Web 2.0 and the online anti-vaccination crusade

Posted: Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Anti-vaccination communities are not new, but online communities have made it easier for immunization opponents to band together. They've also more difficult for people, whether they support or oppose immunizations, to assess the credibility of sources.

These are some of the findings of Anna Kata, an anthropologist with McMaster Unversity in Hamilton. Her paper reviews research into the effect of viewing anti-vaccination websites on decisions to vaccinate and belief in vaccination, and also deconstructs the tactics used by anti-vaccination groups and individuals to attempt to discredit immunizations.

Kata describes the state of the Internet as "Web 2.0," which refers to the user-generated content that proliferates online. This includes blogs, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, and personal websites. The Internet gives everyone a voice who wants to speak up (and buy a domain name), and does not discriminate between sources. Thus it's just as easy for someone who searches "immunization" to find an unsubstantiated, conspiracy theory-driven personal blog as it is for them to find the World Health Organization site.

Along with the growth of user-generated content, significant changes have also been taking place in the doctor-patient relationship. Some of these changes include "concerns about values, prioritizing risk over benefit, and promoting the well-informed patient" (1714). This last point leads to patients who are what health care providers describe as "graduates of Google University": individuals who think they are as knowledgable (or more) than their health care provider, when it comes to matters of their own health. Kata's paper lists several sobering statistics about "well-informed patients": 80% of Internet users look for medical information on the web; 70% of those say what they find online influences their health decisions. 16% of people who search for medical information online search specifically for information about vaccines, and what they are likely to find-- more than 50% of the time, according to Kata's paper-- is anti-vaccination.

Kata's research doesn't offer solutions to anti-vaccination websites; just an analysis of their development and power. They use emotional appeals, parent testimonials, skillful packaging and delivery, and extensive databases of false, misleading or misrepresented content to instill fear about immunizations. She defines and describes seven kinds of anti-vaccination appeal, which are well-summarized on the blog Science-Based Pharmacy.

Our question for you: How should immunization-supporters best counter these tactics? What can the average community member do, and what can a health care provider such as a nurse, doctor or pharmacist do? Is the answer regulation, improved media literacy, or something else altogether? Will doubt about immunizations continue to grow, despite the continuing absence of scientific support? Discuss all these questions and more over at the I Have Immunity Facebook Page!

Reference: Kata, A. A postmodern Pandora's box: Anti-vaccination misinformation on the internet. Vaccine. 2010; 28:1709-1716. Permalink.