These days, you can hardly move for memes decrying vaccination or scroll through your Twitter feed for statements soliciting support for the falsehood of the Earth’s flatness.
The Internet, a space designed to freely share knowledge and educate the world without borders, has instead been bastardised by hoaxers and conspiracy theorists who populate the parameters of pop culture and their little vacuums with their ever-increasingly mainstream ideas.
At first, admittedly, it was quite entertaining. Who among us hasn’t found joy in a YouTube rabbit hole regarding ‘dead Avril Lavigne’s doppelganger’?
For the more intellectual among us, replace Avril with Paul McCartney, and you’ve got yourself a party of people who are curious to uncover truths behind perceived wisdom.
Some conspiracy movements are harmless.
After all, no one who thinks the Earth is flat is really hurting anyone who knows the Earth is actually round – besides a few insults batted around on Twitter.
Others, on the other hand are incredibly harmful. Take the vocal, minority anti-vax movement, on a life-threatening mission to denounce medical vaccinations, the little shots of science which save lives.
The World Health Organization states it is one of the 10 greatest threats to global health, adding:
Measles, for example, has seen a 30 per cent increase in cases globally. The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy.
However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.
‘Complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence’ underlie the apparent ignorance which creates vaccine hesitancy.
That’s certainly the case for some social groups. For other entrenched anti-vaxxers, its a bunch of memes perpetrating an arsenal of falsehoods, for example, those which incorrectly connect autism to vaccinations.
A reactionary group of anti-anti-vaxxers have had enough of it; enough of the divisions and enough of media platforms and Internet arbiters validating the, frankly, falsities.
One such anti-anti-vaxxer is Chanakya Ramdev, who has started a petition with the view to persuading Twitter and Facebook to un-verify conspiracy theory organizations which ‘promote hoaxes like Flat Earth and Anti-Vaxx’.
The 27-year-old Canadian campaigner told UNILAD:
[Twitter and Facebook] verification boosts credibility. That check mark shows up next to every tweet they make.
People already doubt science. There is already a war on facts. Drop by drop, democracy is already dripping down the drain.
I worry people scrolling through their feed might find [the hoaxes to be] real.
The founder of technical startup Sweat Free was inspired to take action in light of YouTube removing ‘content that could misinform users in harmful ways’ from its recommended lists.
In a blog post YouTube said videos targeted are those which fall inside community guidelines but which promote ‘phony miracle cures for a serious illness’, claim the Earth is flat, or make ‘blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11’.
For example, they removed Alex Jones, who claimed the Sandy Hook school shooting was a ‘synthetic, manufactured’ event from the video-sharing platform.
The statement from YouTube published in January continued:
We think this change strikes a balance between maintaining a platform for free speech and living up to our responsibility to users.
Moreover, it was announced today, anti-vaccine documentaries are no longer free to watch on Amazon Prime.
— History of Vaccines (@historyvaccines) March 6, 2019
However, it seems Twitter and Facebook are yet to follow suit.
Doctor of Public Health and epidemiologist, Dr René Nejera has dedicated his expertise to educating the public on the history and science of vaccination in his role as Editor of the History of Vaccines, a project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
He tells UNILAD the anti-vaccination movement is as old as the vaccines themselves.
First, ‘vile rhetoric’ was used by politicians and the press in the early 1700s to discredit Cotton Mather, a minister in Boston who argued for inoculation against smallpox. His home was firebombed.
The following century saw Dr. Edward Jenner ‘reviled by the public and political cartoons’ for trying to push for his new smallpox vaccine which proved safer than traditional inoculation.
The main ideology of the anti-vaccination movement of yore focused on people’s freedom ‘to do with their bodies as they pleased’ including accepting or refusing government mandated vaccination.
It’s still a part of modern arguments, despite global legal precedents being set around the world which clearly state no one is free to put others in danger by refusing to be vaccinated.
Having studied the past, Dr Nejera knows better than most what can happen when anti-vaccination sentiment is given a mainstream platform.
He explains the ‘self-reinforcing’ views of a vocal minority – only about 2 per cent of Americans actually refuse vaccination – have been amplified by a close-knit social media community who ‘ignore scientific understanding of how vaccines work’ whether for fear of unsubstantiated horror stories, science denialism, mistrust of the government, or simply for the financial gain to be had in ‘selling supplements and elixirs to those gullible enough to believe them’.
But the modern anti-vaccination movement is different, Dr Nejera asserted:
It used to be that not everyone had access to an education, let alone access to the wealth of scientific data being produced every day around the world.
So attacks on vaccination policies were limited to political speeches, local rallies and opposition, or to cartoons published in print media.
Dr Nejera believes companies have a ‘responsibility in what is shared through their platforms’ and ‘should do everything possible to minimize or eliminate dangerous information’.
However, some science denialists have their ideas ‘reinforced by authority figures online and in the media’.
Unfortunately, we are in the very infancy of this new technology. As a society and as a species, we are still adapting to being connected to the internet 24/7.
Fortunately, in the past, we have shown the ability to mature and learn to deal with technology for the greater good.
Such was the case with the telegraph, radio and then television. Hopefully, we’ll get there when it comes to the internet.
Meanwhile, on Twitter the verification model – the little blue tick you see in the corner of some handles – applies to accounts of public interest including those maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.
However, a verified badge does not imply an endorsement by Twitter, they say.
Facebook has two levels of verification – a blue tick and a grey tick, the latter of which ‘means Facebook confirmed this is an authentic Page for this business or organization’.
Chanakya is concerned for the well-being of his niece and nephew, who are four and eight years old, respectively.
The worried campaigner concluded:
[Adults] are mature enough to realize these are hoaxes. They aren’t. Kids are innocent and gullible. I just want to protect them.
At least with the Flat Earth hoax kids are just getting de-motivated to study science.
When it comes to the Anti-Vaxx hoax, kids are literally losing their lives. If we don’t stop this, then not only will STEM classes be empty, every class will be empty.
His fears come just as it is reported the US has registered more measles cases in the first two months of 2019 than the whole of 2017.
The US Committee on Energy & Commerce gathered in Capitol Hill today (Wednesday March 6) to discuss the ‘growing public health threat’ of measles outbreaks in America and cited ‘vaccine hesitancy’ and the rise of misinformation as one of the prime factors behind the ugly resurgence.
You can read the full petition online. UNILAD has contacted Twitter and Facebook for comment and await reply at the time of writing.
If you know of a narrative you’d like to change, share it with UNILAD via [email protected]