In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have helped spread this dangerous myth.
As measles cases pop up across the United States, public health advocates have blamed social media for allowing misinformation to take root and swiftly spread. But the platforms also facilitate far more antagonistic behavior, with doctors facing online harassment and even coordinated attacks for promoting vaccines.E.J. Dickson at Rolling Stone:
Since late 2017, there have been more than 50 of these online campaigns against health providers who promote vaccines, some of which have led to threats of harm that prompted calls to the police, said Chad Hermann, communications director for Kids Plus Pediatrics, a Pittsburgh practice that faced one of these online attacks in 2017 and then began tracking them.
To be clear, platforms like Facebook are not outright banning content that is critical of mandatory vaccination. What they are doing is more akin to what Naomi Smith, a sociologist at the Federation University of Australia who co-authored a 2017 paper on anti-vaccination communities on social media, refers to as “digital deplatforming — making it harder to find, making it lower in the search results, not taking money from these groups to promote their posts, making sure the top results on these search queries are quality and not anti-vaxx pages.”
There’s also the crucial question of whether this so-called “de-platforming” effort will actually work to begin with. Smith is skeptical, in part because anti-vaxxers have become adept at using language that carries a whiff of scientific legitimacy (take, for instance, phrases like “vaccine choice” or “informed consent for vaccines”) to “sound more publicly palatable… it’s a way of working within the political system to get an aura of legitimacy.” And it does indeed seem like members of the community are learning how to skirt the policy changes by using such language: Facebook searches for “vaccine choice” and “vaccine freedom” yielded a number of different anti-vaccine groups and posts.
If the changes do start kicking into gear, and Big Tech makes good on its promise to aggressively crack down on anti-vaccine content, members of the community have plenty of options other than social media: as Baylor College of Medicine infectious diseases researcher Peter Hotez recently told Vox, there are nearly 500 anti-vaccine websites in “the anti-vaccine media empire,” not to mention dozens of books and movies. “We need a comprehensive public-private partnership between the US government and all the major stakeholders — Facebook, Amazon, Google — to look at dismantling the anti-vaccine empire,” Hotez told Vox.
If this ever happens, Smith suggests some members of the community may circumvent these roadblocks by migrating to newer forums like Discord, which is a hotbed of alt-right and white supremacist sentiment. Indeed, Lyons Weiler has said he’s received multiple requests to join MeWe, a chat and messaging app that markets itself as a platform for free speech.