by Jalees Rehman
Vaccines exemplify the success of modern medicine: Scientific insights into the inner workings of the immune system were leveraged to develop vaccines which have been administered to billions of humans world-wide and resulted in the eradication or near-eradication of many life-threatening diseases. Most vaccinations have minimal side effects, are cost-effective and there is a strong consensus among healthcare providers all over the world about the importance of routine vaccination against diseases such as polio, measles and diphtheria. Despite these extraordinary successes of global vaccination policies, there is a still a strong anti-vaccination movement which has gained more traction in recent years by using online platforms. To scientists and physicians, the resilience of the anti-vaccination movement often comes as a surprise because their claims are routinely debunked by research. The infamous study which attempted to link the administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism was retracted by the medical journal Lancet in 2010. The claim that healthcare providers promote administration of vaccines as a means of generating profits for their clinical practices have also been disproven because the reimbursements for vaccinations by health insurances are lower than the actual costs of administering the vaccines, i.e. healthcare providers in the United States may be losing money on vaccinations.
If the efficacy and safety data on vaccinations are so robust and if many of the anti-vaccination claims have been disproven by research, why do so many people continue to oppose it? One approach to analyze and interpret the beliefs of the anti-vaccination movement is to place it into the context of social and political movements because the opposition to vaccination may not be primarily based on an analysis of scientific data but instead represents an ideological stance.
Overly simplistic attempts to align anti-vaccination views with liberal versus conservative beliefs have failed because the anti-vaccination movement draws members from both sides of the political spectrum. However, a more recent study of English-language anti-vaccination websites by the researcher Mark Davis at the University of Melbourne was published in the journal Public Understanding of Science and systematically analyzed the content of anti-vaccination websites.
Davis evaluated the content of each major website using two groups of criteria. Criteria in group 1 referred to the “presence of misleading and unscientific claims and/or material that lacks adherence to normative standards of rationality, argumentation and evidence“. These criteria included pseudo-scientific claims which reject the strong scientific evidence that vaccines are indeed effective and safe or claims perpetuating the myth that the MMR vaccines cause autism. The second group of criteria assesses “presence of discourse demonstrating hostility to ‘elites’, expert knowledge and democratic institutions and processes“. This included attacks on experts and their ‘agendas’ or the use of conspiracy language suggesting that collusions between members of the “establishment” such as healthcare providers, government agencies, universities or the industry.
Using Google searches and threshold filters, Davis focused on 56 English-language anti-vaccination websites. Thirteen of the 56 sites were general health sites that also posted significant amounts of anti-vaccination information and attracted an “estimated 32.4 million of the 33.8 million visits received by all sites in the month prior to data collection (October 2016).” The remaining 43 sites focused on anti-vaccination issues and attracted only approximately 1.4 million visits. According to Davis’ analysis, all 56 sites made unscientific or pseudo-scientific claims such as casting doubt on the efficacy of vaccines as well as claiming dangers and side effects that are not substantiated by scientific data. The vast majority of anti-vaccination websites continue to propose a link between the MMR vaccine and autism even though this has been thoroughly debunked and the scientific papers which had suggested such a link have been retracted by the medical journals.
The most interesting findings in Davis’ analyses of anti-vaccination websites relate to the second group of criteria – the presence of conspiracy language and anti-“establishment” discourse. Forty-one percent of the analyzed anti-vaccination websites specifically referenced the malevolent influence of powerful ‘elites’ and forty-three percent explicitly emphasized the importance of opposing extreme and excessive state power. The anti-vaccination website “Natural News” is ranked second in terms of online traffic and is among the most explicit when it comes to invoking conspiracies of elites as well as promoting right wing extremist ideology. A bizarre and highly popular article on Natural News “reports” a story in which triplets purportedly become autistic within hours of receiving a vaccination, completely disregarding medical criteria for how autism is diagnosed and that this is a chronic medical condition that cannot develop during a few hours. The same article then goes on to claim that the “vaccine industry hires internet trolls to attack anyone who dares to tell the truth, even while vaccine pushers are medical monsters who are committed heinous crimes against children on a daily basis.”
The far right extremism and agenda of this “health” website becomes even more apparent if one scrolls through the most popular articles of 2018, which include “Homeschooling skyrockets as more parents get fed up with Left-wing social engineering and violence in public schools“, “CONFIRMED: Barack Obama was running the entire spygate operation that violated federal law to spy on Trump campaign officials” and perhaps most peculiarly for a natural health website: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appears to be gearing up for massive border invasion with new contract to acquire 375 million rounds of tactical rifle ammunition“. This latter article refers to the entry of illegal immigrants as an “invasion”, using terms commonly used by far right extremists in North America and Europe, and then goes on to recommend that readers of the article stock up on ammunition and prepare for a showdown with illegal immigrants. None of these articles explain why such political propaganda is embedded in a “health” news website which claims that is wants to promote healthy and natural living. When did ammunition rounds become part of a healthy life-style?
Davis’ study highlights that the anti-vaccination movement can be best understood within the context of a broader anti-establishment discourse which attacks public and government institutions as well as the credibility of experts by implying that they are colluding with “elites”. Just presenting scientific facts is unlikely to make any difference and convince anti-vaccination activists. There is a certain irony that anti-vaccination websites, which accuse scientists and healthcare providers of conspiring with elites to promote “agendas”, may in fact themselves be acting as henchmen for political extremists and subversively coupling anti-vaccination messaging to extremist political agendas.
M. Davis (2018)‘Globalist war against humanity shifts into high gear’: Online anti-vaccination websites and ‘antipublic’ discourse. Public Understanding of Science, (in press).