The Zignal Health and Pharma Labs Report: Lessons from the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine Pause
Welcome to the Health and Pharma Labs Report from Zignal Labs, your regular dive into the issues driving conversations in health today. Last week, the CDC and FDA recommended a pause on the administration of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine amid reports of rare blood clots among recipients. The intention of the pause was, of course, to prevent any more cases of clots from arising while experts looked into the cause. But perhaps the largest, and most immediate, impact came in the form of an explosion of online narratives centered around Johnson & Johnson – and reverberating outward from there.
Zignal used narrative intelligence to shine a light on these narratives, and our Head of Insights, Jennifer Granston, recently spoke to NPR about the issue, calling it “the perfect storm of misinformation.” In today’s Labs Report, we’re discussing some of our findings to show how they offer a key lesson for risk operations and communications professionals: that narratives can spread into areas you might not expect, and that it thus requires holistic narrative awareness to head off their impact. Keep reading as we explore key issues including:
- The potential for one story to fuel many narratives – some involving misinformation
- The easy-to-miss residual effects of high-impact narratives
- How narratives about one company can pull in others
Learn more about narrative intelligence for health companies on our Health & Pharma Industry Page.
One Story Can Lead in Many Directions
There’s not really any dispute that rare blood clots did arise in several people who had received Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine. But the truth at the core of this story has served as a springboard for a host of related vaccine hesitancy narratives, some of which involve mis- and disinformation. In the immediate wake of the announcement of the pause, we saw upticks in numerous vaccine misinformation narratives that have little to no connection with blood clots. Here are just a few of the narratives within the broader vaccine conversation (related to all vaccines, not just J&J) that saw significant growth on April 13th, 2021, the day of the announcement, compared to the day prior:
- The “vaccine microchips” narrative grew 87%
- The “vaccines don’t work” narrative grew 198%
- The “mass vaccination” narrative grew 93%
These findings illustrate the complexity of segmenting truth from disinformation as online narratives are born and evolve. Many narratives fall somewhere between the two extremes, and businesses need to be able to identify narratives with the potential to activate voices that are eager to amplify disinformation, even when the original narrative is based on a core truth.
The Johnson & Johnson Narrative Spread Beyond Vaccines
As the conversation around Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine spiked in the wake of the pause, it quickly incorporated narratives that, while related to the company, had little to nothing to do with vaccines at all. These narratives pre-date the announcement of the pause, and while they weren’t exactly dormant, their volume of mentions were far lower until last week.
“Businesses need to be able to identify narratives with the potential to activate voices that are eager to amplify disinformation, even when the original narrative is based on a core truth.
One such narrative, stemming from multiple lawsuits over the years, centered around the idea that Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder contained asbestos which caused ovarian cancer in some women. We looked at mentions of this narrative dating back to February of 2020 and found some powerful figures:
- During this time frame, “baby powder” was mentioned in relation to Johnson & Johnson 52,559 times, 9,929 of which occurred from April 13 – 14. Put another way, roughly one fifth of all mentions of “baby powder” related to Johnson and Johnson during this fourteen-month time frame occurred in a span of two days.
- “Asbestos” and “ovarian cancer” also saw an outsize share of mentions during this two-day period, albeit not as large a share as “baby powder.” “Asbestos” has been mentioned 10,785 times since February of 2020, with 788 mentions occurring from April 13 – 14; “ovarian cancer” has been mentioned 14,044 times since February of 2020, with 418 mentions occurring from April 13 – 14.
Importantly, all of these mentions occurred, again, within the “vaccines” conversation related to Johnson and Johnson, showing how the vaccine narrative is pulling in topics that may well have been considered irrelevant to vaccines.
A Narrative About One Company Can Pull In Others
When exploring a narrative with narrative intelligence, it’s important to approach the narrative from different angles and with different levels of specificity.
Within the Johnson & Johnson conversation, the top two topics we tracked, “vaccine side effects/adverse reactions” and “blood clots,” got over half a million mentions from April 13 – 14:
- Vaccine side effects/adverse reactions: 306,652 mentions
- Blood Clots: 254,585 mentions
But when we broadened the analysis to include conversation about all vaccines (instead of just focusing on Johnson & Johnson’s), the combined total increased by 312,964 mentions – a 56% jump:
- Vaccine side effects/adverse reactions: 492,397 mentions
- Blood Clots: 381,804 mentions
This was a telling sign that these narratives had quickly spread beyond Johnson & Johnson and were likely pulling in other COVID-19 vaccine makers. To an extent, this is intuitive, as AstraZeneca’s vaccine was also recently linked to blood clots, and it’s no surprise that that would be noted in conversations in the wake of the Johnson & Johnson pause.
“We found that even companies whose vaccines have had no known connection to blood clots were getting pulled into the narrative. From April 12 – 15, “blood clots” was mentioned over 61,000 times in relation to Pfizer and nearly 50,000 times in relation to Moderna. In both cases, mentions spiked on April 13 and remained elevated for several days after.
But when we drilled into the data, we found that even companies whose vaccines have had no known connection to blood clots were getting pulled into the narrative. From April 12 – 15, “blood clots” was mentioned over 61,000 times in relation to Pfizer and nearly 50,000 times in relation to Moderna. In both cases, mentions spiked on April 13 and remained elevated for several days after.
This finding serves as a stark reminder that even a narrative that isn’t directly related to your business today might pull your company in tomorrow. Broad monitoring that incorporates not just your own brand, but others in your space, is often essential to ensuring you’ve got all potential risk sources covered.
This analysis used the Zignal Enterprise tool to analyze mentions of Johnson & Johnson and related narratives, including various vaccine hesitancy and misinformation narratives within the larger vaccine conversation.