Rhetorical appeals and tactics in New York times comments about vaccines: Qualitative analysis

John Gallagher, Heidi Y. Lawrence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Improving persuasion in response to vaccine skepticism is a long-standing problem. Elective nonvaccination emerging from skepticism about vaccine safety and efficacy jeopardizes herd immunity, exposing those who are most vulnerable to the risk of serious diseases. Objective: This article analyzes vaccine sentiments in the New York Times as a way of improving understanding of why existing persuasive approaches may be ineffective and offers insight into how existing methods might be improved. We categorize pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine arguments, offering an in-depth analysis of pro-vaccine appeals and tactics in particular to enhance current understanding of arguments that support vaccines. Methods: Qualitative thematic analyses were used to analyze themes in rhetorical appeals across 808 vaccine-specific comments. Pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine comments were categorized to provide a broad analysis of the overall context of vaccine comments across viewpoints, with in-depth rhetorical analysis of pro-vaccine comments to address current gaps in understanding of pro-vaccine arguments in particular. Results: Appeals across 808 anti-vaccine and pro-vaccine comments were similar, though these appeals diverged in tactics and conclusions. Anti-vaccine arguments were more heterogeneous, deploying a wide range of arguments against vaccines. Additional analysis of pro-vaccine comments reveals that these comments use rhetorical strategies that could be counterproductive to producing persuasion. Pro-vaccine comments more frequently used tactics such as ad hominem arguments levied at those who refuse vaccines or used appeals to science to correct beliefs in vaccine skepticism, both of which can be ineffective when attempting to persuade a skeptical audience. Conclusions: Further study of pro-vaccine argumentation appeals and tactics could illuminate how persuasiveness could be improved in online forums.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere19504
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Anti-vaccination
  • Online comments
  • Pro-vaccination
  • Qualitative research
  • Quantitative research
  • Rhetoric
  • Vaccination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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