Fake news is not new; anti-vaccine advocates were among its pioneers

47309828 - child vaccination, baby injection, anti vaccine background

The mainstream media has suddenly discovered fake news.

According to PBS:

The mainstream media served for a decade as purveyors of fake news on vaccines and children have died as a result.

A new analysis by BuzzFeed found that false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated more engagement than content from real news sites during the last three months of the election. Users shared false stories like this one about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS hundreds of thousands of times, even more than real stories.

The power of fake news comes from the willingness of partisans to believe it and share it without ever checking to see if it is true.

Social media companies like Facebook are shocked, shocked to find that they have been used as conduits for fake news … as if their business model isn’t built on making millions by monetizing it. Journalists are shocked, shocked that an election could have been won or lost based on such dirty tricks and are bitingly dismissive of the uninformed, gullible multitudes who fell for it … as if those in the media are far above such ignorance and credulousness.

But fake news is not new, and the mainstream media are not above such fatuousness. For years, social media and mainstream media have been the primary conduits for the spread of fake news about vaccines. True, anti-vax “news” does not originate in the mainstream media, but then fake news about politics doesn’t generally originate in the mainstream media, either. The birthplace of fake news about vaccines, like fake news about politics, is the internet and its acceptance and believability is nurtured on social media sites first. But ultimately the mainstream media served for a decade as purveyors of fake news on vaccines and children have died as a result. But they didn’t call it fake news; they called it “balance.”

The Washington Post interviewed a leading creator and purveyor of fake political news in order to understand how and why it works. It is startling how closely the political fake news industry hews to the tactics of the anti-vax fake news industry.

Paul Horner is not a political partisan; he creates fake news because it is extraordinarily lucrative to monetize it.

How lucrative?

I make most of my money from AdSense — like, you wouldn’t believe how much money I make from it. Right now I make like $10,000 a month from AdSense.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across an anti-vax “news” site that isn’t chock-a-block with Adsense ads that provide tremendous revenue for the website owners.

I have Adsense in the sidebar of this blog, so I know how it works. I only run one ad on a page and many the visitors to my site are “hate readers” who would never knowingly contribute to my ad revenue by clicking on the ads. Hence my income from ads is paltry. Moreover, I actually have to spend time crafting real articles for people to read. The ad revenue doesn’t come close to paying for maintaining the site, let alone writing for it. But anti-vax websites, like fake news websites, are filled with multiple ads on each page, ads within the articles themselves, and even ads within comment sections.

Adsense has decency standards for whether they will put ads on your site, just like Facebook has decency standards for what they will allow on their pages. But truthfulness is not one of their standards so you (and they!) can make more money and get more attention for click-bait then you ever could for real news.

And the best part is readers don’t care whether content is true.

As Horner explains:

Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Horner hasn’t seen anything like it, but I have. It’s how anti-vax sites work, too. Anti-vaxxers are remarkably dumb and gullible. They just keep passing stuff around; nobody fact checks anything. Anti-vaxxers say whatever they want, with absolutely no regard for the truth, and people believe it. Even when things anti-vax websites say turn out to be obviously untrue, anti-vaxxers don’t mind and cheerfully accept it any way.

In other words, when an anti-vaxxers tells you she’s “done her research” and she has “educated” herself, what she means is that she’s read fake news sites, never fact checked it and believes it because she wants to believe it. She imagines that she’s sophisticated when she’s merely the victim of a not particularly sophisticated con. The anti-vaxxers who believes that vaccines cause autism is no different than the hard Right partisan who believes Obama is Kenyan. She’s a fool.

Journalists drip with derision for the “Obama is a Kenyan” fools, but for many years they gullibly served as purveyors of anti-vaccine nonsense under the guise of journalistic “balance.” Most science journalists are not scientists and they lack the basic understanding required to tell the difference between fake science news and real science news. For years they carefully included the anti-vaccine “perspective” in pieces on vaccines and fanned the flames of anti-vaccine autism hysteria. They never bothered to fact check anti-vax “news”; indeed they didn’t care if it was true or not. They profited by selling the “controversy.”

The truth is that fake news is as big a problem in science as it is in politics. And whereas mainstream media outlets in general will not transmit fake political news unwittingly, they cheerfully transmit fake science news all the time. They shouldn’t be looking down on Facebook and Google for profiting from fake political news, when they are equally guilty of cheerfully profiting from fake science news. It’s inevitable whenever a business puts profits before principles.

  • Busbus

    OT: Did anyone read this news story from two weeks ago about a woman in the UK who was excluded from getting a parking voucher at Tesco because all she bought was formula? https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/nov/12/mother-refused-free-parking-at-tesco-due-to-baby-formula-purchase
    The store blamed a UK (or EU—not quite clear) law for this—although it seems to me that any reasonable cashier or customer service person would have found a way around it if they wanted to… Shows the stupidity of classifying formula in one group together with cigarettes, etc.

  • Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild

    “The number of measles deaths fell by 79 percent over the last 15 years. Even with that progress, close to 400 children die from the disease daily.”

    Suck it anti-vaccers. 20.3 million children are alive today thanks to the measles vaccine!

    http://www.humanosphere.org/global-health/2016/11/good-news-measles-vaccine-saved-lives-of-20-million-kids/

  • Azuran

    OT: Went pregnancy clothes shopping for the first time today. They gave me a gift because it was my first visit. It was a baby bottle. But not just ANY bottle.
    According to the card, it’s the bestest baby bottle: allowing you to ‘bottlefeed in the most natural way possible’

    • Empress of the Iguana People

      *snort* I’m surprised it wasn’t a few leak pads instead.

  • Mrs.Katt the Cat

    GMO breastmilk exists.
    I had nowhere else to share this where my manical laugh would be understood.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/agriculture/geneticmodification/8423536/Genetically-modified-cows-produce-human-milk.html

    • Azuran

      That is awesome.
      But honestly, we all know that lactivist would never ever consider giving GMO milk to babies. They’d still be against it even if it ended up preventing SIDS, Leukemia and NEC and they’d still claim it’s bad because it’s not ‘nachural’

      • Mrs.Katt the Cat

        But what if i organically free range grass feed the cows?

    • AnnaPDE

      Nice. Now get on the oligosaccharides and it’s really a game-changer for formula.

    • BeatriceC

      That’s really neat, but I do have one ethical concern. Human milk isn’t all that great for baby cows. If these cows are producing milk that’s more human like than cow like, how is the health of their own offspring going to be affected? I would love to hear Mel weigh in on that aspect, since this is an area she knows a whole awful lot about.

      • Azuran

        Milking cows don’t feed their babies.
        In a normal dairy farm, the calf drink the colostrum either of the mother or the preserved colostrum of another cow that has a better quality of colostrum. (100% of the maternal immunity is transfered through colostrum in cows. There has been extensive research on how the measure the quality of colostrum and what is the optimal amount to give)
        Then they are separated from the cow and are formula fed (after all, we want the milk)
        So in this situation, if the colostrum is not good for the calf, they’d give them the colostrum of normal cows. But otherwise, it wouldn’t change much.

        • BeatriceC

          Thank you for explaining. I obviously know next to nothing about dairy farming.

  • Cartman36

    OT – I had someone suggest to me yesterday that I do vaginal seeding on my C-section baby due in December because “gut bacteria is so important”. I politely declined. I got my GBS results today and they were positive which makes this woman’s recommendation even more frightening.
    Thank you Dr. Amy for the work you do here and for educating people about the dangers of misinformation and junk science.

    • Sean Jungian

      Vaginal seeding – another crackpot idea that started with a smidgen of a kernel of an interesting idea and got blown ALL out of proportion.

    • carovee

      I’m … having a little trouble imagining what that looks like. Also exactly how does sliding through my vag affect gut bacteria?

      • Mishimoo

        The baby might pick up a mouthful or so of vaginal discharge on the way through, depending on how the delivery goes. The hypothesis is that this ‘seeds’ the baby’s gut with bacteria, causing lower levels of obesity and allergies compared to babies born via caesarean as their gut flora is slightly different for a few days. It appears to even out after a week if I recall correctly and no one has really shown any long term effects, proven any connections, isolated which bateria are responsible for what, nor reliably reproduced any findings. Dr Amy wrote about it in February – http://www.skepticalob.com/2016/02/warning-vaginal-seeding-doesnt-work-and-may-be-harmful.html

        • Chant de la Mer

          I was just reading something somewhere are fecal transplants, written by someone that had experienced it, and part of the background info was that bacteria are having such an effect on digestion that some people have changed quite a bit after a transplant. One example given was a normal weight patient was given a transplant from an overweight person and ended up gaining quite a bit of weight that they can’t lose now. There were a few other examples, not of personality changes so much as just digestion related things like certain foods that weren’t issues that were problems after. It will be fascinating when more research is done on gut biome and it’s effect on obesity, but for now there is so very little that there is no way we can say that seeding would protect against anything.

    • Heidi_storage

      Ew ew ew ew.

      Anecdata time: My son, who was born after I received antibiotics for GBS and who was fed with formula his first few days, who has since received two courses of antibiotics, has had WAY fewer digestive problems (and colds, incidentally) than my daughter, who had no exposure to antibiotics at birth and only breastmilk her first four months.

      All I hear about the gut biome is that it is an interesting field of study, but that we really don’t know enough about it to justify all of these treatments.

      • Sarah

        Basically yes. I can see why a woman might seed if she’s aware her GBS status won’t be a problem, but not otherwise. It would be a definite risk against a possible benefit.

        • Cartman36

          The problem with that is that GBS isn’t the only bacteria in a mother’s vagina that can make a baby sick. We cannot do anything to stop a baby from swallowing fluids during birth but to intentionally swab a child’s mouth with it when there is NO evidence this has any benefit is a serious gamble with their health.

          • Sarah

            What are the others?

          • Cartman36

            I don’t know the name of particular bacterial strains but the thing that comes to mind is BV which is when harmful bacteria that are normally present in the vagina overgrow. I would also worry about fecal matter contamination, herpes, HPV, and other viruses that the mother may be unaware of.

            If a woman chooses to do seeding, its her prerogative but I think the completely lack of proof that it has any benefit is more important to the discussion than identifying the exact strains of bacteria or viruses the pose a potential risk.

    • Margo

      The joys (sarcasm) of unsolicited advice, invariably suspect. It’s interesting how pregnant women become public property when it comes to random people dishing out random advice.

  • Sarah

    This is interesting. I’m enjoying the posts drawing parallels between the current political situation and woo.

  • Cartman36

    There is a person that writes a book review on any book that dares to question the superiority of breastfeeding (i.e. guilt free bottle-feeding, Fed up, Is breast Best) that blathers on about his research into mouth problems caused by bottle-feeding. His source is http://www.brianpalmerdds.com which is literally the opinion pieces of a dentist from observations he made in his one dental practice. Its laughable that ANYONE would take his work seriously. Anyone that points out to the Amazon commenter that this is not science, is met with the demand that they spend “hours” studying Dr. Palmers website in order to understand both sides. It reminds me of that commercial with the woman saying “that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works”. LOL!

    • Heidi

      I’ve stumbled upon him! Ugh! Or at least I’m pretty sure I have. He blames artificial nipples for SIDS so even EBF babies who drink pumped milk are doomed.

      • Cartman36

        Yes, he is quite the charmer. When I dared mock his research he called me offensive and then had Amazon remove the exchange. Honestly, I feel a little sorry for him because I think he really believes that he is educated and sounds smart but he really is just regurgitating the opinions of a dead dentist.

        • Heidi

          Amazon reviews of anything to do with a baby or child is filled with those people who have no sense of what is and isn’t appropriate and have to push their BS agenda along with a hefty dose of mom shaming. Anytime I try to read a review of a baby food to simply see if most babies enjoy it, there are the people who wouldn’t dare feed their child the slop the rest of us shitmoms let our kid eat. If we cared about our children at ALL we wouldn’t feed a baby something we wouldn’t eat and surely we’d make sure the Fewdbabe improved of all the ingredients and we’d make our own organic baby food. “Gerber, killing babies since 1927!”

          • Sean Jungian

            Yikes, the “clean eaters”. After anti-vaxxers, I think they do the most harm to the most people.

          • Heidi

            Funny thing is, I’ve seen this crap about how BF babies aren’t picky eaters but FF babies will be, how feeding mainstream baby food will screw your baby up similarly, and my baby is just fine. He prefers veggie to fruits, he has almost no sweet tooth. Last night, we had mac n cheese and steamed carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower. He went for the broccoli first and left some of the pasta. He eats strong cheeses like blue cheese and really sharp cheddars, olives, smoked salmon, what have you. But he also eats some Gerber beanies and meat sticks! It’s almost like since my husband and I aren’t picky eaters (and cheese lovers!) and aren’t big into sweets that my son might have inherited the same tastes! I surely didn’t do anything “right.” Didn’t do baby-led weaning, gave him Gerber cereals, fed purees, and have never denied him a taste of anything so long as it isn’t alcohol or a non-edible. He’s had zero health issues and zero illnesses thus far.

          • Cartman36

            BK (before kids) I was going to make all my own baby food because its SO much healthier. Now, my MIL and I like to laugh and laugh about that.

          • Heidi

            I made some in the beginning when it was easy and cheap. I’d take a $1 bag of frozen veggies, zap in the microwave, throw it in the food processor and freeze. I was able to freeze it in small portions because he wouldn’t even come close to finishing a jar. But people always I assume I did it because it was healthier. It’s like have you all looked at the back of a jar of baby food? It really is just what it says it is.

            Now that he hates being spoon fed, Gerber snacks and those pouches he can suck the contents out of are my saviors!

          • Empress of the Iguana People

            My boy loved those, My girl thinks purees are yucky. Sigh, and she’s the 80th percentile one who needs solids sooner. Fortunately, if I mix them with baby cereal, she’ll accept some of them. Especially that plumberry one, mommy!!

          • Commercially prepared baby food in Israel is not inexpensive, so many mothers simply puree cooked veggies and fruit that they’ve prepared for the family. When I was “hosting” both my grandchildren during their infancies, when my daughter returned to work, I bought some silicon muffin “tins” and made frozen “food cubes”, each of which was an individual portion, and could be reheated in the microwave. I soon found out, btw, with my own kids, that children have taste buds, and like savory and tasty items in preference to bland, unsalted and unseasoned foods. My son had a sweet tooth, but #3 went for salty, and #2 so loved sour things that I made her birthday cake in the shape and co,or of a pickle.

          • Elaine

            My exclusively breastfed and baby-led-feeding 2.5 yo is so freaking picky now. It’s a real pain in the butt. Also, curiously, I was intolerant to dairy when I was pregnant with him, and he still doesn’t want anything to do with milk.

          • Squirrelly

            Funny enough one of the reasons I fed my baby commercially prepared baby food was I thought it was safer than homemade food. I’ve worked in the medical device industry and there are actually quite stringent controls and testing to ensure quality and sterility. I imagine the baby food industry is similar as one hint of tainted baby food could sink a whole brand.

            With commercial baby food I know at least someone is doing quality control checks and following proven sterilization standards. Versus with homemade baby food there’s the possibility of cross contamination with other foods prepped in the same space such as raw meat. Or maybe I didn’t heat the food long enough or clean the containers enough or whatever. They certainly have a bunch of organic non-GMO gluten free vegan etc. brands out there too if that’s your thing.

          • AnnaPDE

            This. I just wish they had a bit more variety around here (maybe 10 savoury meals all up, between all brands and age groups), but apparently the bad rep of “processed food” has shrunk the market for baby foods.
            Contrast with Hungary, where the argument from hygiene and better control over the ingredients than the average supermarket shopper has is an actual selling point in baby food ads. And lots of different meals, the traditional brand alone has like 30.

          • The Bofa on the Sofa

            I just wish they had a bit more variety around here (maybe 10 savoury meals all up, between all brands and age groups), but apparently the bad rep of “processed food” has shrunk the market for baby foods.

            I suggest that the 10 options are an issue of supply and demand, not in the bad rep, but in the “that’s what kids eat.” That’s why half the fruits come with applesauce.

            Although the meat options kind of provide a counter-argument.

            I’ve mentioned before, I never gave the kids anything I didn’t try first, so I know what they taste like. And, as mentioned, they taste like the food they are. Peas, green beans, peaches, pears, etc. But the meats…never asked the kids to eat that again after they didn’t like it the first time.

          • AnnaPDE

            I kind of like the meaty ones too. Actually had an emergency stash of those for late-night thesis emergencies in my uni office desk. Pureed stroganoff, yum.
            Unfortunately here it’s just “lamb and sweet potato”, “beef with orange-ish veg”, “chicken with yellow veg”, “horrible bitter veg” and “bolognese-ish something”, instead of a somewhat more comprehensive range.
            The fruit, otoh, I find pretty pointless, mostly because I can remember to buy actual fruit but always forget the baby jars.

          • KeeperOfTheBooks

            While vacationing at the in-laws some years ago, we tried DD on jarred baby meats, including a particularly revolting ham…thing.
            About the only purpose it served was to cement the already firm bond between DD and the family golden, who appreciated very much DD leaning over the side of her high chair and spitting out the pureed ham as fast as anyone could get it in her mouth.

    • Madtowngirl

      HOURS!!

      So much better than the months and years that the authors take in researching and writing their book.

      • N

        Hours? I can “do my research” in minutes. No, really, just put your keyword into google. And than click on the links that seem the most serious/seem to tell you what you want to know or already know, and read a bit. And you are done. You know everything there is to know. No need to read the other links that just want to brainwash you. It will only take minutes that way! Pff, hours, month and years. How slow…

        • Elaine

          That’s the kind of “research” I do when I’m trying to figure out, say, how to get my kid to stop getting up a zillion times a night or stop throwing tantrums or how to keep the slugs out of my garden or some such. You know, where I don’t need a wide unbiased survey of all the knowledge on the subject ever, but just a few ideas to try that have worked for other people, and if they don’t then I’ll go back and look for more. Which I think is a reasonable approach sometimes, but probably not the best way to make long-ranging medical decisions.

  • Heidi

    The anti-vaxxers are notorious at extrapolating what they want from legitimate science, too. An example, one of the notorious anti-vaxx commenters here found a real study about vitamin A deficiency and measles. I think the actual gist of the study was supplementing already severely vit. A deficient children with measles would increase survival rates vs. not supplementing vit. A deficient children. Her solution for measles then was to not actually prevent measles but give vitamin A to anyone and everyone, regardless of vit. A status. I wonder if she really believes herself or not?

    • StephanieJR

      Was that miss fishy brains? I lose track of them.

      • Heidi

        DietDee

    • Mel

      VacTruth or whatever the uber-popular anti-vaxx blog managed to mangle the study even further and declared that Vitamin A deficiency was the actual cause of the measles.

      Pause for a moment to let that one sink in – because the most basic common sense would show that if Vitamin A deficiency was the actual cause measles should show no ability to transfer between people in areas where Vitamin A is readily available (like oh, the vast majority of the Western Hemisphere thanks to foods like squash and carrots as well as Europe and Russia) AND that the side effects of the measles should vanish instantly when a patient was given supplemental Vitamin A.

      • Heidi

        I’m sure they think we don’t enough livers, grassfed butter, really expensive eggs and oily fish so our vitamin A is inferior!

        • Sean Jungian

          I have the hardest time getting my butter to eat grass!

    • Sean Jungian

      I was thinking this too, and for other woo. It isn’t all from fake news sites, mainstream science reporting is the next best thing to fake for shoddy fact-checking and overly-simplified, sensational headlines.

    • Cartman36

      Lactivists do the same thing. Or they think that because a peer reviewed study states that breastfeeding reduces your childs risk of X that it is absolutely unequivocally true. Apparently they almost always miss the sentence in the discussion section that cautions against drawing a causal link due to methodological problems.

      • Heidi

        Or better yet, they take a study that was neither about breastfeeding nor humans and make some asinine conclusions about it. There was someone here not too long ago who used a study about oxytocin in mices’ stomachs to conclude that breastfeeding in humans is almost magical!

        • Sarah

          To be fair, it would be pretty magical if a human breastfed a mouse.

          • Heidi

            Hey, I think I probably did make enough to feed a mouse! I gave up because my supply was so dismal when I could have been giving a mouse pup super immunity and a super IQ! Lord knows I want to help out the rodent population.

          • StephanieJR

            I think this explains Mickey Mouse!

          • N

            Carefull here! Think about Pinky and Brain. Do we really need more rodents trying to take over the world???

            (Or would that be an upgrade compared to your new president? No, now I’m mean. I should stop. Sorry.)

          • StephanieJR

            Much rather have the Brain as our world dictator than Trump! (And I’m not American, and I would say it’s not my problem, but really it’s everybody’s problem)

            I actually have a theory that when Cinderella rescued all her little mice and they became more intelligent and started talking, that caused all the other super smart mice you see in the Disney films.

          • J.B.

            I can get behind the new administration having pinky and the brain’s zero success! We recently found Animaniacs on Netflix and have been enjoying taking over the world and boingy boingy boingy.

          • Nick Sanders

            Narf!

        • Cartman36

          YES! I had a woman smugly lecture me about epigenetics and how that “proves” breastfeeding is superior. when I pointed out she appeared to be using big words she didn’t fully understand to make herself sound more photosynthesis because epigenetics is a very new field of study and most research is from rodents, she stopped responding. LOL :).
          Bless Dr. Amy and her lessons that I have learned here about skepticism and fact checking.

          • Sean Jungian

            Same here, In fact, I frequent this, Orac, Science Blogs, and sometimes SciBabe for more accurate parsing of medical papers and news.

            If it’s from HuffPo or Good Morning America or whatever, it’s worthless, imho.

          • Mark

            try science based medicine, it’s very good

          • FallsAngel

            Not worthless, but needs to be checked out. Of course, the other sources above need that, too, but they usually reference their sources.

        • Allie

          I extrapolated from the study about mammals with the biggest brains having the highest sugar content in their breast milk that oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are, in fact, an appropriate breakfast food : )
          That’s how that works, right?

          • Azuran

            I decided that I would introduce solids at week 3 and completely stop giving milk by week 4. After all, that’s what mice do and apparently, everything about mice can be directly transposed to humans.

  • StephanieJR

    Slightly OT: Not sure how accurate this is, but I watched a documentary last night (The Wonder Of Animals) about ants. There’s a particular fungus that infects them, basically mind controlling them to be zombies to spread spores. In one colony an infected ant turned up, and instead of turning it away, the other ants welcomed it, and even took little pieces of fungus and spread it around. It was speculated that the ants were building up an immunity to the fungus by exposing themselves to small doses of it. Which is a very crude form of vaccination.

    So fucking ants are better at vaccinating than some really stupid people. I hope this is true, because that would be a very good insult.

    • Sean Jungian

      I’ve seen a similar documentary about ants – pretty fascinating.