In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. And among those diseases could be COVID-19.
Jon Allsop at The Columbia Journalism Review:
Facebook pledged to remove misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. This was a meaningful change—previously, falsehoods about vaccines were downranked in its algorithm—but as is always the case with Facebook, there are caveats. Because the vaccines are new, it will likely take time to identify and remove bogus claims about them and, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out, the new rules leave “a lot of room for bad faith actors to get their points across.” Compared with rivals like TikTok and YouTube, Facebook has been slow to announce tough action against COVID-vaccine misinformation; YouTube started removing false claims about the vaccines back in October. And even that may have been too late. Bunk about COVID treatments and immunity pills has been swimming across social media for months—since long before any legitimate vaccine reached the latter stages of development.
Misinformation about vaccines, of course, long predates social media—it has circulated, in one form or another, for hundreds of years, and was supercharged in the nineties by false claims linking the triple-shot measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism in children. But social media has made matters worse.
“What we’re seeing play out with Covid is what was already in the system," Neil Johnson, a physicist at George Washington University who studies online extremism, said. "It was primed for that at the end of 2019.”
Johnson and a team of researchers published a paper in Nature in May that suggested the anti-vaccination movement bore a big responsibility for such hesitancy. It showed that although membership in online anti-vaccination groups was smaller than in pro-vaccination groups, there were more of them, their messages were more diverse, emotive and often persuading, and they were better at spreading those messages outside their groups, meaning they were able to reach more people.
Research from a forthcoming paper from Johnson and his team, currently in review for publication, shows members of communities previously considered unrelated or “undecided” on vaccines — groups for pet lovers, parent school groups, yoga fans and foodies, for instance — are increasingly connecting with the anti-vaccination movement.
“It’s like a tumor growth,” Johnson said.