The internet has become a place where people go to seek medical advice. Whether this be WebMD, The Mayo Clinic, or Facebook. Whether we like it or not, the internet and social media are now competing with medical professionals when it comes to giving medical advice (Bradshaw, Shelton et al, 2020). These competing interests are often given the same weight, with a random Facebook user seen as just as credible as medical professionals (Bäckström et al.,2017). Nowadays, people are getting information regarding big medical decisions online. The Pew Internet & American Life Project (2011) found that 80% of people use the internet to research medical decisions, 16% of these were searching for information on vaccines, and 70% said that the information that they found influenced their decision. The internet is being used to solidify and validate arguments that are blatantly anti-vaccination (Smith and Graham, 2019). This essay will discuss what the anti-vaccination movement is, the online anti-vaccination movement, and how social media is used to spread falsehoods about vaccines.
What Is the Antivaccination movement?
The anti-vaccination (anti-vaxx) community consists of people who are anti-vaccine, or vaccine hesitant. People who are completely anti-vaccine may believe that vaccines are a hoax, that they cause illnesses, or that they are part of a conspiracy by the government or “big pharma”. This may lead to these people to alter the recommended vaccine schedule for their child, or to choose not to vaccinate their child at all (Kata, 2012). Those who are vaccine-hesitant have questions about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Nowadays, more and more people are identifying as vaccine hesitant (Danchin et al.,2017; Dubé et al.,2016). The antivaccination movement has grown over the past couple of decades, ever since Andrew Wakefield’s controversial study on whether the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine causes Autism in 1998. Wakefield has since been debunked but the impacts of his study are still felt today (Rao and Andrade, 2011). According to Paules, Marston et al. (2019) the number of children getting the Measles vaccine is falling.
The internet has since become a place where anti-vaxxers can congregate and share their beliefs. Not many blogs/Facebook pages/Groups advertise themselves as ‘anti-vaccine’, instead marketing themselves as a place where the safety and efficacy of vaccines can be discussed. Smith and Graham (2019) cite Davis et. al (2002) suggests that while searching online for information regarding vaccinations, the average person will come across anti-vaccination propaganda, which shows the prevalence of this type of information online. Davis (2002) also argues that anti-vaccination posts online are often coupled with emotional appeals and stories, which can affect the reasoning and critical thinking of a parent who may be deciding whether to vaccinate or not. This essay will discuss more tactics used by the anti-vaccination movement later in this essay.
Facebook Antivaccination Movement
Simply typing the word ‘vaccination’ into Facebook’s search engine will return with a litany of groups and pages, all devoted to promoting anti-vaccination viewpoints (Madrigal, 2019). According to Oh, Lauckner, Boehmer, Fewins-Bliss, and Li (2013) due to how interactive Facebook is, it is the perfect place for anti-vaccination content to be shared. There is also the emergence of ‘consumer autonomy’ through social media. People now feel more informed about their own health and can more easily make a decision regarding their own health, or the health of their child. As previously mentioned, this can lead to a lack of trust in healthcare professionals and regular people feeling empowered to make medical decisions without the guidance of their doctors (Kata, 2012). While this can be beneficial, as patients can make more informed decisions and have support from an online community, it can be potentially deadly when paired with misinformation.
Smith and Graham (2019) studied 6 different anti-vaccination Facebook pages, from Australia and North America. What they found was that the people interacting with the posts were primarily female, with a 1:3 ratio of men to women. The researchers found that this showed a clear example of gender roles. Which is to say that it seems that mothers are still the parent who have the role of caring for and making medical decisions for the child. The anti-vaccination movement is spearheaded by women, and by mothers. These women appeal to the senses of other mothers and manipulate more and more mothers into not vaccinating their children. An example of this is the website mothering.com, which promotes many anti-vaccine sentiments, and is clearly targeted towards mothers (Kata, 2012).
Tactics Used by Anti-vaxxers
There is evidence to suggest that media can influence our behaviour and decisions. A study done in Wales found that in an area where an anti-vaccine advert was published in the local Newspaper, the vaccination rates were lower (Mason and Donnelly, 2000). Another study was done that studied the perceptions of students when shown online medical information when googling the terms ‘vaccine safety’ and ‘vaccine dangers’. 59% of the students believed that the websites they viewed contained accurate information and 53% had false beliefs about vaccines when the study was finished. These studies show that viewing anti-vaccination material can have an effect on whether or not we vaccinate ourselves and our children (Kortum, Edwards et.al, 2008). The anti-vaccine movement use many tactics to widen their audience, however they rarely use scientific evidence, relying more on anecdotal evidence and emotional appeals.
Firstly, this essay will discuss how the anti-vaccination community skew scientific research. Kata (2012) found that the community holds up scientific evidence when it suits their agenda but find any chance to discredit a study which does not line up with their beliefs. An example of a study which the anti-vaxx community deems as sound was carried out by a father and son by the name of David and Mark Geier in 2007. When reviewed, the study was found to have been staffed by many family members and friends of the duo, and also a Lawyer who was litigating on vaccine injury cases at the time of the study. The website ‘Fourteen Studies’, which ranks scientific studies relating to vaccines considers this a win for the anti-vaccination community. Any studies which debunk Andrew Wakefield’s claim of the MMR vaccine causing Autism Spectrum disorder unsurprisingly receive low ratings.
Secondly, the anti-vaccine community will often use the tactic of ‘shifting hypotheses’. This means that due to many anti-vaccination claims being debunked, they will change their entire argument. A good example of this is the belief that the MMR vaccine causes Autism. When multiple studies found no link, the anti-vaxx community then moved onto blaming thimerosal, and arguing that Autism was a result of Mercury poisoning (Bernard and Enayata, et. al, 2001). Those who believed this theory thought that once thimerosal was removed from vaccines, new Autism diagnoses would decrease, however this was not the case. Autism was then seen as a result of aluminium poisoning, and then a result of a mitochondrial disorder (Dachel, 2008). This shows that whenever anti-vaccination arguments are debunked, they simply find another thing to blame.
Thirdly, anti-vaccination activists regularly censor those who criticise and disagree with them. A blog entitled ‘The Age of Autism’ censors’ comments that disagree with them, claiming that it is simply a way of moderating comments (Todd, 2010). Another blog which shows examples of this is one which was previously mentioned, mothering.com. While the owners argue that they are not anti-vaccination, they do not publish comments which are pro-vaccine. They are allegedly a website for those who are looking for information about vaccines, but do not post any content which supports or defends vaccinations. This leads to an echo-chamber wherein no dissenting views are heard. This in turn can cause those reading to have their beliefs validated and affirmed, not seeing the other side of the argument (Motheringdotcommunity, 2011).
Lastly, we will discuss how the anti-vaccination community actively attack those who disagree with them. There have even been lawsuits filed against pro-vaccination activists by the anti-vaxx community. The “Director of the Vaccine Education Centre and Professor of Paediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia”, Dr. Offit (The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 2014), has often been attacked by the anti-vaccination community, and has been called a ‘Biostitute’ (A Bioscience Prostitute) and ‘Dr.Proffit’ (Fagone, 2009). He has even had death threats made against him and had a lawsuit filed against him. The Age of Autism blog published a picture that had been photoshopped to show three vaccine advocators, including Dr. Offit, at a dinner table eating a dead baby (Gorski, 2010). This shows how ruthless the anti-vaccination community can be, launching person attacks on those who disagree with them. These tactics show how the anti-vaccination movement can manipulate people into believing in misinformation about vaccines. It is easy to see how someone can fall into the trap of believing this, as differing opinions and studies are censored and attacked. Even the scientific studies that the anti-vaxx community do use are often not reliable, and the results are skewed in the favour of the anti-vaxxers.
Vaccine misinformation is a big problem, based on statistics shared in this essay, and this will only become worse in the coming months with the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine. Burki (2020) suggests that the anti-vaccination movement could have a signification effect on how many people receive the vaccine for COVID-19. It is more important than ever to recognise misinformation, and where to find reliable sources. Robertson (2020) stresses the importance of thinking critically when looking at a source and urges people to do further research. It is evident that the anti-vaccination movement use the internet to spread their misinformation, and they do it effectively. Having read this essay, you will now have the knowledge of the tactics used by the anti-vaccination movement and will know in the future how not to fall victim to their deception.
- Adi Robertson (2020). A guide to fighting lies, fake news, and chaos online. [online] The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/21276897/fake-news-facebook-twitter-misinformation-lies-fact-check-how-to-internet-guide [Accessed 30 Nov. 2020].
- Amanda S. Bradshaw, Summer S. Shelton, Easton Wollney, DebbieTreise & Kendra Auguste (2020): Pro-Vaxxers Get Out: Anti-Vaccination Advocates Influence Undecided First-Time, Pregnant, and New Mothers on Facebook, Health Communication, DOI:10.1080/10410236.2020.1712037To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/10410236.2020.1712037Published online: 10 Jan 2020.Submit your article to this journal Article views: 745View related articles View Crossmark data
- Burki, T. (2020). The online anti-vaccine movement in the age of COVID-19. The Lancet Digital Health, [online] 2(10), pp. e504–e505. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landig/article/PIIS2589-7500(20)30227-2/fulltext [Accessed 3 Dec. 2020].
- Kata, A., 2012. Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm–An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine, 30(25), pp.3778-3789.
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- Naomi Smith & Tim Graham (2019) Mapping the anti-vaccination movement on Facebook, Information, Communication & Society, 22:9, 1310-1327, DOI:10.1080/1369118X.2017.1418406
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- Rao, T. S., & Andrade, C. (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian journal of psychiatry, 53(2), 95–96. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.82529
- The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (2014). Paul A. Offit, MD | Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. [online] Chop.edu. Available at: https://www.chop.edu/doctors/offit-paul-a [Accessed 30 Nov. 2020].
Kate O Dwyer is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway