As evidenced by the seemingly constant debate over “fake news” and the impact that it’s starting to have on the general public, it almost goes without saying that an epidemic of public misinformation is one of the most pressing threats that the world currently faces. On the level of everyday life, it’s probably something that you’ve seen firsthand. We all have a relative who loves to add their commentary to anything controversial they find on Facebook, even if what they’re commenting on is false or on shaky ground. In those situations, there is a level of humor. On a larger scale, as the issue has steadily permeated academic and political discussions, many still don’t understand what the big deal is. How could one person’s misinformed opinion possibly end up affecting other people? The idea that misinformation is relatively innocuous has finally met its match with the rise of the anti-vaxx movement.
At the heart of the growing campaign against vaccinations is a blatant misunderstanding of how they work, fueled by the overabundance of false information and theories on the Internet. To be clear, this doesn’t include those who might be allergic to a certain vaccine or have a genuine religious objection to them. Instead, the problem is with those who think that spending a few hours on Google makes them more knowledgeable than the entire medical community and gives them all of the information that they need to make a decision on whether or not to vaccinate their children. It’s one that could pose serious health risks not only for the child, but for others around them who might not be able to get vaccines for legitimate reasons.
You’ve probably seen some of the most common misconceptions about vaccines somewhere on social media. People say that they cause autism or contain unnatural ingredients that are dangerous to put into a child’s body. Other say that vaccines aren’t the only reason why disease rates have dropped and that the best way to inoculate a child is to expose them to diseases that could potentially kill them. These are complete myths that have been debunked over and over again, and some just seem to lack any trace of common sense. But unfortunately, they’ve continued to gain traction up to the point where vaccination hesitancy was now included on WHO’s list of Top 10 Threats to Global Health in 2019.
It’s safe to assume that there have always been vaccine skeptics, even as people around the world were being saved from deadly diseases like polio and measles. But it didn’t truly become a threat until 1998, when then-physician Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent research paper claiming that there were links between several standard vaccines and autism in children. It was quickly discredited and Wakefield had his medical license revoked, but that didn’t stop it from becoming the catalyst that sparked the growth of the anti-vaxx movement. It’s gone beyond obscure journals to encroaching on mainstream culture, with several documentaries being released about the subject as well as many celebrities even jumping on the bandwagon.
It’s difficult to imagine the anti-vaxx movement really taking off before the age of the Internet. It might have gained some traction through literature, but that would have been physically limited. At that point, the movement was certainly not even close to having the following that it currently boasts. Social media has made it possible for anti-vaxxers to find a sense of community with one another, as seen in the various Facebook groups they create to share tips and experiences that almost instantly get debunked and ridiculed by the general public. Myths about vaccines themselves spread like wildfire online, and after a certain point, there’s little that can be done to reign them in. People get scared at the thought of putting their children in danger, and because the misconceptions surrounding vaccines hit parents at the emotional level, it’s hard to convince them that vaccines are safe once they’ve made up their minds against them.
The issue of vaccine hesitancy and its subsequent consequences, namely localized outbreaks of previously eradicated diseases, could only be thriving in an age of misinformation. You’ve probably heard the phrase “fake news” at some point over the past few years, and while it sometimes gets treated as a meme or something to laugh at, the current age of misinformation is a challenge that is seemingly impossible to overcome. Information aggregators like Facebook and Twitter have yet to figure out how to refrain from facilitating the spread of false information, and until they do, the responsibility falls onto the general public to be able to discern fact from fiction online. The problem is that social media users, in general, have a shocking lack of online literacy, something that has only just now become an integral part of childhood education. For those who are past that point, it feels like an “every man for himself” situation.
As long as the Internet exists and continues to thrive, the threat of misinformation to the general public is going to persist. There’s still some argument as to how it might affect things like elections and how it could be a threat to democracy. But there is little room to deny that the anti-vaxx movement and its effects are pieces of real-world evidence that demonstrate just how dangerous a misinformed public can be. There’s hope in the idea that each generation will become better at deciphering what’s fake news and what isn’t, but until then, those on the side of truth will have to maintain a strong defense.