Misinformation & the Anti Vaccine Movement
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
In this post, I will cover the origins and rise of anti vaccine conspiracy theories, specifically how medical professionals have debunked the over 20 year-old myth that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism. Misinformation encountered online can stoke false claims that have serious implications for public health - even after a specific issue has been debunked by other credible actors.
"Childhood vaccines protect children from a variety of serious or potentially fatal diseases, including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, influenza, COVID-19 and whooping cough (pertussis)," the Mayo Clinic wrote. "Some parents may wonder about the benefits and risks of childhood vaccines. Others have heard myths that vaccines can cause autism." Vaccines do not cause autism, states the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit health clinic system "committed to clinical practice, education and research."
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition related to brain development that affects how a person perceives and socializes with others, according to the Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center. It contributes to problems in communication and social interaction, including limited and repetitive patterns of behavior. The Mayo Clinic explains that the term "spectrum" in autism spectrum disorder refers to the condition's wide range of symptoms and severity.
The Center for Public Integrity, titled "Spreading vaccine fears. And cashing in," unpacks how many anti vaccine doctrines are tied to Dr. Christiane Northup, "who rose to fame with her New York Times-bestselling books on women’s health and menopause." The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a misinformation-fighting nonprofit, "earlier this year estimated that about 65% of the social media content containing false claims about coronavirus vaccines could be traced back to a dozen influencers, including the Bollingers. Ten of them also sell products to their followers," Liz Essley Whyte wrote.
Already, I can tell the so-called disinformation dozen uses the persuasion techniques of association, which "tries to link a product, service or idea with something already linked or desired by the target audience," according to the New Mexico Media Literacy Project. Other tactics include "experts," explicit claims, fears (lots of this!), repetition and Plains folks or testimonials, depending on the "influencer" analyzed. While the politicization of public health questions is not new in America, I can accurately describe the messaging of Northrup, et. al. as propaganda because the efforts are clearly misleading a significant sector of the public. (More on this below.)
The examples of propaganda I point to from the Center for Public Integrity article are working because the misinformation does, in fact, elicit support from the active participation of audiences via media platforms, individual websites that brand some of the "influencers" as credentialed medical professionals and the social sharing actions, of which they very much approve, are out of these folks control. I wonder: Who may be the next person in a position of power who uses demagogic messaging to inflict real harm on the general populace? Yes, I am looking at you, Dr. Mehmet Oz.
More, Essley Whyte details how many "anti-vaccine doctrines" made by Northup and the dozen misguided "influencers," who elide misinformation as reasoned information on social media, "can be traced back to 1988, when British researcher Andrew Wakefield published a now-retracted and repeatedly debunked study linking the measles vaccine to autism." Fears snowball, Essley Whyte said.
"The study was reviewed further and retracted. In addition, the author's medical license was revoked due to falsified information," according to the Mayo Clinic. "Since then, numerous studies have debunked a connection between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine."
Among them is a 2015 JAMA publication - the largest study to date, analyzing the health records of over 95,000 children. The Center for Public Integrity reports that about 2,000 of the children identified in the study were classified "at risk" for ASD because they had a sibling already diagnosed with a condition of autism. The study confirmed that the MMR vaccine did not increase the risk for ASD.
Parents, who may be more susceptible to counterfactual content, began refusing to immunize their children around this time. "Influencers such as the Bollingers and a sprinkling of celebrities embraced the anti-vaccine gospel, and the movement ballooned," Essley Whyte said.
A 2019 Gallup poll found that 84% of Americans thought it is extremely or very important for parents to vaccinate their children - down from 94% in 2001. Of those surveyed, 10% believed the scientifically discredited claim that vaccines cause autism, and another 46% weren't certain.
Numerous public health organizations and medical experts have debunked the widespread myth since Wakefield published his analysis, which is deeply flawed and contains a conflict of interest, according to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. (Please see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage about related concerns here for more.) UNICEF, originally called the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, now officially United Nations Children's Fund, conducted a critical fact check in 2021 to further debunk any world-wide conspiracy theories that claim it is "true that the MMR vaccine causes autism in children and to contribute to promoting MMR immunization by publishing accurate information."
And, it is worth noting, recently Lancet medical journal released a piece that directly confronts broad vaccine hesitancy - a phenomenon not based in fact that has scaled into a global dissent against the proven efficacy of vaccines to prevent disease.
Measles, mumps and rubella, among other diseases, may be prevented if one considers consulting the informed advice a licensed medical clinician may offer. "If these diseases seem uncommon — or even unheard of — it's usually because these vaccines are doing their job," the Mayo Clinic notes. "If you've missed those important immunizations, you're exposing your child to these potentially dangerous, even deadly, diseases."
But, I worry about the commonplace use of persuasion techniques that so-called influencers employ to rake in massive profits, building an empire from potentially well-intentioned parents' fears. When is cause for concern not enough to stop bad faith actors from subverting valid information from top officials in a variety of fields?
It's not just the ill-intended messaging, persuasion techniques, environment and content, means of communication and format or audience receptivity of the anti vaccine propaganda that is troubling. One of the most unnerving aspects of this entire misinformation campaign is that it continues beyond the era of initial Covid-19 outbreaks. The New York Times Magazine dropped a lengthy story in May about "a new era of parents" who have apparently been "radicalized by Covid-era misinformation" to reject ordinary childhood immunizations. And I ask: How can fact-checkers, etc. be expected to keep up with the abyss of misinformation proliferating across social platforms? I think we can expect this anti vaccine rhetoric to be around into the foreseeable future.
It is evident that despite the double dozen experts debunking anti vaccine theories about MMR shots and autism spectrum disorder, the talking heads are prevailing. How much more grifting and pandering can people take? And, at the end of the day, whose responsibility is it to pursue enforcement of a solution to mis-, dis- or malinformation? In the modern world, I don't believe it can be left up to a single agency, such as the WWII era Institute for Propaganda Analysis.
I leave you with a recommendation: "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media," written by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. (Note: I am not attempting to sell this to you, and I have no advertising sponsor or something.) From one curious person to the next, I simply think you may benefit from indulging in the authors' brilliance. The title has been a favorite of those on my bookshelf for several years.
Thanks for keeping up with my thoughts.