Facebook has announced a commitment to monitoring and reducing the impact of anti-vaccine pages. But is this the solution to stop the spread of unscientific and false propaganda? For misinformation around vaccines or any other controversial topic? As evidenced by a podcast that Twitter’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, recently participated in, the anti-vaxx movement can integrate and garner attention in ways we can’t control and monitor. A look at many of the anti-vaxx Facebook pages will show that the leaders of these groups are organized and have a plan for “going underground” to continue the spread of their misinformation through other means.
So, when social media platforms are merely a vessel for sharing information, one of many vessels these groups have at their disposal, what must be addressed is the “why.” Why is misinformation so readily believed? The long-term solution isn’t censoring the information that people share; it’s educating our society to evaluate and determine information as scientific and factual.
As scientists, we need to ask why people believe this false propaganda, why do they have a mistrust of scientists and our science, and what can we do about it? It’s not Facebook’s job to fix how people view and understand science; this is our job as scientists.
What is it about the anti-vaxx platform that attracts so many people? The emotional pull of the movement is broad, it’s strong, and it’s deep. Pictures of “vaccine-injured children” and infographics laying out the supposed thousands of vaccine-deaths that tug at the heartstrings of new parents who simply want to protect their children. It’s an emotional argument, and not one based in real science. But for a casual observer it can be convincing, and it can be even more convincing if that person already has some doubt about vaccines. How can we combat this and get to people before doubt has a chance to make a foothold?
Scientists need to change the way we talk to people. For so long we have steered away from using emotion in our arguments; it’s unscientific and creates bias. But this tactic is what is convincing, this is what people respond to, and this is what is lacking in the pro-vaccine camp. At the recent Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meeting, there was a strong anti-vaxx presence, and of the score of public comments, only two were in support of vaccines.
As scientists, we need to organize and partake in this public discourse. We need to share pictures of all the lives saved by vaccines and inundate Facebook and other sites. We need to stop trying to limit anti-vaxx posts, but rather overwhelm the public with pro-vaccine posts. We will not change the minds of everyone, and perhaps we may not change the minds of the majority of the entrenched anti-vaxx population, but we will influence a younger population that is just starting to develop their own scientific opinion.
To scientists, the fallacy behind the arguments of the anti-vaxx agenda is so obvious, it’s absurd. Anti-vaxx Facebook posts make references to outdated “articles” that claim vaccines have never been proven to reduce or eliminate a disease. Clearly this post didn’t take into consideration smallpox, which was eradicated in 1980 because of a vaccine. While scientists clearly understand and believe the evidence, there are those that simply do not. There is a population of individuals that have a deeply ingrained mistrust of scientists and the science they produce. This mistrust stems from a lack of understanding of who we are, what we do and why we do it.
How can we remedy this? We as scientists need to be intentional in our publicity and our interaction with the public and put ourselves out there even when it isn’t comfortable. Most people don’t know a scientist, so skepticism and distrust may be a natural reaction to a group of people they are unfamiliar with. There are countless opportunities for scientists to engage in the community, even at local science fairs and festivals as a start. If we can be a sustained and approachable presence in the public forum then perhaps those who haven’t listened to us before may be less doubtful.
Ultimately, we have a tool that anti-vaxxers don’t have access to, and that’s the ability to affect change in the science classroom and impact the education of students. The long-term solution is education and building a society that can evaluate the validity of sources without Facebook censorship. It starts with education in the science classroom: How is the scientific process emphasized and practiced? How is science communication and peer review, a key part of the scientific process, integrated into this practice? How are we teaching students about what makes a scientific article more credible than one from NaturalNews.com?
Only when students, and then adults, can learn the value and importance of the scientific process and peer review will we see a population less susceptible to the anti-science propaganda machine and reduce the belief of false information.
In education and in public discourse, we have the best tool available. Let’s not lose this advantage while we have it.