The Anti-Vaccine Movement, Bad Science, and the Rise of Fake News

Fake news was one of the biggest news stories following the 2016 U.S. presidential election. From climate change to abortion, health care to international relations, formerly fringe information hubs like Breitbart took on unprecedented mainstream importance. Could it be that a sizeable chunk of Americans were more persuaded by conspiracy theories and political rumor than easily disproven claims?

As an anthropologist studying disability in the U.S., the question pointed immediately to a telling case study: the anti-vaccine movement. What better example of a fake news story gone mainstream than the fictional link between routine childhood vaccinations and increasing rates of autism diagnosis? Vaccine conspiracies and their aftermath have become perhaps surprisingly embedded in contemporary life. In turn, the persistence of the anti-vax movement in the U.S. offers a closer look at the tensions between reason, emotion, and knowledge claims, and what can happen when fake news gets normalized.

Bad Science Takes Hold: The Case of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

This historical emergence and cultural impact of the anti-vaccine movement in the U.S. have been explored closely by a variety of writers, including Steve Silberman, Seth Mnookin, and Eula Biss. The infamously retracted 1998 article in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield launched this bizarre movement among a small, but vocal, subset of parents in the U.S., a telling reminder that sometimes emotion and “hunches” matter more than fact. Among believers, the autism-vaccine link felt true. Writing about parents of children on the autism spectrum, anthropologist Sharon Kaufman explains: “Something unnatural, not ‘normal’ has happened that science is not explaining.”1

Vaccine doubts filled the gap between existing medical narratives and collective needs to explain new diagnostic trends. Here, truth took second place to feeling.

Today’s vaccine doubts took hold through collective anxieties about rising autism rates, social media and digital technologies, and an emergent nostalgia for a past American era. There is a curious overlap between the “Making American Great Again” slogan, which galvanized Conservative voters beyond any predictions, and what essayist Eula Biss calls “preindustrial nostalgia.”2 For Biss, this concept captures the idea that certain products or practices that are considered traditional or “natural” are safe, authentic, and good. Such nostalgia covers a range of contemporary phenomena, from the Paleo diet to the locavore movement, yoga, so-called natural childbirth, and, yes, anti-vaccine beliefs. Each of these examples hinges on the notion that the world was somehow better when it was less complicated and, dare I say, less “modern.” For vaccines, this is a nostalgia for an imagined past untainted by inoculations and their risks, real or otherwise, yet curiously unmarked by disease.

The Politics of Vaccine Doubt

Vaccine doubts are now political fodder. Indeed, Donald Trump has argued that there is a link between vaccines and autism, stating a (completely unproven) connection between current recommended vaccine schedules and rates of autism. As with the partisan split on climate change, broad consensus in the scientific community simply matters less than what people want to believe.

Anti-vaccination beliefs aren’t new to the last ten years, or to the United States, as seen in this 1923 London Times poster that tries to sway “those who disbelieve in vaccination.” (Science Museum, London/Wellcome Images | CC BY)

But will the anti-vax movement persist as we continue to witness new outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases? The answer is unclear. California cracked down on vaccine laws in 2015, following a measles outbreak at Disneyland, and vaccination rates subsequently rose. Yet the trend is not universal; for instance, a small but growing number of parents in Texas are opting out of vaccines. As political scientist Brendan Nyhan has shown, public health messages intended to convey the risk of preventable disease often fail to persuade skeptical parents. He further argues that framing vaccines as a political issue, along with the publish backlash against the anti-vaccine movement, tends to be counterproductive. When pushed, the skeptics dig in their heels.

Becoming Normalized

The anti-vaccine movement’s most curious success is its longevity. Yes, these arguments fly in the face of scientific evidence. The movement stems from a study that has long been disregarded. And the anti-vax community represents an extremely small segment of the population. Yet we all recognize the story. We hear the news several times a year about new outbreaks, about the controversies over personal belief exemptions, the risk of growing pockets of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children in places like Austin, Washington, or, previously, Marin County.

The anti-vaccine discourse emerges in political debates, newspaper stories, and visits to the pediatrician. It skews white, relatively affluent, and educated. They are members of particular social worlds, and their networks play a key role in their decisions regarding vaccines.3 Here, just as we witnessed in the 2016 presidential election, interpreting fact from fiction is a deeply social process.

A poster encouraging people to get immunized against measles, with the slogan: “Keep measles a memory– immunize!”
(Centers for Disease Control/National Library of Medicine | Public Domain)

To doubt vaccines involves not fact or science, but a curious politics of affect and information curation. Anti-vaccine proponents rely on a cluster of anecdotes and claims gleaned from multiple sources, merged by the questions, motivations, and beliefs of the knowledge seeker. One team of anthropologists described such anti-vaccine parent narratives as being similar to a Pinterest board.4 The pieces of information come together through multiple sources, online and otherwise, they become part of a narrative. Indeed, our President-elect’s remarks on vaccines during the election season are now part of this archive. What will come of them remains to be seen.

Unanticipated Suspicion

Medical rumors about vaccines, like other fake news stemming from bad or made up data, implore us to decide between what we think we know versus what we feel, and the two are not always in sync. We are told to trust our intuition, but given no clear guidelines for distinguishing it from superstition, paranoia, or misinterpretation. We are asked to follow expert advice, yet we know full well that experts sometimes fail.

Fake news becomes real through exposure and repetition. We hear the stories again and again. Perhaps they plant seeds of doubt; they become somewhat normalized; we recognize them. While dangerous and scientifically unsound, the anti-vaccine movement is an unflinching reminder that fake news has permeated daily life.

I never thought twice about vaccinating my son, but a recent incident made me realize that anti-vax rhetoric had managed to get under even my skin. I took my preschooler for his annual flu shot in the fall, as always. After school the next day, his teacher took the kids to a park where they ran wild all afternoon, sprinting up and down hills, climbing trees, racing away. He was a joyful mess when I picked him up, dust caked on his face and hands, curly hair dripping with sweat. He guzzled a tall glass of water as soon as we got home.

An hour later, something was wrong. He had been relaxing on the sofa with some PBS cartoons while I prepared dinner. When I came back to the room to check on him, I realized he was suddenly in pain. He whimpered, telling me he could not move.

“Help me, Mom!” I asked what was wrong, but he just cried. He managed to stand up from the sofa, but was balancing on one leg and clutching the coffee table. He told me he hadn’t fallen or hurt himself at school, but he couldn’t walk. When I tried to force him to take a few steps, he started to fall over. Do we need to go the hospital? I wondered, suddenly alarmed.

I went over the events of the last day. Nothing out of the ordinary – no stings, bug bites, falls, or bruises. The only unusual occurrence was the flu shot. Surely not, I told myself. But I immediately ran to the study, and rummaged through my desk for the information sheet from the pediatrician on the shot’s side effects.

Calm down, I told myself, feeling ridiculous. There had to be an explanation. I thought of several parents I’d met through my research who maintained that their kids were “vaccine-damaged.” I’d been so cavalier in dismissing them and yet here I was, frantically on Google.

After maybe 20 minutes things were looking worse, and I decided to try one more thing before packing up for the hospital. Kicking and screaming, I pulled my son up by his arms, uttered a quick promise of future M&Ms, and told him in my sternest tone to walk it off. He protested and said he couldn’t, but gradually began to steady himself and walk, at first haltingly and then with just a slight limp. I made him go back and forth through our house, watching the limp dissipate with each small lap. A muscle cramp, I realized. It was just a cramp.

I tried to laugh off my maternal panic in retelling the story later, but I was shaken. Evidently, vaccine fears had seeped into my scholarly, rational, peer-review reading façade. I was not immune. In a moment of uncertainty and apparent physical pain, I had searched my mind for possible explanations, familiar narratives that had crept into my own curated information archive.

Vaccines loom large these days, even more than I had realized. And perhaps, in our more uncertain moments, we are all a bit susceptible to the pull of fake news when it suits us.

Notes

  1. Sharon R. Kaufman, “Regarding the Rise in Autism: Vaccine Safety Doubt, Conditions of Inquiry, and the Shape of Freedom,” Ethos 38 (2010), 12. Return to text.
  2. Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Inoculation, (Minneapolis: Greywolf Press, 2014), 15. Return to text.
  3. Emily K. Brunson, “The Impact of Social Networks on Parents’ Vaccination Decisions,” Pediatrics 131 (2013). Return to text.
  4. Elisa Sobo, et. al, “Information Curation among Vaccine Cautious Parents: Web 2.0, Pinterest Thinking, and Pediatric Vaccination Choice,” Medical Anthropology 35 (2015). Return to text.

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