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Saturday, December 19, 2020

Misinformation and Disinformation

 In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing disease to spread Trump has helped spread misinformation.

Davey Alba and Sheera Frenkel at NYT:
NewsGuard, a start-up that fights false stories, said that of the 145 websites in its Election Misinformation Tracking Center, a database of sites that publish false election information, 60 percent of them have also published misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. That includes right-wing outlets such as Breitbart, Newsmax and One America News Network, which distributed inaccurate articles about the election and are now also running misleading articles about the vaccines.

John Gregory, the deputy health editor for NewsGuard, said the shift was not to be taken lightly because false information about vaccines leads to real-world harm. In Britain in the early 2000s, he said, a baseless link between the measles vaccine and autism spooked people into not taking that vaccine. That led to deaths and serious permanent injuries, he said.

Misinformation creates fear and uncertainty around the vaccine and can reduce the number of people willing to take it,” said Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington evolutionary biologist who has been tracking the pandemic.

At The New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner talks to Dr. Peter Hotez:

One of the things that seems interesting about anti-vaccine sentiment is that it is a far-right thing in certain ways, but it also crosses certain ideological lines. If you look at some of the places where opposition to vaccinations for children is highest, it’s places like Santa Monica and Marin County, which I don’t think of as part of a right wing—

Yeah, or in Seattle. So there’s a Pacific Northwest flavor to that, which is linked more to the health-and-wellness industry. The point is the anti-vaccine lobby doesn’t all speak with one voice. That’s absolutely true. That’s why I sometimes call it a confederacy more than one single organization. And that gets to the sources of funding as well, which we don’t really understand. Some of it’s coming from the health-and-wellness industry selling fake supplements and autism cures, while a lot of it is getting money from far-right-wing political causes. But it’s gotten very powerful now, to the point it really dominates the Internet.

You alluded to anti-vaccination sentiment rising and falling since colonial times. Is there a through line that can help us understand why sentiment rises or falls, or why distinct populations see sentiment within them rise or fall? Or is it just things like this Lancet paper, about which it would be hard to come up with some sort of historical explanation?

It comes from different causes. So for instance, because I have a daughter with autism, I wrote this book “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism.” In the book, I report on doing a PubMed search, where you type in key words like autism and vaccines, and you do see one paper comes out of 1976, and a guy who was looking at smallpox vaccination and wondering, “Could there be a link to autism?” And then nothing. And then all of a sudden the Wakefield paper comes, and this thing just blows up after that.

So clearly it’s that Wakefield paper that was the trigger. But what gave it momentum, though, I think, was the political alliances and links. And again, under this banner of health freedom, we’re seeing that stuff expand this year. Because while it was very focussed on vaccines —which, by the way, started bringing people like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones into it—in 2020 it glommed on to the protest against masks and social distancing. So what was an anti-vaccine movement then morphed into a full-on anti-science movement.