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If an anti-vaxxer shouts in the woods, and no one's around to hear it, did they really make a sound?

Social media is arming extremists with a megaphone

Whoever you are reading this post, I am 99% sure you are a sensible person. Asides from the fact that I want to flatter my readers, statistically speaking you are unlikely to be an idiot. Good for you. And me. Good for everyone. When you express your views and opinions there is a reasonable chance that they are at least partially thought through and offer something to the listener.

That is of course not always the case. Sometimes we hear, read or watch things we wish we hadn't. Drivel. Nonsense. #bullshit. We have all come across it surfing the web for news we find interesting. Nowadays it is hard to avoid. Highly motivated organisations and people are able to high jack the public narrative with a few tappy taps of their fingers.

Social media is giving these entities the opportunity to express their views to mass audiences. That is problematic. Extremists with an axe to grind have a louder voice than the apathetic mass.

Extremists can't be reasoned with using logical arguments

Anti-vaxxers are one high-profile recent example with their message shouted from the rooftops on websites, TV and public rallies. "Pro-plague" they are called. Unfortunately, social media is arming these people with a megaphone. It is all too easy to find like-minded people and spread misconceptions internet-wide. Social media acts as an echo chamber, giving us a platform to find like-minded people who reinforce our views. This dynamic contradicts the reality that these people actually hold an isolated viewpoint.

Anti-vaxxer standing alone in a forest having their views validated by their echo chamber

Imagine for a second arguing with an anti-vaxxer. Even in your imagination did you convince them? No? Me either. Arguing with someone will typically entrench their views. Don't bother. Let's be clear, I would never propose removing an individual's right to express their point of view. That is the price of freedom. It is hard to know what reasonably be done.

One option is to leave them be, which is to say, ignore them in so far as you can. Though of course then their views aren't challenged. The mainstream articles (this one included), speeches, tv shows etc that attack anti-vaxxers provide some level of promotion and reinforcement for their views. As an anti-vaxxer, you could start to feel you are part of the rebellion. Fighting the good fight against a medical conspiracy. A pioneer battling a tide of ignorance. Why oh why can't people see the truth? What to do for all the poor vaccinated souls? Well, find allies and debunk their evidence of course. Do more research into why it is bad to vaccinate. It's a vicious cycle. Best to just leave them alone.

Online tools allow anti-vaxxers to amplify their voice, but they are actually quite isolated. Despite their isolation, they pose a health risk to vaccine non-responders

It is important to remember that anti-vaxxers really are swimming against the tide. Before the internet and social media people with whacky views had trouble finding allies and gaining momentum. Nowadays anyone can find anybody for anything. You just need to find the right online clique. In reality, however, anti-vaxxers represent a very small number of people. Herd immunity wouldn't exist if they didn't. They are actually somewhat isolated. That isolation is made worse if they can't send their kids to school. Being isolated from a clique based on your views is tough. That friction can encourage a change of views.

Ultimately, the education system needs to pick up the slack. This one really goes without saying. Teaching science is critical. Unfortunately, it is hard to combat the teaching of the parents. Nevertheless, kids need to be armed with the right information on issues like vaccination. When they are able, with any luck, they will reject their parent's views and make the right choice for themselves.

No one is rooting for whooping cough, measles and polio to make a big come back. Increasingly though this is a possibility with the number of people remaining unvaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy is now rated as one of the top ten threats to global health. Developing messaging and systems to ensure everyone who can get vaccinated is vaccinated is critical. Of course, what makes the anti-vax movement so frustrating is the existence of vaccine non-responders whose health is compromised by those who do not vaccinate. Herd immunity is essential to keep these people safe. People should only be remaining unvaccinated in special circumstances.

Perhaps one option is to create a bigger conspiracy for anti-vaxxers to latch onto instead. But remember, this blog was for you, the sensible reader.


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