Vaccine truthers going viral threatens everyone’s health

It is the thorniest dilemma of the social media age: When, if ever, is it appropriate to ‘unfriend’ someone on Facebook?

That rollcall on the right-hand margin of your screen is the real sidebar of shame. The school chums you looked up for a laugh, or a nosey; the university friendships that have not survived the arrival of children and departure of vodka jelly shots; Colin from IT, who looks like a man whose floorboards you wouldn’t want to take up, but he did recover your deleted report that one time.

I have my social media red lines. Excessive cat photography — muted. ‘99 per cent won’t share this but my true friends will’ — blocked. More than two inspirational quotes a week — life without possibility of parole.

Far more sinister, though, is the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the one I see the most these days is the anti-vaccine panic. Educated, otherwise sensible acquaintances test tolerance to the limit by polluting my timeline with garish memes about children being injected with aborted foetal tissue and other scientific illiteracies.

If anyone deserves to be abruptly kicked off your friend list, it’s anti-vaxxers. Anti-vaxxers are parents who refuse to have their children inoculated because they believe some or all jabs are unsafe, cause more diseases than they prevent, and are being pushed by a cabal of Big Pharma, GPs and health policymakers.

The scientific consensus is overwhelmingly on the side of vaccination yet myths about jabs causing autism or other conditions persist.

Medical conspiracy theories are nothing new but modern pseudoscience can be spread at the click of a ‘share’ button. Social media has become an incubator of disinformation and when it comes to vaccination, the consequences can be deadly.

On Friday, the chief executive of NHS England warned that ‘the vaccination deniers are getting some traction’ and noted a ‘steady decline’ in under-fives receiving the MMR jab in the last five years. Simon Stevens, who was speaking at a health conference, laid the blame with fake news shared through social media.

He explained: ‘[A]lthough nine in 10 parents support vaccination, half of them say they have seen fake messages about vaccination on social media.’

The deniers are recording real-world victories in their cyber propaganda war. In the United States, where the internet is the second most popular source of information on vaccines, the number deeming it very important to vaccinate children has dropped 10 percent in the last decade.

One fifth of Americans lack confidence in vaccine safety and those who strongly believe they have benefited from inoculation are now under 60 per cent. A majority fail to get the flu jab and almost half say it’s because they don’t trust it.

Italy’s Five Star Movement tapped into anti-vaxx hysteria in opposition and in government has tried to weaken the rules on vaccination for schoolchildren. Italy has seen a 500 per cent increase in cases of measles.

In Ukraine, the rise was tenfold between 2017 and 2018, with more than 50,000 stricken by the outbreak. In February, the viral disease was reintroduced to Costa Rica, five years after eradication, by a family of French holidaymakers whose son had not been vaccinated.

Measles infections went up in a staggering 98 per cent of countries worldwide last year, according to a United Nations report published on Friday. UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said: ‘Measles may be the disease, but, all too often, the real infection is misinformation.‘

Anti-vaxxism is selfish, shallow, faddish and fantastically disconnected from reality, so naturally it’s big in Hollywood.

Celebrity anti-vaxxers include actress Jenny McCarthy (‘the epidemic of autism is due to a vaccine injury and/or other environmental exposures’) and Jim Carrey, who called the Governor of California a ‘corporate fascist’ when he made school jabs compulsory. Democrat Jerry Brown was saying ‘yes to poisoning more children with mercury and aluminum in manditory [sic] vaccines’, the Dumb and Dumber star asserted.

Between social media shareability and celebrity endorsements, it’s never been a better time to be a medical conspiracy theorist. No wonder the World Health Organisation lists ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as a top ten global threat to health.

Alarming as this sounds, the story gets more disturbing: trying to educate committed anti-vaxxers doesn’t work. A 2018 study from the University of Queensland concluded that pointing out the scientific facts only hardened belief in a conspiracy theory. The researchers proposed appealing to anti-vaxxers’ conspiracism and making a case that ‘vested interests can conspire to obscure the benefits of vaccination’.

Could there be a gloomier symbol of this irreligious age of mass credulity? Fake news cannot be debunked, only replaced with less harmful fake news.

The internet has transformed communications, turbo-charged economic growth, and rendered a thousand onerous tasks obsolete. It has also empowered every troll, hacker and malcontent with a WiFi connection and a penchant for mayhem.

We see this yet again with the ‘Momo Challenge’, which purports to be a suicide game targeting children through WhatsApp and YouTube. Schools and even police forces have issued warnings about it but, as a journalist revealed last week, it is a malicious hoax designed to prompt an international panic. There is no suicide game but parents who have been taken in continue to disseminate the urban legend on Facebook and other platforms.

Whether it’s anti-vaxx falsehoods or 21st century chain letters, the potential for fomenting alarm and endangering life is not hard to see. However, there are better ways to tackle the scourge of social scare stories than by pandering to the mindset they appeal to. Australia has introduced a policy called No Jab, No Pay, which makes receipt of family and child welfare benefits contingent on getting your offspring vaccinated.

Common sense has a role to play too. The website where folk post pictures of their dinner and videos of pugs dancing the Macarena is not a reliable source of medical advice. You wouldn’t let Sharon from the fish counter operate on your knee; why heed her counsel on regulating the immune system’s response to pathogens?

The political class has little affection for the family and believes the state ought to direct parents on everything from discipline and healthy eating to their child’s ‘gender identity’. Parents’ right to raise their progeny in accordance with their religious convictions — once a cornerstone of a free society — is beginning to look less secure. Irresponsible parents who put their children and others at risk of deadly infection will only fuel this troubling trend.

Above all, this is another instance where social media giants need to get their house in order. There are some encouraging signs. Over the weekend, Amazon Prime began removing anti-vaxx ‘documentaries’ from its streaming service while last month YouTube stripped advertising from similiar content. Facebook says it will step up fact-checking of health-related links and rank misinformation lower in search results.

There is much more to be done. Google and Facebook have a duty to public health and the ideal of an informed citizenry. They are happy to displace newspapers as information sources but are doing so without any of the checks and balances of journalism. 

Yes, journalists fell for the Momo Challenge after seeing warnings from police; yes, they were once taken in by anti-vaxx pseudo-experts. We can be too deferential towards authority and, at the same time, too willing to believe anyone who looks like a whistleblower. But where reporting on vaccines and other targets of conspiracy-mongering has fallen short, journalism has reviewed and revamped its procedures to prevent a repeat of these mistakes.

Problems with social media have been allowed to fester. For too long, shoulders have been shrugged and the absurd fiction that these companies are not publishers spun by sockless gurus unburdened by old-fashioned notions like responsibility and consequences. 

They regard us as dinosaurs but if social media platforms are finally awakening to their responsibilities, they could learn a lot from how editorial judgements are made and standards enforced in the print media. We still err but every day we get better. 

Facebook and other transmitters of anti-vaxx conspiracies can get better too, but if they don’t, it might be time to unfriend them. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Stephen at

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