New York legislators advanced a bill June 13 that would end exemptions from vaccinations based on religious beliefs. The bill passed by a 36-26 margin while protesters shouted their objections in the Capitol hallway. For now, families can only avoid vaccinations for medical reasons.
The legislative action came in response to a public health crisis — a national outbreak of measles, which, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has reached 1,022 reported cases (588 in New York), the highest number in 27 years of a childhood infection that can usually be avoided with a widely available vaccine.
Public health and medical authorities have been urging parents to vaccinate their children to prevent the illness, but they say mistrust of vaccines has blocked their public information efforts.
In highly vaccinated populations, outbreaks either don’t happen or are very small, the CDC said in a bulletin issued April 24. But in an under-vaccinated community, the spread of measles becomes difficult to control.
Fortunately, the number of cases reported in our area has remained small and local health care experts can provide clear, straightforward information about vaccines and the importance of parents getting children vaccinated.
And yet, some doctors find themselves battling “anti-vaxxer” sentiment based on false scientific information.
The CDC identified this problem head-on in its April 24 bulletin. “A significant factor contributing to the outbreaks in New York is misinformation in the communities about the safety of the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine. Some organizations are deliberately targeting these communities with inaccurate and misleading information about vaccines,” it stated.
It’s no secret the internet and social media make it easy for anyone to share bad information, innocently or not. Last year 12 Russian government agents were indicted and charged for a far-reaching election interference campaign using fake Facebook accounts, online ads and other everyday digital tools. That told us all we need to know about the art of manipulation in the age of the internet.
So, on the one hand, we have organized efforts undermining confidence in safe vaccines, putting thousands of children at risk. And on the other, we have foreign bad actors sowing divisions to destabilize our democratic elections. Sometimes these twin malevolent forces combine in a Frankenstein-like mutation.
Heidi Larsen runs an international public education effort called the Vaccine Confidence Project. In an essay on nature.com at the start of the flu season last October, she warned, “The deluge of conflicting information, misinformation and manipulated information on social media should be recognized as a global public-health threat.” She cited CDC statistics showing that in the U.S. the prior winter, of the 183 children whose deaths were confirmed as flu-related, 80% had not been vaccinated that season.
“I predict that the next major outbreak — whether of a highly fatal strain of influenza or something else — will not be due to a lack of preventive technologies. Instead, emotional contagion, digitally enabled, could erode trust in vaccines so much as to render them moot,” she concluded.
Among the different types of players to blame for this dangerous misinformation epidemic, she said, are those pushing bad science, charlatans willing to spread falsehoods for financial gain, and “super-spreaders” who use social media to push dubious claims to like-minded skeptics.
She also pointed to “those who see anti-vaccine debates as a political opportunity, a wedge with which to polarize society. Multiple reports this year found that Russian trolls and bots used emotional, angry language to spread misinformation and exacerbate the divisions between those for and against vaccines.”
So there it is: a perfect storm of misinformation designed to both exploit cultural fault-lines and threaten public health.
On June 6, the day the CDC announced that measles cases topped the 1,000-mark, the results of an important study were released by the Pew Research Center. In a survey of 6,000-plus adults conducted in February and March, more adults viewed made-up news as a problem for the country than identify terrorism, immigration, racism and sexism that way.
You read that correctly. Welcome to the age of information deliberately created to mislead and cause confusion about basic facts.
The study presents data on how Americans see the problem, whom they are likely to blame for it, how opinions divide along partisan lines and who might be able to fix it (spoiler alert: journalists were seen as the best hope for devising a possible solution).
It offers a fascinating, troubling and timely glimpse into what continues to be a major problem, not just for citizens of our country, but for those around the world. You can access the survey findings at journalism.org.
Welcome to the age of misinformation.