The social dimension of anti-vaccine advocacy

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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.

Anti-vaccine advocacy is no more about vaccines than birtherism is about Obama or Kenya.

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.

  • fiftyfifty1

    With anti-vax we are finding out more and more what doesn’t work: Accurate scientific info presented in written form or in person by a doctor doesn’t help. Even first-hand accounts written by parents who lost their children to vaccine preventable illnesses don’t help. Some of these things even backfire and make it worse. So what can possibly help with fake news (either for anti-vax specifically or fake news in general?) I have no idea. Depressing.

    • Megan

      Heck, a lot of these people won’t change their minds even after their own children get a VPD, like that lady who let her kids almost die of whooping cough and then said she’d do it again because now they’d have “natural immunity.” I truly have no idea how to persuade these kinds of people.

    • Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild

      There’s nothing you can do for someone who believes. This is their religion and they are sacrificing lives on the altar of anti-vaxx. At this point educating the adults is pointless. Nothing will change their minds. You can only insist that children receive fact based science education so they can reject their parents beliefs when they grow up.

      • Who?

        I wonder how many kids will be vaccinated just to rebel against their parents?

        • fiftyfifty1

          “I wonder how many kids will be vaccinated just to rebel against their parents?”

          Ha ha! It worked for me and my siblings!

        • N

          We were vaccinated all three. But otherwise my mother didn’t trust doctors. She would send me to the pharmacy only to get her medication because she thought she would need it, not because of any diagnosis of a doctor. (of course the pharmacist wouldn’t give me, a young teenager, the wanted medicine). She did not send us, especially my younger sister who suffered a lot of coughs and bronchitis as a teenager to a doctor. Only if we had a really bad fever. And then she would still not believe the diagnosis of the doctor. She went to see fortune tellers, wonder healers and parapsychologists herself.
          Result: My sister is a nurse and she believes strongly in the healing potential of doctors and medication prescribed by doctors. To not end like our dear mother, she goes to see a psychiatrist to get antidepressants rather than to waste time with psychologists, with the risk to get one that is more of a parapsychologist than a real one. I myself would not take stronger medication without seeing a doctor first, and trust that they know better than me. I would not let my children suffer, the smaller they are, the faster I run to the doctor to see where the fever comes from, etc…
          So, to rebel against parents is completely possible, if what they do doesn’t make sense.

        • BeatriceC

          Unvaccinated teenagers are rebelling now. I know at least one who snuck off after school to go get herself vaccinated over the course of about 18 months (I think she still has some second shots left to go, but she’ll be 18 by the time they’re due. She found a clinic that would give them to her without charging her insurance so they wouldn’t show up on her parents’ insurance services summaries. There’s a law in California intended to help girls with reproductive health care issues that helps to that end. I’m absolutely positive my son’s friend isn’t the only teenager across the country who’s done the same thing.

          • guest

            It’s kind of funny that these teenagers’ parents are probably pointing to them as examples of how healthy their unvaccinated kids are…

      • SporkParade

        That’s why the overlap between anti-vax families and homeschool families is so high. My cousin, who barely graduated high school, and her husband, ditto, considered homeschooling so that they wouldn’t have to vaccinate. Thankfully, they decided that moving across the country was a better option.

    • Squirrelly

      Social pressure? Omg you’re still falling for fake news?! Fake news is like sooo 2016.

    • My hovercraft is full of eels

      Point and laugh. Thier egos can’t take it.

  • attitude devant

    I grew up on the Gulf Coast and was a small child during the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. If you didn’t live there you might think it was a bad time, but it was a GOOD time, because change was actually happening. From the relatively safe perspective of that time I would look back on the previous bad times for people of color in the South and marvel over the stories people told to justify their prejudices. At the time I thought they were ignorant, that they didn’t know any better. Now I begin to understand that a similar process was in play. They weren’t just against the ‘Other;’ they were actively using their racism to forge their own identity as ‘Not Other’ and creating social bonds with fellow ‘Not Others,’ elevating themselves as the norm from which all else was deviation. All of this was done, don’t you know, with a cover story about protecting girls and group morality. In that world, it was IMMORAL to challenge racism.

    It’s really striking how strong the parallels are.

  • guest

    This is really important to understand. It’s why you can’t change minds with facts most of the time.