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Can Memes Finally Win the Vaccine War for Science?

Anti-vaxxers won't be persuaded by ironclad studies — so it's time for a different approach

When the history of the early 21st century is written — if it is written, I should say — it will be a history of dormant and fringe reactionary movements given new life by tech platforms that failed to curb the spread of misinformation. YouTube’s utterly fucked algorithm has helped everyone from flat-earthers to pedophiles; Twitter bots deliver pro-gun propaganda in the wake of mass shootings. Facebook, the worst of the bunch, promotes hate speech, facilitates election interference and genocide, and provides safe harbor for a group that even the United Nations has deemed cause for concern: anti-vaxxers.

Hundreds of people in the United States (and many more around the globe) are now suffering from measles, an infectious, sometimes fatal disease that had been eliminated from the Americas in 2016. Outbreaks in Washington, Oregon, Texas and New York appear to be fueled by the prevalence of non-vaccinated children in the affected communities. It’s bad enough that the children of anti-vaxxer parents are seeking immunizations on their own, asking internet strangers for medical guidance. It often takes their entire family getting sick for these parents to admit that they were misled.

What has them so convinced they’re right? Toxic memes and images that make vaccinations look like government overreach, a Big Pharma scam or just plain dangerous. It doesn’t matter that there’s no peer-reviewed science to back up their outlandish claims — that vaccines are linked to autism, for instance — because expert analysis of comprehensive health data isn’t what goes viral in the first place. What trends are the fear-mongering, eye-catching posts that other gullible folks can share.

This tactic is as old as national vaccine programs, which began in the mid-1800s. In a fascinating look at the origins of anti-vaxxer sentiment, writer and researcher Alex Green wrote that protests of this era reflected the lower classes’ mistrust of government institutions and anger over what they saw as encroachment on their bodily autonomy. They, too, disseminated visual propaganda — pamphlets, editorial cartoons, etc. Victorian England in particular was a hotbed for this style of graphic alarmism, from which we can draw a fairly straight line to the vaccine truther materials of today.

Generations later, we’ve witnessed the overwhelming efficacy of vaccines as preventative medicine, and most of us now accept them as a common good. Which means the anti-vaxxers of this moment are a somewhat different breed — and fighting a different battle. They are now more likely to be affluent, white and have a college degree, while poorer states have higher vaccine compliance. Their paranoid convictions come in an elitist package: Having “educated” themselves on the phantom risks of vaccines, they’ve decided they see through some nefarious plot and know better than the doctors. Keeping your child unvaccinated has become associated with aspirational “clean” lifestyles, including veganism. It’s as if these parents (who are probably vaccinated, by the way) have led such an privileged, untroubled existence that they cannot conceive of their offspring’s vulnerability — and regard other kids as tainted:

They are also, like pesky “debate me” dudes, at pains to demonstrate superior logic:

Finally, they strive for the moral high ground by emphasizing their power of “choice”:

Medical professionals and pro-vaccine parents have tried for years to penetrate this ignorance with the relevant facts, explaining concepts like herd immunity, which protects people who cannot receive vaccines, and patiently debunking myths of vaccine harm. Yet, Newton’s third law of motion being what it is, we were bound to get an equal and opposite reaction to the memes. As anti-vaxxer hot spots give rise to contagious infection, jokes about stubborn refusals to protect kids from vintage illness are exploding. Feeding on the smug though slightly unhinged intensity of the anti-vaxx content, some of these memes turn downright vicious. They’re not simple reminders that diseases like the measles may be more severe than a weeklong rash; they escalate to body horror, plagues and death, all but accusing anti-vaxxers of murder.

These counterpunches come with baggage. Writing for Salon, Keith A. Spencer takes issue with the “unsubtle sexism” of targeting the anti-vaxx mom archetype while leaving complicit dads out of it. (The issue may be that women are more vocal on the topic; there are, to be sure, plenty of anti-vaxx dads.) Alex Green, in his historical survey of this discourse, concludes that the snarky and occasionally brutal pro-vaxx memes will only deepen a stalemate and accusations of received bias on both sides. He advocates for “robust evidence” and an “empathetic approach” in countering anti-vaxx ideology, not “personal attacks and insults.” But one has to wonder: Where has that gotten us so far?

The anti-vaxx set is defined by its failure of empathy — by flat denials of opposite experience and indifference to communal health. Above all, they are convinced, as surely as climate change skeptics, that their families are beyond the reach of environmental and biological reality. Perversely, they even choose to interpret preventable childhood diseases as a “healthy” part of human development. How can you change that sort of mind? A rude awakening is very much in order, and short of a full-blown epidemic, perhaps harping on the lifelong or sometimes fatal consequences of non-vaccination is exactly what the doctor ordered. Because anti-vaxxers are so attuned to the downsides of a few shots, they’re blinded to those potential outcomes. These memes, harsh as they are, may redirect the focus of an attritional debate.

To take a more cynical view: You aren’t going to convert anti-vaxxers with ironclad stats and studies, as this is not their language. They speak in pseudoscience, half-baked conspiracy theories and online ephemera that dumbs things down immeasurably.

If this is how they were radicalized, it could also be how they’re deprogrammed. If anti-vaxxers are assured of their higher intelligence and understanding, then they must be shaken by the gathering chorus decrying their stupidity. And let’s not forget how important it is to keep anti-vaxxers from gaining new recruits by our polite silence or meek protests. Operating on the principle of vaccines themselves: You inoculate the populace with a weakened form of the microbe that you aim to protect them from.