This is how anti-vaxxers play their Trump card on social media
Stellenbosch University researcher sheds light on the way information that ignores science is spread
Vaccinations saves millions of lives every year. So why is the anti vaxxer movement – which originally sprang from a fraudulent study that linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism and saw its researcher disgraced several decades ago – still around?
And why is it still finding the perfect loudhailer on social media, putting doubt in parents’ minds and children’s lives at risk?
This is part of a bigger question on how science is accessed, simplified and shared, and it is that bigger question which Stellenbosch University’s Francois van Schalkwyk wanted to explore.
The result: a whopping 240-page doctoral thesis that sheds light on how true science is sometimes eclipsed by the sensationalist claims made by attention-hungry individuals and amplified by their uncritically minded followers.
First, his research confirmed that the anti-vaxxer movement is not using open research data. But this, he said, is not surprising. Such data is “very technical” so someone without specialist knowledge is unlikely to use it. His study simply confirmed this.
He then looked at whether they were looking at open-access journal articles for information.
“This,” he explains, is “not the data itself” but the scientists’ interpretation of their data that they have made openly available for other scientists to evaluate. He found that the anti-vaxxers were indeed looking at open-access journal articles, but were then drawing on scientific knowledge that was still under construction to amplify their sensationalist claims.
That was how “rogue elements”, even from within the science community itself, were prematurely being given a platform which then allowed for an unproven theory to spread exponentially.
“Anti-vaxxers are thus exploiting the fringe element in science itself,” he explained, comparing it to former president Thabo Mbeki’s amplification of Aids denialists who were on the fringe of science but who were then given a large voice despite being such a small minority.
So why are they doing it? What drives the movement?
He said the main driver for many in the anti-vaxxer movement was simply a case of “trying to hold attention on social media”.
“They are using whatever mechanism they can that will amplify their messages. That is precisely what someone like Donald Trump does, too. He is not there to defend his position, but instead to hold attention by using Twitter to create hype and controversy. We see it happening in politics and finance. We see companies trying to knock the reputations of listed companies using social media, so it is not surprising that this is happening in science, too.”
Because “everything is connected and info is networked”, and “because attention is the main driver”, information gets circulated very quickly and is taken at face value.
“Social media is not geared to being sceptical, and that is the opposite of science which is all about proof and that takes time,” he explains.
At the heart of the movement is a tiny core – just a handful of tweeters – who then put out a message which gets shared over and over again in an echo chamber of like-minded people who are attached to their views on vaccines.
He described this as the “network effect” and said that sometimes those original tweeters were not even a human being but a bot that generates content which it constantly posts.
One account, which has since disappeared from Twitter, was called LotusOak and the tweeter posted the same tweet more than 200 times in one year, each time creating a new spread of the tweet across social networks.
Also, because of the human fascination with horror and tragedy, the anti-vaxxer movement is very selective in what it posts.
“They are taking stuff that supports their cause,” explains Van Schalkwyk and, because attention is the driver, anything sensational or that goes against the mainstream grabs attention.
So where to from here?
Van Schalkwyk says he is “not entirely clear what the solution is”. That said, fact-checking sites are springing up and “correcting misrepresentations”, and though these will not shift those attached to the anti-vaxxer hype, they might at least sway those who are hesitant about, rather than anti, vaccines.
Another possible solution is “far more rigorous control of social media itself”.
He said the current drive for Facebook and Twitter to curate and check information could be useful in the face of something like the anti-vaxxer movement, but that it is becoming clear what a “political hot potato” such curation is.
Perhaps there will be more sophisticated techniques developing which could “use machines to identify suspicious, harmful accounts” which could then be double-checked by human beings.
Meanwhile, in the global arena, news broke last week that some of the children who had not been vaccinated were now in their teens and were turning on their anti-vaxxer parents.
The Washington Post reported that “unvaccinated teens are fact-checking their parents and trying to get shots on their own”.
One youngster, Ethan Lindenberger, 18, told the newspaper: “Because of their (his parents) belief, I’ve never been vaccinated for anything. God knows how I am still alive.”
The paper said the anti-vaxxer movement was still amplifying its messages “amid outbreaks of dangerous diseases” but that internet-savvy teenagers were now seeking their own treatments.
Locally, there is currently more research – also out of Stellenbosch University – that will build on what we know from Van Schalkwyk’s work.
Dr Marina Joubert, who heads the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at the university, is overseeing research that hopes to find a constructive way forward that does not simply polarise the anti-vaxxers from their pro-vaccine counterparts.
“We want to understand where these claims come from and what it is that people fear and how they justify these claims,” she told Times Select. “My hypothesis is that if we understand the discourse better we can be more constructive. If you are confrontational you don’t really achieve much in terms of changing people’s behaviour.”
She said that pro- and anti-vaccine parents had “common ground” in that they all wanted “what was best for their children”.
“If we understand where the info comes from that they are sharing, we can create a picture of how it is spreading. Are they misinterpreting science, are they still quoting from the discredited Wakefield study? These are the types of questions we are looking into.”
It is currently a pilot study which will be tracked for six months and the team will then decide what to do next.