Vaccine hesitancy was named one of the top health threats by the World Health Organization for 2019 — and it’s a movement that has largely mobilized online.
Social media giants have recently announced efforts to help combat vaccine misinformation on their platforms, as Facebook said it is removing anti-vax calls to action and Twitter developed a new feature aimed at tackling the topic.
But according to experts, anti-vaxxers are still utilizing online spaces to spread their messages to the detriment of parents and the health of children everywhere.
The messages anti-vaxxers spread
“If anybody is in doubt, and they start searching for information, it’s very easy to be pulled into reading stuff that really is anti-vaccine without knowing it’s written in a way that’s very inviting,” said Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, chief of applied immunization research and evaluation at Public Health Ontario.
Crowcroft says that anti-vax groups use narratives about parents making “informed health decisions” on their own, suggesting that doctors or the government should not be the ones deciding whether or not they vaccinate.
This is a form of veiled or coded language, Crowcroft says, as it pushes anti-vax sentiments in a more subtle way than flat-out telling a parent to avoid immunization.
Research shows anti-vax groups are fans of this approach.
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A recent study out of the New York University School of Medicine found that popular anti-vax websites often aim “to educate parents regarding the supposed dangers of vaccination and, based on these ‘risks,’ lobby for increased vaccine exemptions.”
These sites also often promote “long-debunked theories regarding vaccination that are unsupported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature,” the study says.
According to Dr. Naomi Smith, a professor of sociology at Federation University Australia who has researched anti-vax groups on social media, anti-vaccination conversations also target people’s emotions and tap into parents’ fears.
“Anti-vaccination content is highly emotive and makes the risks of vaccination seem large and real,” she explained.
“These communities use personal testimony a lot. You will see frequent stories about children or adults who have a disability that say started after vaccination. Those kinds of stories often feel more real than statistics about vaccinations .”
Smith says the conversations in anti-vax groups tend to focus on “vaccine injuries,” which is when someone claims they or their child were medically affected by a shot.
These “injuries” could include everything from autism to rashes, seizures or digestive problems. (Editor’s note: Researchers have debunked — many times — the idea that vaccines cause autism.)
According to the NYU study on anti-vax groups, certain websites encourage “parents to post pictures of their children before and after vaccinations and to describe how their physical abilities were altered.”
The impact this dialogue can have on worried or new parents is substantial.
A 2017 study co-authored by Smith found that anti-vaccination groups utilize “social media to foster online spaces that strengthen and popularize anti-vaccination discourses.”
The report, titled “Mapping the anti-vaccination movement on Facebook,” suggests social media may have a role in “spreading anti-vaccination ideas and making the movement durable on a global scale.”
How anti-vaxxer messaging spreads on social media
One reason anti-vaxxer groups have been successful on social media is because they not only target anti-vaxxers but also people who are curious about vaccines or have doubts about them, Crowcroft says.
These groups are often referred to as the “vaccine-hesitant.”
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Crowcroft says that anti-vaxxer groups will often use a “tiny nugget of truth” — often taken out of context — and leverage it into a story that sounds believable. Despite the fact that vaccines are safe, anti-vaxxers make them sound scary or dangerous.
“These websites talk about mercury being in vaccines — but we don’t put mercury in that toxic form in vaccines,” Crowcroft said. “Parents might believe that vaccinations are harmful because there’s conditions like autism where there doesn’t seem to be a super clear-cut cause or treatment… so they start to look on their own.”
Smith agrees. She says that because so many anti-vax groups post “believable stories” on social media, “it is easy to see how these types of posts might sway you” if you are on the fence about an immunization.
According to a recent U.K. report, parents are often targeted on social media with misleading information. Based on findings in the Moving the Needle study, two out of five parents with kids under 18 said they had “often or sometimes” been exposed to misinformation about vaccinations online.
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Anti-vax messaging may also be softer and subtler than some folks imagine.
A good example of this was a recent sponsored post linking to a GoGetFunding page for David and Collet Stephan, the Alberta parents who were charged in 2016 with failing to provide the necessaries of life after their son Ezekiel died of meningitis. The sponsored post popped up on Facebook asking for donations to help the parents pay “for lawyers and medical experts” to fight the charges.
(The Stephans, who treated their 18-month-old son with natural remedies instead of conventional medicine when he fell ill and died in 2012, are vocal about their anti-vaxxer views.)
The post itself did not say anything about vaccinations, but the GoGetFunding page alleged that Ezekiel did not die of meningitis — the cause of death ruled by medical officials — and that the real cause of his death is being “covered up” by a corrupt medical system.
A Facebook spokesperson told Global News the post was not in violation of the platform’s new rules because it does not include a direct anti-vaccination call to action or a hoax that has been debunked by health experts.
But these kinds of posts still do damage.
“Just being exposed to a conspiracy theory, even if you’re not a conspiracy theorist yourself, can have an influence on vaccination hesitancy,” Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy and author of The Vaccination Picture, previously told Global News.
“Being exposed to false balance in the media, a falsely balanced portrayal of the science, can have an impact on vaccination hesitancy.”
How do we combat anti-vaxxer groups on social media?
Despite the fact that anti-vaccination sentiment seems to be growing (and there’s more coverage on its health effects), Crowcroft says that the majority of Canadian parents choose to vaccinate their kids.
“MMR coverage in Canada is about 90 per cent,” Crowcroft said. “That is definitely lower than the national target, which is 95 per cent, but it’s still showing you that nine in 10 parents are getting their kids vaccinated.”
She points out that some people have always been anti-vaccination, but because social media “amplifies” voices, these folks now have a platform to reach wider audiences than ever before.
“That causes concern they shout really loudly,” she added.
Crowcroft adds that the best way to combat vaccine misinformation is by having honest and respectful conversations within communities. Getting angry or upset at someone who is an anti-vaxxer will likely not change their mind, she said.
“You’re not going to change anyone’s mind by calling them an idiot,” she said. “You have to find out why they think the way they do.”
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Understanding why people believe misinformation about vaccines is key to addressing the problem.
“Social scientists are doing some very interesting research into where it’s all coming from and why people are thinking like this,” she said.
It’s also important for doctors to talk to patients about vaccinations and build a trusting relationship with them. That’s where health-care providers can address some of the misinformation on social media and be ready to answer any questions a person may have.
Social media companies should also do more to halt these conversations in their tracks, Crowcroft said. While efforts by Facebook and Twitter are moves in the right direction, search engines need to prioritize legitimate sources over inaccurate ones, she added.
“Search engines, as well as organizations, need to make sure that if people search, they find easily,” she said.
“It’s really important to have good information out there.”
—With a file from Leslie Young
© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.