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Can Facebook give you measles?

Can Facebook give you measles?

If you’ve ever researched a medical issue online, it can feel like a black hole: the more reading you do, the more overwhelmed you become.

Clicking from one website to the next, panic rising in your throat as you try to assess whether the information is credible or not, is a horrible experience.

This is particularly true for vaccines research online, where anti-vax voices have reached fever pitch recently. There are hundreds of websites, influencers, crowdfunds and committees focused on spreading pseudoscience and eroding public faith in vaccination.

Typing something like: “can vaccines cause SIDs?” into a search engine is like going down a nightmare rabbit hole full of tragedies and conspiracies involving sudden infant death syndrome and vaccines. Dizzyingly, you can find yourself weighing advice from ‘experts’ who are diametrically opposed.

For someone who is a new parent facing a series of vaccinations for their infant, I can understand why some parents panic and opt for what might seem like the safest option: refusing vaccines altogether.

 

What vaccines myths are being shared?

Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. This stemmed from a single, debunked 1998 study, which the Lancet retracted; the doctor who wrote it was struck off the UK medical register for publishing fraudulent research.

Other common, debunked beliefs are that:

  • Vaccines work by injecting a small amount of the disease into the body, thereby making you ill with that infection.
  • Vaccines contain harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde or mercury.
  • Alternatives to vaccines, including “natural” remedies such as Vitamin C, have better capability to protect against diseases.
  • Giving children multiple vaccines at the same time will overwhelm their immune systems and cause them harm.
  • Vaccine-preventable diseases have been eradicated and vaccines only exist so that pharmaceutical companies can make money.

The World Health Organisation has published an excellent, more complete Q&A on immunisation and vaccine safety.

“An emotional contagion, digitally enabled”

Social media plays a huge role in spreading hesitancy about vaccines. Writing for Nature, Heidi J Larson called this deluge of conflicting and manipulated information on social media a threat to global health.

The American Medical Association has warned social-media giants, including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube about the role they play in helping to amplify anti-vax propaganda and confuse parents. Ironically, measles – a disease eradicated from the US in 2000 – has now been reported at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.

Dr. Matthew Zahn, a liaison representative to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recently told CNN: “This anti-vaccine issue has been driven by social media and will continue to be driven by social media.”

Sites like Facebook provide a place where many people who share the same opinion can easily gather and organise campaigns to spread their message.

Along with open Facebook pages, anti-vaxxers also have closed Facebook groups where they plan campaigns to silence and intimidate pro-vaccine voices. Tellingly, GoFundMe has banned campaigns that raise money to promote anti-vax content.

It is striking how vicious and emotional the debate about vaccines safety has become. Mass abuse of pro-vaccination people has made them afraid to speak out in support of vaccines. The personal attacks and doxxing of those in the scientific community who promote vaccination is egregious.

Anti-vaxxers also use social media ads to target vulnerable parents, amplify doubt and fuel hesitancy. One of their methods is to claim that they’re “pro safe-vaccines” rather than “anti-vaccine”, making them sound less extreme.

A 2010 study found that merely viewing an anti-vaccine website for 5 to 10 minutes increased perceptions of vaccination risks and decreased perceptions of the risks of vaccine omission.

There’s an ongoing debate about how responsible search engines and social media should be for enabling vaccines hesitancy. As with similar debates in politics or gun violence in schools, it revolves around the right of free speech. The bottom line is that sites like Facebook operate on the basis that there’s no moderation or censorship, so it goes against their interests to manage or influence people’s opinions.

However accountable these sites are (or aren’t) for anti-vaccine rhetoric, it’s clear that we need better ways to assess the validity of this type of information.

Overwhelmed and terrified

The conversation has devolved into mud-slinging, fuelled by anger, fear and tragedy. Diagnoses of autism or SIDs are not yet fully understood by science, so parents are sometimes left searching for reasons.

Both sides of the debate are convinced that their opinions are 100% correct and neither will concede any ground. Children’s health is a highly emotional topic, not a logical one, so people’s beliefs are strongly held. No matter how many facts, perspectives or truths you share, it won’t change their minds.

Vaccine supporters might think it’s madness not to vaccinate, but many parents are caught in the middle; they’re overwhelmed and terrified of putting their children at risk.

Is this an opportunity to join their conversation and acknowledge their fears without trying to silence them?

If vaccines deniers are influencing people who are hesitant about vaccines, the same open forums can be used to spread accurate information on the value of vaccines.

Are we answering the wrong questions?

*screenshot showing Google UK autocomplete queries, 28 April ‘19

Looking at the most popular search engine queries related to vaccines in the past year, several show specific areas of concern:

  • vaccines autism
  • vaccines cause autism
  • do vaccines cause sids
  • measles outbreak
  • deaths from vaccines
  • spacing out vaccines

*data taken from Google Trends, global queries, April ‘18 – April ‘19

What if we could use Google to acknowledge these concerns, show that we’re listening to them and appeal to their emotional reasoning?

Using PPC to bid on a selection of vaccines queries, we can use Google’s paid listings to offer an alternative to fake news:

Or a safer question to ask:

Or a warning that anti-vax beliefs can have real-world consequences:

Mass vaccination is one of the world’s most incredible medical successes, and our ultimate goal is the same: we want to protect our children. Not just some children, but all of them. Vaccines Europe has pledged to continue fighting against disease, since medical breakthroughs can only be made if people are committed to innovating in vaccines. In this same vein, the industry must commit to supporting vaccines R&D with communications strategies which answer the right questions and demonstrate the future good that can be done through immunisation programmes which protect our hard-won herd immunity.

We feel strongly that communications of this kind can protect public health. Interested in carrying on this conversation? We’d be keen to hear your thoughts on how the pharma and healthcare industry should tackle this global issue. Get in touch today.

Caitlin Mackie

Caitlin Mackie

Senior Planner

Caitlin is a cross-channel digital strategist with roots in SEO and analytics. She’s a problem solver, data analyst, grammar nut, learner, writer, storyteller, creative thinker and habitual devil's advocate.

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