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.

44 Responses to “Anti-vaccine social media: peer to peer sharing of ignorance and fear”

  1. EmbraceYourInnerCrone
    November 20, 2017 at 2:08 pm #

    A bit OT but somewhat related, the anti-vax parent who received a 4 month sentence for treating his toddler son’s meningitis with maple syrup instead of taking him to the doctor is blaming everyone but himself for his son’s death:

    “They tried to boost the boy’s immune system by feeding him with olive leaf extract, whey protein, water with maple syrup and juice with frozen berries.
    David Stephan lashed out at the Canadian justice system and complained that he would be in jail when his wife delivered their next child”

    • November 20, 2017 at 2:26 pm #

      Boo-frickin’-hoo. Ezekiel’s going to be in the ground when his sibling is born, because he’s dead. And it wasn’t just because he didn’t get a vaccine, either; as you point out, the parents never took their child to an actual doctor. Getting a “tincture” from a naturopath while your child is too stiff to sit in his car seat is, I dunno, some kind of clue that maybe you should go see an MD or visit an ER.

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
        November 21, 2017 at 9:50 am #

        Agreed! Here is another recent case, this time strep throat. The parent got 3 years. I find the difference in sentence length interesting, since they both did basically the same thing …

        “The mother testified that she believed her son had a cold or the flu. She treated his symptoms with dandelion tea and oil of oregano, but never sought medical attention when his condition worsened.

        According to court records, doctors said Ryan also had meningitis and pneumonia. They testified that his infection would have been treatable had he been prescribed antibiotics, according to CBC News.”

        • Lilly de Lure
          December 7, 2017 at 9:50 am #

          The sentence length puzzles me too – in Stephans’s case he shows no remorse, no evidence that he won’t do precisely the same thing again should any of his other children get seriously ill and has been using the whole affair for self-promotion in a whole morally repugnant manner and yet gets a few months. This mother by contrast has shown remorse, appears genuinely distraught at the results of her actions and yet got three years – I agree both should do jail time but shouldn’t he get the heavier sentence (and what idiot decided that letting him and his wife have custody of the kids they haven’t managed to kill yet was a good idea) given his behaviour/lack of contrition etc?

      • kilda
        November 21, 2017 at 11:52 am #

        imo they should be thankful they are being allowed to take that next child home at all.

    • Mike Stevens
      December 7, 2017 at 6:50 am #

      If it were down to me, he’d still be in jail when his first grandchild is born.

    • FallsAngel
      December 7, 2017 at 9:12 am #

      Good. Maybe he won’t get her pregnant again soon.

  2. Steph858
    November 16, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

    News just in: Lactivists recommend all new mothers receive smallpox vaccine. Turning into a cow ought to fix any problems they have with low supply!

    • November 16, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

      *snort* Have your upvote.

    • Russell Jones
      November 16, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

      Steph858 wins the Internet for 11/16/17. No other entries will be accepted.

      • Steph858
        November 19, 2017 at 10:50 am #

        Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m here all week, folks. Try the lobster!

        • EmbraceYourInnerCrone
          November 21, 2017 at 9:52 am #

          And don’t forget to tip your server!

  3. StephanieJR
    November 16, 2017 at 2:54 pm #

    Is that… is that a cow coming out of a butt?

    • Heidi
      November 16, 2017 at 3:19 pm #

      It’s in the package insert, didn’t you know? The ol’ butt cow.

      • Russell Jones
        November 16, 2017 at 3:36 pm #

        There’s lots of butt-cowism reported on VAERS as well.

        • Heidi
          November 16, 2017 at 3:54 pm #

          I was gonna make a poo joke about “brown cows” and butts, but realized that’s not what the rest of world outside of Tennessee calls chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bars.

      • MaineJen
        November 16, 2017 at 3:58 pm #

        Why isn’t “cowface” listed on the package insert as a possible side effect? It’s a conspiracy!!!1!

      • Charybdis
        November 17, 2017 at 10:33 am #

        *is frantic* Is that a NEW insert? Because the one I read said NOTHING about a butt cow.

        *wrings hands and paces*

        • The Bofa on the Sofa
          November 17, 2017 at 10:59 am #

          Am I the only one reading all these “butt-cow” comments and thinking, “Rule 34”


          • Roadstergal
            November 17, 2017 at 11:36 am #

            Alas, no.

        • Heidi
          November 17, 2017 at 11:04 am #

          Well, you’ve probably not received the small pox vax lately so. . .

          • Charybdis
            November 17, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

            This is true….

  4. Russell Jones
    November 16, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

    It’s remarkable how anti-vaxxism can attract the looniest of right wing loons, the most hippified of hippies, and anyone in between. I guess the appeal of wanting to feel like an expert without putting in the time and effort required to actually become an expert transcends ideological boundaries.

    And, of course, a wannabe expert and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place, and there’s never any shortage of hucksters willing to take advantage.

    “The other factor is fear. People fear what they don’t understand.”

    True dat. Frustration can also factor in. Parents whose child just received an autism diagnosis don’t necessarily want to hear what DIDN’T cause it. Malevolent bastards like Andy Wakefield give them a ready-made cause along with an underlying conspiracy theory that provides targets for blame.

    “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.”

    There’s a particularly heinous subset of anti-vaxxers, namely the anti-Semitic subset, who deal with this by claiming that Jewish children get safe vaccines whereas goyim get poisoned vaccines. These jerkoffs go the extra mile in conspiracy theory formation, claiming that Jews have essentially weaponized vaccines for use in a “war” against non-Jews.

    I know about “it takes all kinds to make a world” and all, but damn, enough with the downward-spiraling Overton window already.

  5. critter8875
    November 16, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

    Ignorant, and proud of it!

    I stopped communicating with my sister because of this idiocy.

  6. November 16, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    Some anti-vaxxers found their way into a support group for mothers of preemies. (Hint: Not a group of moms who tolerate fools willing to kill our kids to prove their point…..)

    I asked one of the anxt-vaxxers what her educational background was because she linked a study from PNAS that she swore said that the pertussis vaccine didn’t work in people.

    I read the study. The study was looking at if the acellular pertussis vaccine prevents vaccinated individuals from carrying the pertussis bacteria without getting symptoms. They found that acelluar pertusiss had a much higher rate of silent carriers than the whole cell pertussis vaccine – while providing equal protection against the disease process itself. They recommended further study and possibly substituting one or more doses of whole cellular pertussis vaccine for the acellular vaccine.

    Since she clearly could not comprehend what she had read correctly, my assumption was that she didn’t have a post-secondary science degree.

    Her reply was that asking for her educational credentials was an ad-hominem attack.

    I pointed out that I really didn’t know her well enough to construct an actual ad-hominem attack against her – but that asking for educational credentials is not an example of one. However, claiming an ad-hominem attack does sound better than “Yeah, I’ve never bothered to take the time, money or energy to study this in-depth.”

    She disappeared when I asked why she kept referring to the non-primate mammals used in the study – also known as baboons – as people and why she kept swearing that the pertussis study also supported her claim that the MMRV causes recently vaccinated children to infect newborns with measles and chickenpox (but apparently not mumps or rubella)…..

    • kilda
      November 16, 2017 at 3:23 pm #

      hey, baboons are people too!

      Ok, they’re not, but I’m pretty sure they’re primates.

      • Roadstergal
        November 17, 2017 at 11:38 am #

        NHP – Non-Human Primates – be what we call them ’round here.

        • Empress of the Iguana People
          November 17, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

          i blew Spawn1’s mind by telling him he’s a primate. (he’s been on a wild Kratts kick)

          • Heidi
            November 17, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

            When my husband was a kid, he mentioned something about humans being primates. This upset my FIL who exclaimed, “Humans are not animals!” Yeah…we are.

          • November 17, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

            Hey, my four-year-old was arguing that point! Great minds….

          • Steph858
            November 19, 2017 at 5:23 pm #

            You sure about that? Never heard the joke about the waiter who asked what the customer would like “For the vegetables”?

          • The Bofa on the Sofa
            November 17, 2017 at 1:08 pm #

            As much as I can’t stand the preaching of Veggie-Tales, there is a great song in one of the episodes about how “if it has a tail it is a monkey, if not then it’s an ape”

            The kids like that, because we go to lots of zoos, and they can easily distinguish between the monkeys and the apes, and they know darn well that people are apes, because we don’t have a tail.

          • Empress of the Iguana People
            November 17, 2017 at 1:13 pm #

            I’ve already pointed out that Curious George is actually an ape, since he has no tail. 😉

          • November 17, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

            I always figured George’s curiosity had gotten his tail chopped off at some point.

          • Heidi
            November 17, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

            You think Professor Wiseman, the “genuis,” would set the man in the yellow hat straight on that fact.

          • Charybdis
            November 17, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

            Is Zooboomafoo still being shown? DS LOVED that show when he was a tiny mite.

          • Empress of the Iguana People
            November 17, 2017 at 6:16 pm #

            Not that i know of. Same guys though

          • Dr Kitty
            November 18, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

            My son refuses to believe he’s human.

            “I a baby”
            “Yes, you’re a baby human”
            “No. I a baby *baby*”.
            “You’re not a baby cat or a baby dog or a baby monkey, are you? You’re a baby human”.
            “I *not* a human. I a baby”.

            At this point he spends most of his time pretending to be a PAW patrol pup, so I’ll take what I can get.

          • Who?
            November 18, 2017 at 6:01 pm #

            At the same age my son was James from Thomas the Tank Engine, and adamantly insisted that he was not a baby.

      • Box of Salt
        November 19, 2017 at 4:23 pm #

        Both of my kids are monkeys.

        As toddlers (or younger), they climbed . . . everything.

        That’s not what you meant? /-martyr hat off.

    • Dr Kitty
      November 16, 2017 at 4:09 pm #

      I do vaccinations with my nurse every Thursday.
      Both of us hate it, because really, who wants to make kids cry?
      But we say, over and over to parents that we vaccinated our kids, we firmly believe that vaccination is better than not and that they are doing the right thing by vaccinating their kids.

    • LovleAnjel
      November 16, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

      You mean non-human primates.

    • Merrie
      November 17, 2017 at 1:17 pm #

      Back when I used to post on MDC, you weren’t allowed to point out that other people had no understanding of science or logic, even when this was the case, so debating vaccines was pointless. All the regular anti-vax posters demonstrated huge gaping flaws in their scientific understanding.

    • Seola
      November 22, 2017 at 2:18 am #

      I can’t count how many people couldn’t comprehend the “study” they were linking that proved their point. Example, on the BookFace tonight, the head story was Essentia health and the flu vaccine firings. One woman was copying/pasting all over the page a study that clearly proved the flu vaccine didn’t help in a healthcare setting AT ALL.

      It pretty much stated: “We reviewed three studies and they were woefully inaccurate, because they didn’t give any stats on other health issues or requirements such as handwashing stations, intake of flu patients, rate of illness among workers, etc. All they say is that workers got the vaccine and had NO ADVERSE HEALTH EVENTS. Let’s study this some more, shall we?”

      And it was 10 years old, to boot. And yet again, and again, all over – people (some who claim they are in the healthcare field, ranging from PR to nurses) who say “I refuse to get the vaccine, I don’t want to take the chance of getting the flu from it!”. I… just… I gave up.

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