Anti-vaccine social media: peer to peer sharing of ignorance and fear


Winston Churchill famously noted:

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

And that was before lies traveled at the speed of the internet.

While the internet has brought many improvements to our lives, it has dramatically empowered liars. That is especially true of social media like Facebook and Twitter. There’s no better example than the anti-vaccine movement. Anti-vaccine social media is nothing more than peer to peer sharing of ignorance and fear.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You have to be mindbogglingly unsophisticated to imagine that the “dangers” of vaccines are simultaneously top secret AND circulating on Facebook.[/pullquote]

The anti-vaccine movement has a perfect record. In the 200 plus years of its existence, it has never been right about anything.

Vaccination was less than a decade old in 1802 when Gillray created his etching The Cow Pock for the Anti-Vaccination Society.


…[S]atirist James Gillray caricatured a scene at the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras, showing cowpox vaccine being administered to frightened young women, and cows emerging from different parts of people’s bodies. The cartoon was inspired by the controversy over inoculating against the dreaded disease, smallpox. Opponents of vaccination had depicted cases of vaccinees developing bovine features and this is picked up and exaggerated by Gillray…

In other words, the first known accusation of anti-vaxxers is that vaccines would turn its recipients into cows. The etching was an early form of social media designed to spread the ignorance and fear of anti-vaxxers to others. Ignorance because they didn’t understand the basic concepts of immunology and fear at what they could not understand.

Over the years, the message has been changed repeatedly, but each has had one factor in common with all those they came before. Every single claim has been a lie that has no basis in science and has been thoroughly debunked. No matter!

By 1884, anti-vaxxers were no long claiming that vaccines turned people into cows, merely that vaccination killed babies.


As an article in the Atlantic explains, even some scientists believed and disseminated anti-vaccine nonsense:

“Every day the vaccination laws remain in force parents are being punished, infants are being killed,” wrote Alfred Russel Wallace, a prominent scientist and natural selection theorist, in a vitriolic monograph against mandatory vaccination in 1898. He accused doctors and politicians of pushing for vaccination based on personal interest without being sure that the vaccinations were safe…

Sound familiar? Disgraced physician Andrew Wakefield is merely the latest in a long line of purveyors of anti-vaccine lies.

These liars have been tremendously empowered by the internet, which allows lies to travel ever faster and in new and insidious ways. It used to be hard for crackpots to be heard; the internet makes it easy. Social media makes it even easier by passing the nutty theories directly from trusted friends, acquaintances and admired celebrities.

Why does anyone believe this nonsense? One factor that all anti-vaxxers have in common is profound ignorance about immunology, science and statistics. They don’t understand the principles of immunity, the way in which vaccines work, and they don’t know how to read scientific research, analyze statistics, or weigh competing claims. That makes them easy prey for quacks and charlatans.

The other factor is fear. People fear what they don’t understand. Those who lack education fear being manipulated by scientists. Those who feel powerless fear being manipulated by the government. Untold millions fear being manipulated by corporations. They manage their fear by resorting to ludicrous conspiracy theories, pretending they have “done their research” and obtained access to secret information they can use to protect themselves.

But it’s not just ignorance and fear that makes it possible. There is one personal characteristic that is shared by anti-vaxxers everywhere — a stunning lack of sophistication.

You have to be remarkably unsophisticated to believe what you read on random Facebook pages and posts shared by your friends.

You have to be remarkably unsophisticated to imagine that the every government in the world and every pharmaceutical company is engaged in a conspiracy that involves literally millions of people and is capable of keeping word of the conspiracy from getting out.

You have to be remarkably unsophisticated to think that doctors, scientists and pharmaceutical executives willingly risk their own children’s lives by giving them “harmful” vaccines as a ruse to hide the secret dangers of vaccines.

You have to be mindbogglingly unsophisticated to imagine that the “dangers” of vaccines are simultaneously top secret AND circulating on Facebook.

Today’s anti-vaxxers would probably laugh at the naïveté of the original anti-vaxxers who thought vaccines would turn them into cows. The sad truth is that they are just as naive and just as foolish to think that vaccines will make their children autistic or that every illness or personality quirk is a “vaccine injury.” Their imaginations spin different horrors but the ignorance, fear and lack of sophistication remains the same.

The ultimate irony is that anti-vaxxers think they are educated by social media, but anti-vax social media makes them stupid. It is nothing more than peer to peer sharing of ignorance and fear.