Online anti-vax efforts prove daunting public health challenge

“We found people uploading personal stories about how their child cried after getting vaccines,” Yiannakoulias told CIDRAP News. “It was user-generated videos, very grassroots, and the messaging would maybe contain some specific language, like ‘mercury,’ and then go into an anecdote.”

While YouTube may be fueled by individuals, some efforts are more systematic. Beth Hoffman, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, recently published work (also in Vaccine) examining how anti-vaccine groups attacked physicians online, via Yelp reviews and Facebook posts in what she called a coordinated attack.

Hoffman and colleagues looked at the anti-vaccine posts that followed after KidsPlus Pediatrics, a Pittsburgh-based physician group posted a video on its Facebook page promoting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine as an anti-cancer tool.

“We saw 800 people comment on these posts in 8 days, with people from 36 states and eight countries,” Hoffman said. “That speaks to an integrated group of people.”

And the anti-vaccine people, in this case, relied on a veneer of scientific language to legitimize their attacks on the physician group.

“A lot of posts linked to YouTube videos and articles by Andrew Wakefield, or physicians or nurses who are against vaccination,” Hoffman said. Wakefield, the famously discredited British physician, was the first to incorrectly link vaccines to autism in 1998.

Hoffman said her group is now looking at how the information gleaned from the Facebook attack could be used to help craft counter anti-vaccine messages online.

Health departments try to engage
Greg Nordlund, the social media coordinator at the Washington State Department of Health, tracked online messaging, including anti-vaccine statements, during the state’s recent measles outbreak.

“Anytime we put up a vaccine post, we get a lot of pushback from people online,” Nordlund said. And while he did say that the outbreak, which included a state of emergency declaration, did inspire more pro-vaccine posts than normal, the barrage of negative comments is constant.

“We try to answer questions in comments, and be judicious about when and what we do, but we’re fighting a battle against a wave of negative comments at any time,” said Nordlund.

For Hotez, the anti-vaccine sentiment seen online will likely only get worse before it gets better. That’s largely because, as Nordlund also acknowledged, a pro-vaccine online presence is dwarfed by anti-vaccine messages.

“We have not had a pro-vaccine entity system in place in well over a decade,” said Hotez, who recently authored a book about his adult daughter called Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism. “If parents go looking for pro-vaccine information online, what do they have? The CDC website?”