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Anti-vax Movements and Social Media

By Gabriela Godinez Feregrino

With the recent measles outbreak, the anti-vaxer movement has come to the foreground once again. I’ve seen many media outlets, both entertainment and news media, come out with pieces about the topic, though you don’t need to be Vox, Jubilee, or the Washington Post to share your opinion. All you need is internet access and a social media profile.

18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger knows this all too well. Ethan is known at this point as the Ohio teenager who went against his mother’s wishes and got vaccinated once he no longer needed her consent. On March 5th he spoke in front of a senate committee hearing where he discussed his upbringing and subsequent defiance. He grew up without being vaccinated because his mother, like many other anti-vaxers, thought it would cause autism as well as other brain issues.

He said that his mother found most of her “evidence and information” though social media. According to the Associated Press, even when his mother was presented with facts from sources like the CDC she still didn’t agree with the findings, saying that her child has been made “the poster child for the pharmaceutical industry.” When Ethan showed her mother scientific facts, she responded,“that’s what they want you to think.”

There is much to unpack just with that bit of information alone. Let’s just pretend for a moment that vaccines did in fact cause autism. They don’t, just to be clear, but let us pretend. Anti-vaxers with this belief would rather have their child die of measles or polio, treatable illnesses, than have a child with autism. That is a piece of this issue that often gets overlooked because unfortunately our society favors able-bodied and able-minded people.

Ethan’s mother is not alone in these beliefs. The dangerous anti-vaxers movement creates a hotbed of misinformation all throughout social media. It could be said that most anti-vaxers are concerned parents that are fed falsehoods and conspiracy theories through their social media timeline. When we repeatedly click specific articles, like specific posts, or view certain videos, the algorithms of those platforms continue to show you similar posts. This makes it simpler for vulnerable people to fall into an echo chamber of misinformation. Youtube has taken steps to try and combat misinformation by adding links of information about specific topics covered in conspiracy videos. However, most of the time these are Wikipedia links, which are easily dismissed by people who are already lost to the conspiracy theories. Facebook as of the time of this editorial has not included any sort of effort nor has Twitter.

In our current culture of exclusively reading headlines and retweeting/sharing without further investigation, it often doesn’t matter if the articles and theories are debunked by credible sources.

I do understand there is so much frustration with the healthcare system in America. Many times drugs are pushed by big pharma, doctors dismiss marginalized folks, and often it feels like no one is listening, but allowing children to be susceptible to treatable diseases is wont hurt the capitalist healthcare system. It will only hurt those children and people with autoimmune disorders.

There are cases where children react negatively to vaccines. I admit that should not be ignored. Those are cases where they wouldn’t be forced have vaccinations in order to attend public schools; these children would instead be one of those who benefit from herd immunity. The problem with these cases not being fully discussed on social media is when they are used as cases to promote the lack of vaccination in other children.

This is not a simple issue, and it’s not even an issue of it’s own. All this comes from misuse of social media, disillusionment with the healthcare system, and the social media echo chambers we create. I don’t think there is any one solution, but for now we can continue to read credible sources and share those on our feed so combat the misinformation. Treat anti-vaxers with compassion when you share scientific facts. Unfortunately, most of the time when people make up their minds, there is very little anyone else can do to persuade them to change. Hopefully, like Ethan, these children survive and find accurate sources to be able to take their fate into their own hands.

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