Recently Australia’s most vocal, persistent and offensive anti-vaccine pressure group, The Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network argued vaccination is a breach of religious freedom. They misinformed the federal parliamentary inquiry into religious freedom that vaccines were prepared with “the products of abortion”.
Vaccination was therefore “a moral evil”, violating teachings of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism, they contended citing absolutely no evidence to support their stance. The Australian Medical Association noted that their position was “irrational” and “unscientific”.
It was clear that the AVN was trying to find its way around the No Jab No Pay family assistance requirements and the No Jab No Play policy requirements. In April 2015 it was initially announced that religious exemptions for vaccination would cease. This was reinforced by health minister Greg Hunt in March this year. The only grounds for exemption of childhood vaccination are medical. The AVN’s claim that vaccines contain “the products of abortion” is not only baseless, but well refuted.
The AVN’s ignorance of the moral considerations involved are not difficult to discern. A Vatican City 2005 Statement, Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human foetuses, includes in reference 15;
…the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the malformations [due to rubella infection] in question, and for the subsequent abortion of fetuses, when they have been discovered to be malformed.
Still it is quite predictable that this morally bereft pressure group will continue to press the fallacious contention that vaccines contain aborted foetal cells. Social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter are means by which the anti-vaccination lobby interact. Indeed the conduct of antivaccinationists on Facebook has revealed much of their conspiratorial, cruel, cult-like nature.
First we witnessed the anti-vaccine lobby grow with simple access to misinformation via the Internet combined with the ability to invent and spread more. With the growth of social media we have witnessed this social malignancy improve it’s networking skills and spread their dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories in real time.
In this light I was grateful that the sharp eyes of others interested in the impact of the anti-vaccination lobby had come across the following research paper.
Mapping the anti-vaccination movement on Facebook. Naomi Smith and Tim Graham.
Information, Communication & Society
Published December 27th, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1418406
It looked at 6 anti-vaccine Facebook pages.
- Fans of the AVN
- Dr. Tenpenny on vaccines
- Great mothers (and others) questioning vaccines
- No vaccines Australia
- Age of autism
- RAGE against the vaccines
Post, like and comment data were further used to generate 6 social networks which were then further analysed.
Over the past decade, anti-vaccination rhetoric has become part of the mainstream discourse regarding the public health practice of childhood vaccination. These utilise social media to foster online spaces that strengthen and popularise anti-vaccination discourses. In this paper, we examine the characteristics of and the discourses present within six popular anti-vaccination Facebook pages. We examine these large-scale datasets using a range of methods, including social network analysis, gender prediction using historical census data, and generative statistical models for topic analysis (Latent Dirichlet allocation).
We find that present-day discourses centre around moral outrage and structural oppression by institutional government and the media, suggesting a strong logic of ‘conspiracy-style’ beliefs and thinking. Furthermore, anti-vaccination pages on Facebook reflect a highly ‘feminised’ movement ‒ the vast majority of participants are women. Although anti-vaccination networks on Facebook are large and global in scope, the comment activity sub-networks appear to be ‘small world’. This suggests that social media may have a role in spreading anti-vaccination ideas and making the movement durable on a global scale.
Some key points from the paper’s Discussion and Conclusion might be listed as follows.
- There is a large amount of online information that is important to the anti-vaccination (AV) community.
- Social media acts as an “effective hub” in the communication of AV information. The information is “designed to encourage grass roots resistance”.
- AV communities are relatively sparse, not functioning as close knit communities of support.
- Yet participation alone in AV groups can reinforce AV beliefs.
- AV participants are reasonably active across a number of groups.
- This suggests AV users participation in various AV groups is more autonomous than would be explained by Facebook’s recommender system.
- Liking and commenting across a number of AV pages may create a “filter bubble” effect.♠
- This effect is a pattern of involvement and activity that reinforces AV beliefs and conduct.
- More research is needed to discern how much of this effect is due to the users own conduct as opposed to Facebook’s algorithmic structure.
- AV Facebook pages exhibit “small world” network structure characteristics. Information diffuses quickly through the network via user comments.
- “Small world” characteristics may be due to inherent aspects of the AV movement or may manifest due to the Facebook “platform”.
- Either the former or latter aspect driving development of “small world” specifics will have unique and interesting implications.♣
- The former suggests that as a social movement the AV lobby might develop as a “small world” network that may be amplified and made more visible online.
- If the latter, the Facebook platform may be instrumental in the growth of the AV movement, protecting from disruption of outside influences.
- Wide sharing of posts suggests the AV community has scope beyond the public Facebook pages.
- Sharing may be important in spreading AV information and growing the AV movement.
- Gender composition of AV movement reflects cultural understanding of parenting – primarily maternal.
- Vaccination is historically “a mother’s question”. AV is described by the authors as “a mother’s question”.
- “AV movement is primarily led by women”. Note; Sherri Tenpenny runs “Vaccine Info” on Facebook.
- Whilst anti-vaccination is not gender specific, the “gendered nature” of Facebook page participation suggests the AV movement is “feminised”.
- Several key pre-occupations of AV communities are evident on Facebook pages; institutional arrangements are seen to be perpetuating the harmful practice of vaccination.
- AV community is “morally outraged about vaccination and structurally oppressed by seemingly tyrannical and conspiratorial government and media”.
- There is a strong belief in conspiracies driven by government and media; Cover up of vaccine injury and death, spreading of Zika virus by Bill Gates and belief in chemtrails.
- Comparison of vaccination to the Holocaust indicates strong sense of persecution within AV Facebook pages studied.
- Strong anti-science and anti-medicine beliefs in tandem with use of natural remedies.
- Findings limited by sample size.
- Further, more comprehensive research is needed.
♠ Commonly referred to as an “echo chamber’.
The results of this investigation suggest a robust and highly gendered network structure that has a strong sense of moral outrage associated with the practice of vaccination. This ‘righteous indignation’, in combination with the network characteristics identified in this study, indicates that anti-vaccination communities are likely to be persistent across time and global in scope as they utilise the affordances of social media platforms to disseminate anti-vaccination information.
Concerns about vaccination reveal a community that feels persecuted and is suspicious of mainstream medical practice and government-sanctioned methods to prevent disease. In a generation that has rarely seen these diseases first hand, the risk of adverse reaction seems more immediate and pressing than disease prevention.
♣ Regarding “small world” characteristics being due to either AV specifics or to the Facebook platform, the authors write;
Both outcomes are equally interesting. The former suggests that social movements (like anti-vaccination) may inevitably develop as ‘small world’ networks structure that is further amplified and made visible online. If it is the latter, this demonstrates that Facebook as a platform has important implications for the dynamics, spread, and durability of social movements outside of the specific case examined here. Indeed, if the materiality or architecture of Facebook shapes networks towards ‘small-worldness’, this suggests that such platforms may be instrumental for the anti-vaccination movement and social movements more broadly to blossom, flourish, and resist being dismantled or disrupted by outside influences.