The anti-vaccination groups in the US seem to be not fazed at all by the outbreaks of measles in parts of the US and elsewhere in the world. They seem to have developed a deep-rooted belief in the rightness of their cause and no amount of scientific evidence to the contrary is going to change their minds, unless perhaps their own children fall sick. They think that those who believe in the safety of vaccines are part of a deep conspiracy to harm them and their children. In this, they are not unlike the right wing climate change deniers and Trump cultists who refuse to hear anything bad about their hero and so it should not be a surprise that there seems to be a burgeoning alliance between the two groups, as Kelly Weill reports.
New studies reveal vaccine skepticism to be a strong predictor for populist politics in Europe, where many populist candidates run on a hard-right line. And fringe media outlets are seizing on the sympathy from the anti-vax movement, pushing even more extreme conspiracy theories under the guise of vaccine skepticism.
Far-right news sites can find a serious audience in these highly active conspiracy communities. One 2017 Red Ice article has repeatedly made the rounds in large anti-vax groups, sometimes racking up more than 1,000 likes. Although the article skews right wing (it lauds a clip from the Tucker Carlson’s show) and alarmist (vaccines “can seriously injure your child”), it isn’t overtly white supremacist. But should anti-vaxxers chose to explore the rest of the site, they would find a white supremacist swamp, full of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic fear-mongering.
Most anti-vaxxers are not white supremacists, far from it. But the overlap can send some well-meaning parents down the rabbit hole. Far-right groups frequently engage in “entryism,” a tactic that involves seeding a sympathetic mainstream group with extremist ideology, then slowly radicalizing its members. The tactic works well in groups like the anti-vax community.
At their surface level, anti-vax claims tap into populist grievances with bipartisan support; in the U.S., where health care can be prohibitively expensive, vaccines are sometimes seen as an extension of well-moneyed pharmaceutical companies. But the world of conservative-leaning conspiracy sites take the claims further. Red Ice, Infowars, and their ilk build on the mistrust of pharmaceutical companies to claim vaccines are part of a world-domination scheme by a shadowy global elite. As these claims typically go, the conspiracy theory gets anti-Semitic, with white supremacists interpreting “elite” to mean Jewish people.
This recruiting strategy is similar to the way that white supremacists and neo-Nazis appeal to the sense of irony as a tool to lure in young people with the premise that the whole thing is just a lark, before the indoctrination kicks in.
But the end results are not pretty. As the people in these groups become emboldened, they are viciously attacking those who are urging the closing of options that currently allow people to not vaccinate their children for reasons other than bona fide medical reasons.
When the naturopath Elias Kass testified before a Washington state senate committee on 20 February with a baby on his chest and a pacifier in his hand, he knew that his arguments would be unpopular with the anti-vaccine activists in the room. Amid a measles outbreak that has infected 66 people so far, legislators were considering a bill to eliminate personal and philosophical exemptions for childhood vaccinations, and Kass was one of several practitioners to speak in support of the measure.
Kass faced some anger in the hallway after the hearing, he said, with one person calling him “a disgusting liar”. But it wasn’t until several hours later that “the shit hit the fan”. That’s when Kass realized that his Facebook page was being flooded with one-star reviews calling him everything from a “disgrace” and a “pedophile” to a “Nazi pharma shill” and “scumbag shilling for infanticide”. Kass disabled the Yelp-like reviews feature on the page, but that didn’t stop the onslaught, which moved into the page’s comments and across the ecosystem of anti-vaxx Facebook pages and groups. By Monday, five days after his brief testimony, he had compiled a photo gallery with hundreds of screenshots of abusive comments.
Kass is only the latest pro-vaccine health practitioner to be subjected to an online harassment campaign by anti-vaxxers. Networks of closed Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members have become staging grounds for campaigns that victims say are intended to silence and intimidate pro-vaccine voices on social media. The harassment only exacerbates an online ecosystem rife with anti-vaccine misinformation, thanks in part to Facebook’s recommendation algorithms and targeted advertising.
The use of social media to spread false information and hate is by now so well established that one has think that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg does not see it as a serious problem that must be addressed by throwing a lot if resources to combat it.