Are anti-vaxxers being fooled by misused social media?

Feb. 11, 2015

To the many obnoxious locutions that plague the public conversation these days, you can add “anti-vaxxers”–meaning people who, for one or another bad reason, refuse to have their children vaccinated, e.g., with the MMR vaccine, and are lobbying state and federal government to make these vitally necessary public health protections voluntary. What is motivating the anti-vaxxers to endeavor to put their own children–and other people's children–at risk of contracting measles or, potentially, other serious diseases? They certainly don't have science on their side; the vaccines do no harm and obviously do much good.

Part of it has to do with the United States' poisoned politics nowadays, specifically the knee-jerk suspicion and even hatred that a loud minority bear for the federal government. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or any government agency is for it, these people are against it: they see virtually any government action as excessive, coercive, and somehow a violation of their “freedom”–and they oppose and resist. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, their philosophical forebears protested the fluoridation of water for similar reasons.

Aside from politics, though, a provocative study suggests that the internet and social media may be part of the problem. According to a paper due to be published soon by researchers at Washington State University, online comments on the topic may be influencing credulous people to oppose vaccination. If you have ever read comments after Yahoo articles, for instance, you probably have noticed that most of the commenters are not exactly great minds at work–but some of them are very effective at expressing their ignorance, and they can convince others.

More generally, the Internet has a way of “democratizing” ideas, and it's not a healthy way. Information that is, well, informed–created by people with genuine expertise and credentials and credibility–can get lost in the clamor of other kinds of chatter. The well-reasoned arguments present in the same way as the foolish or sinister ones, and the interface that people have with their computer screens or smartphones makes thoughtful ideas and ignorant ideas look more or less the same. There are PhD dissertations to be written on how social media affects the marketplace of ideas, and the way we construct thoughts and opinions; it is a fascinating subject for scholarly inquiry. Marshall McLuhan was right decades ago–the medium is the message–that is, the means by which information is disseminated plays a role in affecting the way that information is received. Clever liars can look pretty good on the Internet.

Of course, in a free society, they have the right to do so. The answer cannot be to try to suppress those voices, as dangerous to the public health as they are; it has to be to counteract them with the real information–in this case, about vaccinations. That the CDC is doing, and the agency and other science-based enterprises must redouble their efforts in response to the anti-vaxxers.