Monitoring social discourse about COVID-19 vaccines is key to understanding how large populations perceive vaccination campaigns. This work reconstructs how popular and trending posts framed semantically and emotionally COVID-19 vaccines on Twitter. We achieve this by merging natural language processing, cognitive network science and AI-based image analysis. We focus on 4765 unique popular tweets in English or Italian about COVID-19 vaccines between December 2020 and March 2021. One popular English tweet contained in our data set was liked around 495,000 times, highlighting how popular tweets could cognitively affect large parts of the population. We investigate both text and multimedia content in tweets and build a cognitive network of syntactic/semantic associations in messages, including emotional cues and pictures. This network representation indicates how online users linked ideas in social discourse and framed vaccines along specific semantic/emotional content. The English semantic frame of “vaccine” was highly polarised between trust/anticipation (towards the vaccine as a scientific asset saving lives) and anger/sadness (mentioning critical issues with dose administering). Semantic associations with “vaccine,” “hoax” and conspiratorial jargon indicated the persistence of conspiracy theories and vaccines in extremely popular English posts. Interestingly, these were absent in Italian messages. Popular tweets with images of people wearing face masks used language that lacked the trust and joy found in tweets showing people with no masks. This difference indicates a negative effect attributed to face-covering in social discourse. Behavioural analysis revealed a tendency for users to share content eliciting joy, sadness and disgust and to like sad messages less. Both patterns indicate an interplay between emotions and content diffusion beyond sentiment. After its suspension in mid-March 2021, “AstraZeneca” was associated with trustful language driven by experts. After the deaths of a small number of vaccinated people in mid-March, popular Italian tweets framed “vaccine” by crucially replacing earlier levels of trust with deep sadness. Our results stress how cognitive networks and innovative multimedia processing open new ways for reconstructing online perceptions about vaccines and trust.
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