side effects or being afraid of big pharma benefitting from it, or afraid of different toxins in it,” Dulaney said.

She said she quickly learned how time-consuming research was as she and her colleagues double and triple checked every part of their work for factual or bias errors, but she also learned about some unique challenges present in social media research.

“Some of the challenges are just the nature of social media and misinformation. One thing that we had trouble with was defining misinformation and figuring out what counts,” Dulaney said. “If someone has a tweet about a personal experience, even if its outside of what we know to be true, we can’t code their experience as misinformation.”

Dulaney went on to explain the researchers could only code a misleading personal experience as “misinformation” if the message claimed the experience happened through false information, such as someone claiming to be a paraplegic because of aluminum in the HPV vaccine.

After spending a few weeks of her summer crafting a poster presentation, Dulaney presented the vaccine misinformation study findings at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Colvard Student Union on August 4th. Her presentation “Thematic Analysis of Vaccine Misinformation in Social Media” earned first-place in the social sciences category. She also enjoyed seeing many of the other presentations at the symposium, which received over 100 entries.

Preparing to start medical school next year, Dulaney knows she wants to work in pediatrics one day. The knowledge and skill set she has sharpened working in health communication research will be vital as she learns to communicate with parents about their own fears concerning the health of their children.