Cheery-picking and False Credibility: A Commentary on the Anti-Vaxxer Media Strategy.

Propaganda Image Used by Anti-Vaccine Advocate

couple of days ago, I got into an argument online with an anti-vaccination advocate. I know, why do I even bother with that dumpster fire of a subject? Anti-vaxxers tend to lie, misrepresent sources, and they always have that fickle tendency to say they don’t trust the government, yet they always improperly cite government studies. They are hardly worthy of debating. Nonetheless, I think it is worth sharing my experience with this particular anti-vaxxer as it is remarkably indicative of their tactics as propagandists. If those tactics are left unchecked, they could scare people into making decisions that they’ll end up regretting.

Yesterday I was browsing Facebook; God only knows why, when I came across a post about the amount of money given out for vaccine injuries. In the post, it stated “ research vaccines” and that $4.1 billion had been awarded to victims of vaccine injury by May of 2019. The poster didn’t say any talking points, and he didn’t provide any bold statements about the pharmaceutical industry being corrupt, he just told people to research vaccines. He offered an interesting bit of information, right? Alas, such honesty is lost on anti-vaxxers.

For anyone who has ever been watching or researching anti-vaxxers online, this is a massive red flag. While I am far from a researcher myself, I do know omissions when I see them, and I began to feel uneasy with the post, so I asked the poster to provide his source to me, which led to the following conversation ensuing.

The name of the original poster has been removed to avoid potential doxxing.

To my surprise and relief, it was a reliable government source, the Health and Human Services Administration, to be exact. While the data provided in his post was, in fact, correct, our dear poster in question had failed to state some essential details that would change the narrative he was attempting to imply. Presumably, he wanted people to think that $4.1 billion being awarded to vaccine-injured patients would scare people and would counter the idea that vaccines are safe. That’s a lot of money, and big pharma tells us vaccines are safe, all the while giving out so much money! Unfortunately, I had way too much time on my hands, and I read the report. What I found was somewhat unusual, but made me trust the anti-vaxxer less. In the second paragraph of the paper, it makes a statement that our dear poster had omitted entirely from his vainglorious Facebook diatribe. In the article, the authors are very clear to state that the money given doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused the injury in question.

The paper not only went on to make it crystal clear that none of the cases conclude whether or not the vaccines harmed anybody in any capacity, but it also states that the majority of cases were dismissed. Approximately 70 percent of all compensation awarded is through a negotiated settlement. By only showing how much money was being given out by the government, this person was implying that vaccines were obscenely unsafe rather than the more clear picture that our reporting system is remarkably casual about giving money away. I could go on and on about how more than fifty percent of all reported cases between 1998–2019 were dismissed or about how angry I was at being lied to, but that does nothing for myself or the reader.

Total Vaccine Injury Reports (Bottom Center) and Total Dismissals (Bottom Right).

What I think is more important is how a government and scholarly source can lend itself to a false narrative. By pointing to the HRSA, this anti-vaxxer could have easily said: “ I have government sources on my side,” cited the link and been done with it. Would most people bother reading a scholarly paper? Probably not as 59 percent of all links shared online won’t be opened, merely shared. What most people do is they see a headline or a link, and they say: “That sounds about right.” Not much else happens, but underlying this laziness is a dangerous possibility for truth and with it, an opportunity for anti-vaxxers. Anti-vaxxers and many conspiracy theorists hate the government and love to claim that the government is unreliable. And yet, their sites don’t have anywhere near the credibility that other sources do, even government sources. This creates a problem for these bad actors, whose sole purpose in this “debate” is not to prove they are right but to be right for pride’s sake. So instead of saying: “ Your sources are shills!” they change tactics entirely.

The anti-vaxxer won’t rant or rave, but they will simply put some cheery-picked data in front of you and let the fear or self-doubt in your mind do the rest. It is the classic: “ What do you think of this?” approach that I have come to expect from lazy propagandists all over the internet, but with vaccines, it is different. The World Health Organization has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the ten threats to global health as measles cases have risen by 30% worldwide. In part, because of the refusal by some members of the global community to vaccinate.

It is always important to question your government and authority figures, but it is just as important to challenge people who claim to be on your side and use your distrust of government to coax you into their ranks. The government is nothing more than a group of people working authoritatively to achieve a common goal. They may not always be in your interest, but other times, but this is equally as true for activists like this poster. Anti-vaxxers are remarkably effective in their endeavor to spread misinformation, especially on Facebook. An example of this would be the Facebook group “A Voice for Choice,” which has worked to undermine vaccination repeatedly. By January of 2017, the group had nearly four thousand people liking its page. These people are loud, and they are confident in their position regardless of their disingenuous use of information. As such, it is of the utmost importance to call these propagandists out and to show how they misinform people at the expense of the general welfare.

If Facebook and other sites won’t take sufficient action against these conspiracy-minded propagandists, then it is up to the public to question and poke holes in the thin veil that they call “truth.” Unless we do something about this, people who can’t get vaccinated will get hurt, all because of some lies spread by self-righteous activists on social media.

Conor is a writer on progressivism, politics and history. Sign up for the newsletter, here:

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