The social dimension of anti-vaccine advocacy


Last month I noted that the mainstream media has suddenly discovered fake news and has written extensively on the willingness of people to believe complete lies.

I pointed out that while fake news may be relatively new within the political context, it has been a potent force in alternative health for decades. Most alternative health websites, blogs and Facebook pages are fake news sites creating a never ending stream of false stories about vaccines, food, cancer, and just about any health issue you can name.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Anti-vaccine advocacy is no more about vaccines than birtherism is about Obama or Kenya.[/pullquote]

Why does anyone believe fake news, whether in the context of politics or science?

No doubt ignorance plays an important role, particularly in fake science news where most readers lack the basic knowledge of science that would allow them to critically evaluate the scientific merits of various fake claims.

But the real problem — in both anti-vax and political fake news — isn’t ignorance and we ignore the real problem at our own peril. The real problem is the social dimension of fake news. Anti-vax websites, like all fake news website, are rumor communities where social affirmation is as important, if not more important, than the rumors.

In The Persistence of Rumor Communities: Public Resistance to Official Debunking in the Internet Age, a paper presented in 2012, Professors Jill Edy and Erin Baird describe rumor communities and their members:

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.

Anti-vax rumor communities survive and thrive despite the fact that vaccines have been repeatedly shown to be safe, effective and wildly successful at saving lives. Why? Because they create a shared social identity that becomes critically important to members and that is aggressively defended in the face of mountains of evidence.

Anti-vaccine advocacy is no more about vaccines than birtherism (the lie that President Obama was born in Kenya and therefore not an American citizen) is about Obama or Kenya. Birtherism created a social community of racists who felt both powerlessness and rage at the reality of a black president; participants found others with similar views, shared those views, argued against outsiders, and acquired far more power and influence than individual crackpots writing or acting alone.

Similarly, anti-vax advocacy creates a social community of conspiracy theorists who feel both powerlessness and rage at the medical and pharmaceutical industries, allowing them to share those views, argue against outsiders and acquire far more power and influence than individual anti-vax crackpots writing or acting alone.

As Edy and Baird note in their latest paper Rumor Communities: The Social Dimensions of Internet Political Misperceptions that our failure to understand the social dimension of anti-vax advocacy (or any other form of fake news) is a result of our failure to understand how information is communicated.

Communication is conceptualized as transmitting inaccurate or accurate information, and public opinion is conceptualized as the aggregation of individual opinions. Yet political misperceptions have social as well as psychological dimensions. They are not only spread from person to person; they generate communities of believers and both draw from and contribute to political culture. They persist in part because they give concrete form to otherwise inexpressible social concerns, not because they are true in any kind of modernist sense…

The similarities between fake news anti-vax communities or fake news creationist communities and fake news alt-right political communities are striking.

These include:

1. Sustaining ambiguity

…[A]mbiguity sustains rumors: once a problem is resolved or ambiguity is replaced with authoritative knowledge, the rumoring process ends. Thus, to keep a rumor alive, ambiguity must be sustained, and one way to do so is to publicly raise doubts about debunking messages by counterarguing them.

That’s why creationist groups want to “teach the controversy.” Sustaining ambiguity is vital for them.

2. Argument as a way of creating and reinforcing social cohesion:

An individual believer may be unaware of others who share his or her point of view, and such social isolation … makes such people vulnerable to persuasion or at the very least to compliance. Group solidarity, on the other hand, empowers individuals to resist persuasive efforts even when the resisting group is very small, provided the resistance is publicly expressed. As Krassa observes: “It will not overcome my ‘fear of social isolation’ and thereby ease the psychological barriers to my voicing my own view if there are 10,000 who agree with me but I am ignorant of their existence”. Publicly voicing counterarguments affirms a community’s existence and provides individual members resources to continue psychologically and publicly resisting and counterarguing debunking efforts.

3. The ability to elevate the social status of the group:

The public nature of these counterarguments also sustains the community with the promise that believers are not isolated “cranks” but rather members of a group of concerned citizens.

4. The ability to harness social anxieties:

Appeals to broader social anxieties took a variety of forms, but one of the more common was that big businesses placed profit over people.

Alt-right rumor communities harness the social anxiety of middle and lower middle class white people who feel they are losing out in the contemporary economy.

5. The normalization of crackpots:

Traditional research on conspiracy theories might point out the byzantine webs of secrecy required to enact the posited conspiracy, but the specific claims of the vaccines-cause-autism rumor community suggest a different narrative paradigm. The believers publicly represent themselves as normal, reasonable people belonging to legitimate social groups such as parents or friends and relatives of those with autism. The concerns and anxieties they express are widely shared throughout the society: that powerful social entities take advantage of the powerless and cannot be held accountable.

The factors make it nearly impossible to fight fake news with facts:

A modernist take on these types of appeals might classify them as conspiracy theories, amplifying the unlikely and elaborate connections between social actors implied in such theories. However, the essential appeal of many conspiracy theories is that they speak to deep-rooted beliefs about how the social world works. The more effectively they embrace those beliefs, the greater their likely staying power and the greater the risk they will not only survive but potentially spread to broader publics.

We must turn our attention to the social dimension of anti-vax advocacy (as well as alt-right advocacy) if we hope to have any chance of successfully fighting it.