Vaccine controversies -as they appear on Wikipedia.

Lene Døring
Feb 15 · 19 min read

A controversy mapping of the vaccine controversies on Wikipedia.


This blog post is done as a part of the Master of Science education in Techno-Anthropology at Aalborg University in Copenhagen.
We were asked to investigate and analyze the relations of different actors in a controversy using digital methods in a course called Mapping Controversies.

Tor Zander Smit, Alexander Behrndtz, Ninna Rynkjøb & Lene Døring


A controversy is basically a public disagreement or a heated discussion about a subject, where people present different opinions and arguments. Often controversies are more complicated than simple discussions -we will meet actors that do not agree on the nature of their disagreement. They will fight to define what the relevant questions are to ask and how they should be answered. It can be confusing to tell all these opinions and arguments apart, and that is why it can be very useful to map the controversy. Mapping is a digital method where you make a visualization based on large amounts of data. This is done to make the data more transparent and easy to understand, rather than having a document with a lot of text, where it can be difficult to tell, what it all means. This is also why mapping a controversy is ideal because you can create an overview in terms of, what is being said in regards to a controversy.

Wikipedia is an interesting platform to investigate when it comes to mapping controversies. This is because Wikipedia is seen as a neutral platform, where pages and articles are constantly updated by the users of the site to contain non-bias information on different matters. Some of the interesting terms to talk about, when it comes to Wikipedia, are such as categories, talks and page hyperlinks. Categories are where you can specify a field of interest (in our case it’s Vaccine Controversies), where Wikipedia gather relevant articles (pages) on a specific topic to the chosen category. This can be seen as a smart option because you won’t have to manually find pages related to a topic or category, and thereby save a lot of time.

Every Wikipedia page also has a so-called talk page. This is where users and editors of the pages discuss changes and corrections to the Wikipedia page. It’s not only the correction of grammar and facts, that are being talked about here -many users and editors express their personal opinion about a topic in this forum and point out sections on a page, they either question or don’t agree with. This is where it becomes interesting in regards to mapping a controversy.

In our case, we have tried to map the vaccine controversy by collecting data from Wikipedia pages related to vaccine controversy. This controversy is very current because of the measles outbreak in Denmark and Europe that we are witnessing at the moment. A situation that has evolved because of the ongoing discussion of safety in vaccines. This makes vaccines an interesting topic to explore when it comes to understanding how the controversy appears and develops through Wikipedia.

A protocol of how we want to explore the controversy throughout Wikipedia and our different visualizations.

The role of the MMR vaccine and Andrew Wakefield

When reading through a Wikipedia page we often see how different hyperlinks to other pages related to the topic emerges, both in the text directly and through the “see also” section. In the below network, we are able to explore how different pages from the Wikipedia category; Vaccine controversies cluster together, and thereby create an insight into the pattern of how the different pages in the category are organized thematically.

How pages from the category ”vaccine controversies” are connected to each other by hyperlinks. Shows how pages that cite each other frequently cluster together.

Here we are able to detect various topics within the vaccine controversies, to give us an understanding of how the controversy is emerging through Wikipedia. The different pages (the dots on the network, also called nodes) shows us how they are connected to each other (by the strings, also called edges) by hyperlinks. The more a page is being cited by other pages, the larger the page is visualized in the network. This gives us an insight into which pages are frequently cited in the Wikipedia category of vaccine controversies.

It is clear that the case on the MMR vaccine, against measles, mumps, and rubella, and it’s linking with autism plays a significant role when it comes to the discussion of safety, policy, and regulations in the controversy. Here we are also able to see how the case is an issue that emerges through the different clusters, both through its connection to the former British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who was the lead author of a medical paper claiming a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The MMR vaccine case is also linked to the cluster of herd immunity and how the case resulted in an outbreak in Los Angeles. This outbreak resulted in the bill on vaccinations requirements for entry in the public and private schools in California. This shows us how the various clusters are closely connected to each other throughout the network, and thereby gives us an understanding of how the controversy is organized on Wikipedia.

The emerging of issues in the vaccine controversy

By exploring the various pages and the issues that emerge within the network above, we were able to identify a number of topics, that we saw as essential to understand the controversy. This lead to six different keywords that we saw as overall issues that play a significant role in the controversy.

A comparison between two networks of pages in the Vaccine Controversy category connected by hyperlinks. Pages sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘MMR Vaccination’ (left) and ‘Autism’ (right).

The MMR vaccine and autism have been two eye-catching issues that we have seen unfolded throughout the vaccine controversies. Here a comparison shows, that even though ‘MMR vaccine’ isn’t occurring in as many clusters as ‘autism‘, there is a connection between the two terms, highlighting that there is a discussion of a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. What is interesting is how the two different issues are not emerging in the cluster of Anti-vax movements and actor, but is strongly represented in the cluster of Vaccine policy and regulations.

A comparison between two networks of pages in the Vaccine Controversy category connected by hyperlinks. Pages sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘Safety’ (left) and ‘Side Effects’ (right).

When looking into how the issues of safety and side effects within the vaccine controversy emerge throughout our network, we are able to create an understanding of how safety is discussed throughout the topics on vaccine hesitancy and herd immunity debate, whereas side effects are not commonly mentioned in the MMR and autism controversy. This opens up for how the issue of safety in vaccines plays a bigger role than the issue of side effects.

Two networks of pages in the ‘Vaccine Controversy’ category connected by hyperlinks. Pages sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘Regulation’ (left) and ‘Anti-vaccination’ (right)

When the focus is on how the issue of regulation emerges throughout the network it is clear that it is being discussed in relation to the Anti-vax movements and the MMR vaccine and autism. Whereas the issue of anti-vaccination is spread throughout the cluster of linking between MMR and autism debate and anti-vaccination movements. This show how anti-vaccination and regulation plays a significant role when it comes to the discussion of the linking between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Understanding of the relations between the various pages within the category of vaccines controversies

A network of pages in the Wikipedia category ‘Vaccine controversies’ connected to each other ONLY by in-text hyperlinks, with a focus on most cited pages.

When looking into how the different Wikipedia pages, in the category of vaccine controversies, link to each other in the text directly, another picture of how the controversy is organized on Wikipedia emerges. Here we are able to see how the different pages reference to each other when describing their topic. This gives us a more nuanced insight into how the different pages are thematically clustered together and unfold new clusters that give us an understanding of the controversy on Wikipedia. Here we are able to see how different actors that are related to each other, in the sense of discussing the same issue of the vaccine controversy, are clustered together. This is seen in the cluster of Thiomersal in vaccine, that discuss how the mercury compound is at fault when it comes to vaccines and injurious side effects. A cluster that is also closely connected to the Anti-vax movements and actors, and Vaccine safety and side effects.

When looking at the network above it is also clear that the MMR vaccine and Andrew Wakefield still play a significant role when it comes to the vaccine controversy. This is seen in how they both are visualized larger and therefore is cited more frequently on other Wikipedia pages. This gives us an insight into how the case of the MMR vaccine and the lead author behind it, is widely referenced to throughout the clusters and is something that is seen as the main issue when it comes to overall discussion of vaccine safety and side effects on Wikipedia, even though Andrew Wakefield has been discredited for his findings. But when turning the picture around and looking into which pages references to other pages, we see another picture.

A network of pages in the Wikipedia category ‘Vaccine controversies’ connected to each other ONLY by in-text hyperlinks, with a focus on pages that cites the most.

Here we see that the pages on vaccine hesitancy and on the case of Cedillo v. Secretary of Health and Human Services contain the most hyperlinks to other pages. When diving into the case of Cedillo, we see how this involves a family that sued the United States government for believing that the MMR vaccine and the thimerosal-containing vaccines had caused autism in their little girl. This gives us an insight into how the case is widely connected by its references to anti-vax actors like Andrew Wakefield and the overall discussion of vaccine safety and side effects. While the page on vaccine hesitancy gives an overall picture of how the hesitancy in vaccines have emerged through time, and therefore discuss the different cases and common discussions on vaccines controversies. Even though the page vaccine hesitancy takes its output on the overall discussion, the page still has most relations with topics and cases involved around the MMR vaccine controversy. A perspective that unfolds the controversy on the MMR vaccines role when it comes to mapping the overall controversy on vaccinations on Wikipedia.

When exploring how the different pages hyperlink to each other, both by being cited and citing other pages, we open up for how the controversy manifest itself on Wikipedia through organizing thematically. This perspective opens up for an insight into how the different pages are shaping each by using references in the text directly, to create an in-depth understanding of what is going on.

Understanding of the underlined issues within the page of vaccine hesitancy

A network over co-occurrences of themes or topics that are occurring throughout the Wikipedia page; Vaccine Hesitancy

When we look directly into the text ourselves and explore how different themes and topics emerges throughout a Wikipedia page, we are able to create a nuanced understanding of how a Wikipedia page within the controversies on Wikipedia, unfolds. We gain an understanding of what is being discussed and talked about. This will help us generate an understanding of the different issues that becomes relevant when it comes to mapping the vaccine controversy. As mentioned before, we saw how the Wikipedia page on Vaccine hesitancy was strongly connected with different topics on the cluster of MMR vaccine and actors through references within the text on the page. By looking into the co-occurrences of the different topics and themes that emerge throughout the page, we are able to create a network that shows the different sub-debates that are at stake instead of focusing on the common words that are used throughout. Even though the Wikipedia page on vaccine hesitancy content, is an overview of the history of vaccine controversy cases, the semantic network above unfolds a picture of what is going on underneath. It is clear that the overall topics throughout the page are the discussion of vaccine safety and policy, both in a scientific- and public-view. Here, we see how issues on the questions on, expertise and experience, scientific evidence, scientific consensus, and discredited theory emerges. A perspective that has unfolded how the discussion on science plays a significant role in the controversy on vaccines. This is also shown in how close the different clusters are connected to each other in the network. This gives us an insight into how there exists a common context in between the different clusters and therefore opens up for how the different themes and topics are widely discussed throughout the controversy on Wikipedia and therefore are entangled together.

The underlying issues and how they emerge through the controversy

With the above-mentioned semiotics in mind, we created 12 keywords in our attempt to see how the underlying issues emerge. Combined with our network of pages from the category “vaccine controversy” connected by in-text reference, we are offered a more nuanced thematically clustered insight into how the controversies unfold themselves.

Two networks of pages in the Wikipedia category ‘Vaccine controversies’ connected to each other ONLY by in-text hyperlinks. Pages sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘Disease Control (left), Prevention (right).

There was a clear connection between what the two keywords: ‘Disease Control’ and ‘Prevention’, showed. Both the ‘Anti-vax movement and actors’ cluster as well as ‘Vaccine safety and side effects’ cluster are very explicit in the above networks. Though there seems to be a difference as to whom discusses disease control and prevention, suggesting that there is indeed a difference between who discusses what.

Three networks of pages in the Wikipedia category ‘Vaccine controversies’ connected to each other ONLY by in-text hyperlinks. Pages sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘Experience’ (left), ‘Expertise’ (middle) and ‘Trust’ (right).

Looking at the three networks presented above, we notice that especially experience is playing a significant role when it comes to the understanding of the vaccine controversy, whereas expertise is not as widely mentioned. Whereas trust is widely mentioned throughout the clusters.

Three network of pages in the Wikipedia category ‘Vaccine controversies’ connected to each other ONLY by in-text hyperlinks. Nodes sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘Herd Immunity’ (left), ‘Outbreaks’ (middle) and ‘Thimerosal’ (right).

‘Herd Immunity’ and ‘Outbreak’ are often used in terms when talking about vaccines. But interestingly, our networks of these do not fluctuate much. Though interestingly, thimerosal is staying within its own cluster.

Three networks of pages in the Wikipedia category ‘Vaccine controversies’ connected to each other ONLY by in-text hyperlinks. Pages sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘Vaccine Court’ (left), Scientific Consensus’ (middle) and ‘Scientific Evidence’ (right).

Both the ‘scientific evidence’ as well as the ‘scientific consensus’ are mentioned in relation to the ‘Anti-vax movements and actors’, the idea of ‘Thimerosal in vaccines’, and the ‘Vaccine Hesitancy Debate’. The reason for these two keywords to appear is simply because of the scientific opposition to the believes, that these clusters represent. Showing that the scientific community is engaged in the debate on vaccination.

A network of pages in the Wikipedia category ‘Vaccine controversies’ connected to each other ONLY by in-text hyperlinks. Nodes sized and colored by the degree to which they mention ‘Discredited Theory’.

We expected a much bigger fluctuation in the network, but instead, it seems, even though Andrew Wakefield is described as being discredited, the articles do not focus on this issue.

Development of the controversy throughout time

When looking into how different themes that have emerged throughout our exploration of the vaccine controversy, we have seen how the pages on Vaccine hesitancy and the MMR vaccines and autism have played a significant role when it comes to understanding what is at stake. Therefore we choose to explore the two Wikipedia pages on Vaccine hesitancy and MMR vaccine and autism even further. To gain an understanding of how the two pages have developed over time through unique user activity and revisions within the editing community. Here spikes in the revision activity may be indicators of disagreements within the editing community. As such, the timelines enables us to narrow in the search for traces of dispute within the controversy on Wikipedia.

Timeline over users activity and revision edits on the Wikipedia page; Vaccine Hesitancy.

The rise in both unique users and revision activity might indicate that previously established knowledge claims within the editing community are being contested by users outside the community. What we find of special interest in this visualization is the gap areas representing the difference between unique users and revision activity. These gaps might be indicators of a conflict between the editing community and the users whereas the spikes with no gaps might be a consensus and agreement of a change. To qualitatively investigate this assumption we turned our attention the talk history archives on Wikipedia. In 2007 where we identify the biggest spike, many of the discussions are mostly about the linking of the MMR vaccine and autism and more generally about a need for a “basic cleaning up” for the whole page. This caption from the talk page indicates this:

A caption of the Talk page from Wikipedia on vaccine hesitancy in 2007.

The big spike in 2007 indicates a lager revision of the vaccine hesitancy page in general and resulted among others in the creation of the new Wikipedia page MMR vaccine and autism.

Timeline over users activity and revision edits on the Wikipedia page; MMR vaccine and autism

The spike in 2007 is naturally indication when the page was created. The first 2010 spike where the gap is significant represents a longer discussion about a “Hoax category” in the page at that time. In the discussion of the linking between MMR vaccine and autism being a hoax we witness a longer discussion on how to define a hoax and who we should call “real experts”.

A screenshot of a discussion inside the Wikipedia talk page about a Hoax category in the page named MMR vaccine and autism.

The next big spike is when Andrew Wakefield was found irresponsible by the GMC (General Medical Council) for making the MMR scare. The 2011 spike is primarily a discussion about an article by Brian Deer in BMJ (British Medical Journal) described Wakefield’s work as an “elaborate fraud”.

The editors and their revisions

It is clear to us that something is going on in the vaccine controversies “behind the scene” on Wikipedia. It is here we are able to witness the real controversies through the discussions between the editors.

A method of researching the user revision histories on Wikipedia pages is by making a bipartite network. A bipartite network makes us able to explore which pages are revised the most in the category of vaccine controversies, and thereby create an insight into what is going on in the controversy.

A network of the user revisions of the pages in the Wikipedia Category ‘vaccine controversies’ and subpages in a depth of 2. The dark blue colored nodes represent the pages and the light blue colored nodes represent the users.

In this network, it becomes clear to us that the pages that are revised the most in the category are mostly of celebrities that are somehow connected to the controversy. We had indications of celebrities playing a role in the controversy earlier by their visibility in the different networks above, but their roles have not played a significant role before now. This leads us to investigate the pages of different celebrities to gain an understanding of how big a role the vaccine controversy plays in their revision history. We assume that many of the revisions have no correlation to the vaccine controversies and simply just indicate the life of a celebrity — receiving Oscars, making new films etc. We want to investigate this assumption by making more timelines and do qualitative research on the talk pages.

The role of actors and how they are used in understanding the vaccine controversy

As mentioned above it is clear to us that the various actors involved in the controversy on Wikipedia play a significant role when it comes to understanding what goes on behind the scenes. Therefore we have chosen 10 different actors, both celebrities and scientists, so we are able to explore their revision timelines and identified possible conflicts within the editor community.

Four timelines with a revision and user activity overview over celebrities actors involved in the vaccine controversy.
Six timelines with a revision and user activity overview over scientific actors involved in the vaccine controversy.

Looking at the 10 different actors and their Wikipedia pages, it is interesting to see, why there, in some of them, are such a significant difference between revisions and unique users activity. There are, what you might expect, revisions, which is corrections of factual matter, but mostly it involves around how specific information should be presented without involving the issue of bias. Furthermore, it is clear that there exists a difference in revision when it comes to the celebrities actors involved, compared to the scientific actors. Looking into this, we see that this mostly has to do with vandalism of the Wikipedia page, where people write misrepresent a certain actor.

What becomes most interesting is exploring the reason why there exists such a significant difference between revisions and unique users activity in the timelines of the actors; Andrew Wakefield, Jim Carrey and Robert Sears on their talk pages and edit history. The three actors we have chosen because of the difference between users and revision, but also because of their relation to the MMR vaccine controversy that plays an important role when it comes to understanding how the vaccine controversy is understood throughout Wikipedia. This can create insight for us in how there may exist a disagreement within the editor community in how the different actors should be presented when it comes to the vaccine controversy and the specific actors’ role in this.

The editor war — “You are responsible for putting one of the worst cases of synth back into an article that I have ever seen

When looking into the three specific pages of Andrew Wakefield, Jim Carrey, and Robert Sears, we are able to explore the revision timelines and where the difference between revision and unique activity user spikes are most significant. This will give us an understanding of what is going on behind the revisions and indicate whether or not a conflict is emerging.

Here we wanted to investigate these spikes and find out, what happens in the talk pages within these particular times periods that the spikes represent. Unfortunately, due to technical issues, it wasn’t possible to create a script that could harvest that kind of data on Wikipedia. With that option out, we instead wanted to get hold of data, that could show the top 50 most active users from each year on a certain page. We wanted this because we wanted to see if there was a pattern of users being more active on certain issues than others. Unfortunately, this wasn’t possible either without a greater understanding of the infrastructure of Wikipedias “backstage” and better script writing capabilities. Instead, we choose to search the talk pages ourselves to create an understanding of what was being discussed on the selected pages talk section.

Here we are able to see how the vaccine controversy unfolds itself in the talk pages, that works as a space for different users to discuss how the various actors should be presented in the controversy. When looking into Robert Sears we are able to detect a significant difference between user activity and revision in 2015.

“You are responsible for putting one of the worst cases of synth back into an article that I have ever seen. You restored a completely inappropriate claim that directly says Sears was responsible for an epidemic and you restored the actual denial as evidence in the problem! You restored an entire unsourced paragraph and gave a whole paragraph of an editorial that condemns the subject as a dangerous doctor. That is a major problem” ChrisGualtieri (talk) 05:36, 5 February 2015 (UTC)

Here it is clear to see that there exists a conflict between the different editors and the content on the page about Robert Sears. Here we see how revision works as a tool to express one’s opinions, and thereby creates a editor conflict on the talk page, discussing which content that is most accountable.

Backstage of Wikipedia

A semiotic network of four talk pages from Wikipedia, showing the top 300 used terms, sized and clustered by their occurrence and co-occurrence across the four pages. The network has been made using CorText. The four talk pages are related to the articles about Andrew Wakefield, Robert Sears (Physician) and Jim Carrey.

Exploring the different talk pages on our three selected actors within the controversy further, we are able to create an understanding of different issues that are being discussed around the editor community. By exploring their Wikipedia talk pages for co-occurring themes and topics, we map any repeating themes discussed by the Wikipedians writing these articles about these controversial actors in the vaccine controversy. The talk pages belonging to all three actors are filled with many discussions, but as can be seen in the network above, much of the discussion regarding these pages, we found to be focused around vaccines. Especially the MMR vaccine and autism are a recurring theme which connects the discussion across the talk pages. Suggesting, that the Wikipedians are discussing how to address this controversy. This is interesting in the sense that we have already seen how the MMR vaccine plays a significant role when it comes to explaining the issues that emerge through the various pages in the category of vaccines controversies.

It must be addressed that there is also some “noise” in the network shown above. Since the talk pages also include bots, users only focusing on grammatical errors and discussions of the ordering of the pages, some of the occurring nodes shown in the network, might be “first paragraph”, “Use any word” or likewise.

The personas of the Wikipedians

Even though we weren’t able to create a visualization of how the top 50 most active users emerge over time, we have decided to create an overview of the overall top 50 most active users on the three Wikipedia pages; Robert Sears, Andrew Wakefield, and Jim Carrey. This is done to gain an understanding of the actors representing the editing community of Wikipedia (also called the Wikipedians). These networks represent the specific users that have made revisions to the specific Wikipedia page and their overall revisions on Wikipedia.

Three networks representing the 50 Wikipedians who have made the most revisions to the three pages about Andrew Wakefield, Jim Carrey, and Dr. Bob (Robert Sears). The usernames of the top 50 Wikipedians, who have made revisions to the specific page are at the outer circle of each network. Each username is connected to a number in the second circle, which represents the number of revisions made by that specific user on all of Wikipedia. Again this number is connected to numbers in the circle closest to center which represents the number of revisions made by the user to the specific page, which is represented at the center. The blue, green, and pink lines indicate the 3 Wikipedian personas “The fan”, “The theme editor”, “The bots”.

From these three visualizations, we clearly see different characteristics of the different editors. These we have characterized in the following Wikipedian personas:

  1. The Fan”(blue lines). The editors who have a specific interest in the page or the celebrity. The fan only makes revisions to that specific page/person or pages related to that page/person. This is very clear in the Jim Carrey revision history of the editor JDO — the only pages he is active on is pages of films where Jim Carrey are the main actor — he must a fan!
  2. The theme editor” (green lines). The editor with a special area of interest, who revise pages that relates to a special field of interest to the editor. This is clear in the user named “SandieGeorgia” in the Andrew Wakefield page. That user is also revising the vaccine hesitancy page.
  3. The bots” (pink lines). The bots have significant hight numbers of revisions on all of Wikipedia without any special area of interest.

This gives us an insight into how the vaccine controversy does not only involves users interested in the debate around vaccine but also fans of the specific actors that want to protect their idol in the most positive way. A perspective that also opens up for how some of the conflicts in the talk pages are emerging.

Postscript

When exploring the category of vaccine controversies on Wikipedia using digital methods, it is clear how the controversy has emerged across different pages and sub-categories. Even though the various clusters we have visualized as closely connected, it doesn’t show a defined line between who is for or against vaccination. We have still managed to create an understanding, on how these clusters contain different topics, which provides an overview of the issues that emerge when looking into vaccines and their safety. This is seen in the case of the MMR vaccine, that is connected throughout the various clusters in the different networks. Furthermore, we have explored how the ‘talk pages’ related to different actors involved in the vaccine controversy, are used as a discussion forum to portrait personal views on the actors’ involvement. This has unfolded this controversy as truly emerging through the revision, and the users' mutual talk within these, which undertakes on the Wikipedia site.

    Lene Døring

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