Homebirth and rumor communities

Homebirth advocacy websites are classic “rumor communities.”

What is a rumor community?

… Community members limit the scope of conflict by asserting authority to speak publicly and rejecting contributors with countering opinions as irrelevant. They sustain their threatened community by denying scientific evidence and demanding unattainable levels of scientific proof, and they socialize conflict by recruiting bystanders to enter the fray using appeals to wider social values.

That description applies to every homebirth website I’ve ever seen from Mothering.com to Lamaze’s Science and Sensibility to the personal websites of homebirth midwives and homebirth advocates:

Asserting authority to speak publicly ✓
Deleting other opinions as irrelevant unsupportive ✓
Denying scientific evidence ✓
Recruiting bystanders to the fray with talk of feminism and rights ✓

The quote above comes from a new paper, The Persistence of Rumor Communities: Public Resistance to Official Debunking in the Internet Age, recently presented to the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting by Jill A. Edy and Erin E. Baird of the University of Oklahoma. Edy and Baird discussed the anti-vax community, but their findings apply to the homebirth community as well.

Rumor communities use two distinct strategies to promote their views, one strategy for insiders and another for “bystanders.”

The insider strategy is obvious and the banning of outsiders is critical to that strategy. A rumor community is designed as an echo chamber where only approved views can be shared. Anyone who disagrees must be banned so that accurate scientific information will be suppressed. Of course homebirth advocates don’t acknowledge that the widespread banning occurs in an effort to suppress accurate information. Instead they claim that the rumor community is designed for “support” and that alternative viewpoints (or even additional information) is unsupportive.

The bystander strategy is more subtle. Edy and Baird believe that we need to change the way we view the propagation of conspiracy theories and rumors, both political and scientific to encompass these bystander stategy:

Current research on rumors, conspiracy theories, and other forms of political misperceptions favors a modernist perspective and a psychological research paradigm. The scholarship emphasizes the factual inaccuracies of individual beliefs and theorizes about how individuals came to hold or spread those beliefs, what sorts of messages might dispel them, and the impacts of inaccurate beliefs on political opinions. Communication is conceptualized as a means of transmitting inaccurate or accurate information, and public opinion is conceptualized as the aggregation of individual opinions.

This conception is inadequate because it ignores the social dimension:

… Generated and sustained by interest groups, political rumors, conspiracies, and misperceptions speak to fundamental elements of political culture. They survive because they are persuasive, not because they are true in any kind of modernist sense. These characteristics of rumors, conspiracy theories, and misperceptions are better understood with a cultural approach to communication and an understanding of public opinion grounded in group conflict.

The new paradigm they propose has its origin in political science:

E. E. Schattschneider offered a theoretical model for understanding political conflict that involves group conflict, describing a process of “socialization of conflict.” He observed that a party on the losing side of a political argument seeks to broaden the scope of conflict by recruiting allies who may come in on the losing side and turn the tide in their favor … Thus, we might expect that ardent believers in a debunked rumor might both resist changing their beliefs and seek to recruit additional supporters from amongst those Schattschneider referred to as “bystanders.” … Rumors may survive and thrive not because debunking messages fail but because rumor communities appeal to wider social values and broader audiences in order to sustain the political conflict they are losing.

The social value invoked by rumor communities is typically personal liberty:

… Many members of the anti-vaccine movement describe themselves as engaged in political action, resisting government and public health authorities. The rumor they believe has been debunked by scientific and public health experts, yet they continue to agitate against childhood vaccination. Political conflict over the rumor is both visible and archived in Internet coverage of the debunking and public responses to it. In responding directly to online news coverage and blog posts, the rumor community engages in public discussion that includes both believers and nonbelievers before an audience of interested citizens whose opinion may be affected by what it sees. According to Schattschneider’s model, the rumor community’s public discussion socializes conflict to the extent that it appeals to bystanders to enter the conflict on the side of the antivaccine advocates.

Sound familiar? It should because homebirth advocates make the same claims in an effort to engage bystanders.

Homebirth advocates routinely describe themselves as engaged in political action, resisting “Big” government, “Big” Pharma and “Big” Medicine. In this way they elide the fact that most of their claims are nonsensical (“homebirth is as safe as hospital birth”; “obstetricians don’t follow the scientific evidence”; “childbirth is only painful because women have been socialized to think it is painful”) and attempt to engage bystanders by appeals to freedom and rights. They solicit support from outsiders who reject the nonsensical claims by invoking claims of political liberty. The Human Rights in Childbirth Conference and the new movie Freedom for Birth are merely the latest and most explicit efforts along these lines.

Homebirth advocates love to claim that they have “educated” themselves by reading and participating in homebirth websites. It should be obvious, however, that you cannot educate yourself by participating in a rumor community. So how can the average person decide what it is a rumor community and what is a legitimate source of accurate information? That’s relatively easy. Any community that resorts to frequent banning of commentors with different opinions is a rumor community and, therefore, thoroughly unreliable.

In other words, virtually every homebirth and natural childbirth website is a rumor community and not a source of accurate information. It doesn’t matter whether the community is sponsored by Lamaze, by Mothering Magazine, by Ricki Lake, by The Feminist Breeder or any other of the myriad homebirth and natural childbirth bloggers. It’s a very simple rule of thumb:

If they ban dissenters, they are rumor communities. Websites that offer accurate scientific information don’t need to ban people who disagree.