But there’s a broader problem, says Seema Yasmin, a Stanford physician and expert on health misinformation. Conspiracies, Yasmin says, thrive in the absence of clear and consistent guidance from leaders. As the pandemic wears on, the Trump administration continues to contradict itself, sending mixed messaging on testing, schools, masks, and social distancing—not to mention the possible vaccine. Parents are left to their own devices, relying on incomplete information to keep their families safe. “We are in a state of heightened anxiety and fear, and we’re looking for a way to understand what’s happening in the world,” Yasmin said. “Charlatans are plugging those knowledge gaps. They’re saying completely false things with a sense of authority.”
The spread of misinformation isn’t restricted to local parenting groups—it’s also flourishing in holistic child-rearing and natural birth communities. On his Facebook page, Dr. Bob Sears, an attachment parenting guru and vaccine critic with 97,000 followers, rails against school closures and COVID vaccines. Based in Southern California, he has invited his local followers to attend “freedom rallies” protesting mandatory masks and social distancing measures. In his podcast, “The Vaccine Conversation,” he promotes the discredited coronavirus treatment of hydroxychloroquine and celebrates citizens who are “pushing back against state government” on mask mandates and business closures.
While Sears doesn’t explicitly mention any of the more far-fetched QAnon ideas, his followers do in the comments. “It will take the entire world to stop the corruption of Bill Gates, the World Health Org, the CDC and the FDA, collectively known as the ‘#medicalmafia,’ reads one comment on a post criticizing the idea of a mandatory COVID vaccine. In response to a post in which Dr. Sears praises the CDC for calling for schools to reopen, one commenter speculates that the CDC is “planning some 5G rollouts in/near schools which will help fuel their ‘second wave’ narrative.”
But it can be difficult to figure out how to change the minds of people who are convinced that they are correct. In a recent advice piece about conspiracy theories spreading through online parenting communities, The New York Times suggested, “If it’s someone you don’t know personally, respond with facts.” That’s a start, but Yasmin, the Stanford physician and health misinformation expert, believes that approach might not be enough. “More and more I’m seeing that misinformation and disinformation are packaged with political information—vaccines and masks are anti-freedom, anti-American,” she says. “You don’t counter that by citing studies. These are tied into beliefs about freedom and what it means to be American.” In other instances, the misinformation is packaged in a way that’s meant to tug at parents’ heartstrings —say a story about a child who died after receiving a routine vaccination. In order to combat misinformation, Yasmin says, pro-science groups will have to beat the purveyors at their own game, finding effective ways to reach fellow parents. One idea that some vaccine advocacy groups are already trying out: sharing stories of children who died of vaccine-preventable diseases. “Compelling and well-told stories on parenting sites—those can really connect with parents,” she says. “They offer an emotional connection that’s very hard to counteract with facts.”