The anti-vaccination movement is deadly.
According to the charity Unicef, more than half a million UK children were not vaccinated against measles, a highly dangerous but preventable disease, between 2010 and 2017 – which is part of a terrifying global trend.
When less than 95 per cent of a population are vaccinated, herd immunity is weakened, putting people who cant have the vaccine – babies, the elderly, those with health conditions – at risk. Parents who choose not to vaccinate are not only potentially harming their own children, but the rest of society.
In the first three months of 2019, worldwide cases of measles were up 300 per cent on the year before. Once considered virtually wiped out, measles can not only cause brain damage, but is sometimes fatal.
Anxiety about vaccinations is as old as this medical miracle itself. But the measles hysteria is primarily the tragic consequence of Andrew Wakefields debunked 1998 claim that there was a link between the vaccine and autism.
His so-called “research” has been proven utterly false, and Wakefield was struck off the medical register for misconduct. Nonetheless, a decade after he was exposed as a fraud, the “anti-vax” movement continues to gain momentum. It has, to coin a phrase, gone viral.
Social media is not the cause of this conspiracy theory, but it has breathed new life into it. Posts and videos by anti-vax activists rack up millions of views on mainstream sites like Youtube and Facebook, targeting anxious parents.
We know how these platforms work: to keep users clicking, algorithms direct them to the content they will find most compelling – which has enabled anti-vaxxers to hoover up vast followings of people most susceptible to their toxic lies.
The response has been to demand action from the tech companies. NHS chief Simon Stevens called this week for a “zero tolerance” policy by social media platforms towards anti-vax content, and health secretary Matt Hancock (who, as the former digital secretary, knows his way around this sphere) echoed him.
They are almost certainly right, but to adopt a whack-a-mole approach to harmful content misses recognising the wider question of why these views proliferate in the face of page after page of legitimate, evidence-based, verifiable science.
When Michael Gove said in 2016 that people “have had enough of experts”, he wasnt talking about vaccines, but about Brexit, and the concerns of “experts” about risks to the economy. But he inadvertently hit on something much wider.
The world wide web, which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last month, opened up a world of knowledge, breaking down the barriers to those who wanted to both access and provide information, and connecting like-minded individuals, however obscure their views.
It gave a voice to minority groups long kept out of the public arena, questioning the infallibility of politicians and elites and enabling alternative perspectives to be heard.
The problem is that not all perspectives are created equal.
We know, intuitively, to place more credibility on a teacher who demonstrates that two plus two equals four than a child who believes it is five, on an engineer who warns that a building isnt safe than a teenager who insists that it is, on a doctor with a decade of medical training recommending a treatment than a patient going on gut instinct.
Or, at least, we used to.
The internet allowed us to challenge the experts, but at some point healthy scepticism of authority morphed into knee-jerk hostility to people who understand things we dont.
Maybe we should blame the financial crisis – a catastrophic risk missed by virtually every government and economic institution – or maybe this is the inevitable result of a new, filterless method of communication that allows sensationalist falsehoods to spreRead More – Source