The vaccination issue on Telegram

The messenger service Telegram is popular among opponents of pandemic response measures. While other social media companies increasingly moderate their content by blocking disinformation and hate speech, Telegram does not moderate information. Accordingly, the platform attracts content and opinions that cannot be found in other social media or journalistic online media. In this blog post, we look at the intensity of coverage on vaccination in 15 selected Swiss Telegram channels and compare it to that in 13 Swiss online media as well as that in the Swiss Twitter sphere. This comparison shows very different trends. While attention for the vaccination topic in online media and Twitter has clearly dwindled since the beginning of this year, it still remains relatively high in the Telegram channels.

Figure 1: Share of news/posts with a reference to vaccination in online media, Twitter and Telegram. The values were smoothed to a 14-day moving average.
Reading example: At the beginning of January 2021, up to 5 percent of all Tweets from Swiss accounts were related to the topic of vaccination.

Most of the 15 Swiss-German Telegram channels studied were launched after the pandemic had began. Since some of them were launched with a specific purpose (e.g., to share accounts of vaccination side effects or to connect unvaccinated people), their share of vaccination-related posts varies more strongly than in online media. They are, however, united in their rejection of the ”mainstream”, including journalististic online media.

Vaccination is by far the most discussed COVID-19 related policy measure on Telegram. At the beginning of the pandemic, the face masks were dominant as a topic for a few months. Then, starting in December 2020, posts about vaccination spiked after the first vaccines were developed. Similar trajectories can be seen in online media and on Twitter (Read our blog post on vaccination coverage in online media).

Figure 1 shows the proportion of news/posts with a vaccination reference in the respective arenas – online media, Twitter and Telegram – over time. The intensity of vaccination coverage was relatively similar in the three arenas until Spring 2021. Then, the trajectory on Telegram separated from those in the online media and Twitter. At times, posts about vaccination accounted for over a third of all messages in the Telegram channels. On closer inspection, the parallel trajectories of Twitter and online media are remarkable. The dynamics in the analyzed Telegram channels, on the other hand, seem to follow their own logic. While attention for the vaccination topic in online media and on Twitter is clearly dropping with the relaxation of the pandemic response measures, it is still relatively high in the Telegram channels despite the drop in attention levels.

What’s behind the sharp rise in vaccination-related posts in these Telegram channels?

Figure 2: Trajectories of sub-topics within the vaccination topic in the 15 Telegram channels studied.
Reading example: In early July 2021, over 6 percent of all Telegram posts in the 15 channels were related to the topic of vaccination side effects.

Figure 2 shows the trajectories of different subtopics within the vaccination topic in the 15 Telegram channels studied. Starting in the Summer of 2021, the sub-topics of vaccination side effects and a possible mandatory vaccination led to a sharp increase in posts about vaccination. In the Fall of 2021, the COVID-19-certificate and preventive measures allowing only vaccinated, recovered, or tested individuals to attend events/venues emerged as a topic.

An examination of the content of the posts on vaccination shows that criticism of “elites” and authorities is very dominant in these Telegram channels. It can be assumed that this mistrust towards authorities will not disappear once the pandemic situation eases, it will show in other topics (e.g., the Russian invasion of Ukraine).

Representativeness of the data

The sample includes all articles from 13 online media in German-speaking Switzerland, German Tweets from Swiss Twitter-users and all posts from 15 German-speaking Swiss Telegram channels from March 2020 to February 2022.

Online media: 20Minuten, Aargauer Zeitung, Basler Zeitung, Berner Zeitung, Blick, Bluewin, Luzerner Zeitung, NZZ, SRF, Tagblatt, Tages Anzeiger, Watson and Südostschweiz.
Twitter: all Tweets written in German from around 296,000 Swiss Twitter accounts
Telegram: 15 public, German-speaking Swiss Telegram channels with an average reach of around 14,000 views (this value varies from 1,880 to 68,360 between the channels studied)

The Telegram channels were selected using a snowballing method. Starting with selected channels from a March 2021 article in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, data from other, related channels was collected. For the final sample, all channels were included that had minimum levels of references to Switzerland, number of posts, and reach.

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