The Centers for Disease Control recently recommended that people with mental-health issues get COVID-19 vaccine boosters. The CDC is still trying to figure out why the U.S. vaccination rate remains stubbornly static, but it has some theories on what might be going wrong when it comes to getting Americans vaccinated against serious diseases like measles and whooping cough.
One possibility is that the government isn’t spending enough money to promote vaccinations. But it could also be that anti-vaxxer nonsense on social media and in online search results is creating a misinformation crisis that discourages parents from giving their kids life-saving vaccines. Or, maybe there’s some other reason why Americans aren’t vaccinating.
Many of us will never be convinced that vaccines are the best way to treat diseases, but if you don’t think about vaccine safety at all because of what you’ve read on social media or seen in Google search results, then it’s time for some reflection. The fact is that many of the most popular anti-vaccine falsehoods—like vaccines cause autism and mercury is toxic—are demonstrably false. But you wouldn’t know it by the way they’re presented online.
If we can come to a greater understanding of how anti-vaccine misinformation works, then maybe we can find some better ways to debunk those falsehoods before Americans make up their minds and choose not to vaccinate their children or themselves.
To understand why anti-vaccine misinformation is so difficult to shut down online, I talked to James Hodge Jr., an associate professor of public health at Arizona State University. Hodge has studied anti-vaccine movements for years and recently co-authored a study in the journal Public Understanding of Science that examined the reach of anti-vaccine misinformation on Google.
VICE: How is anti-vaccination misinformation created? Is it by people who are trying to sell something, dishonest scientists, or what?
James Hodge: Most vaccine deniers—that’s my preferred term for them—aren’t actually against vaccines. So if you ask them, “Are you against vaccines?” they’ll say, “No.” They’re typically people who are confused about the science. There are some groups that are truly dedicated to trying to make sure that people don’t vaccinate their children. The most infamous of those is the National Vaccine Information Center.
Hodge: One of the things they do is that if you look at some of their recent ads, what you’ll see are things like, “If your child has brain damage, it may have been caused by a vaccine.” And it says something on there about how vaccines contain toxic chemicals.
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