Anti-vaxxer movement using tried and true methods to instil fear and doubt
They congregate on social media, challenging facts and muddying evidence, until everything comes with a question mark.
The methods are tried and true: joining vulnerable groups where the uncertain look for validation and guidance and gradually taking over with the incessant use of words such as “choice”, “alternative” and “education”; lobbying those in power with emotive and personal stories; and mobilising against any perceived threat by attacking and removing the questioners while shaming the non-believers.
‘s anti-vaccine movement, known as anti-vaxxers, has been very effective in spreading their scientifically debunked messages. Harvesting the power and reach of the internet, they use guerrilla social media techniques to skew what the medical community does not even consider a debate.
But the anti-vaxxer movement, led in by crusaders such as Meryl Dorey, who started the n Vaccination-Sceptics Network, Tasha David, who has picked up the mantle, Narelle Chenery, a past president of the Vaccine Information Service, and a range of other alternative health providers, began waging a war before the science and medical communities even realised there was a battle.
Most recently, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson brought the anti-vaxxer cause into the mainstream, raising discredited research linking vaccines to autism. Her interview on Sunday was not the first time Senator Hanson had spruiked the anti-vaccination message, having previously raised it in interviews in January last year.
Facing almost universal condemnation from politicians, the medical and scientific communities, and parents who had lost children to vaccine-preventable diseases, Senator Hanson later backtracked and said she was only expressing her own personal views.
But Bronwyn Harman, a researcher at Edith Cowan University who studies the anti-vaccination movement, recognised the language Senator Hanson used, particularly when she likened the “No Jab, No Pay” policy – which links family benefit payments to vaccinations – to “government blackmail”. The policy was introduced at the beginning of 2016 and has led to an increase in childhood vaccination rates.
When Dr Harman heard the One Nation leader’s comments about vaccination, the phrase “blackmail” leapt out as one of the key phrases used by people within the anti-vaccination movement.
“That’s not a coincidence of language at all,” Dr Harman said.
The anti-vaccination movement seized on the No Jab, No Pay policy last year, switching the language it used to highlight the lack of choice it offered parents. Where once health risks were raised as the main reason for concern, now freedom of choice is held up as the reason for the movement.
The n Vaccination-Sceptics Network, which the n Competition and Consumer Commission forced to add “sceptics” to its name, promotes itself as pro-choice. So does the Vaccine Information Service, which uses government logos on its website, while pushing an anti-vaccine agenda labelled “informing choice”.
Both sites pop up as one of the top options, along with Judy Wilyman’s website Vaccination’s Decisions, after a Google search of ” vaccines”. Harnessing search engine optimisation is another weapon in the anti-vaxxer arsenal, along with targeting mother’s groups and alternative health practitioners.
It is also incredibly organised and can quickly mobilise against a particular target. Talkback stations which have aired stories or discussions about the issue report an influx of subsequent calls from people questioning vaccinations, while politicians and public figures, including bereaved parents whose child died of a vaccine-preventable disease and who speak out on the importance of immunisation, have also reported falling foul of the anti-vaccination movement.
Most of the work is conducted within closed Facebook groups, where non-believers are rooted out and expelled, in an effort to protect the movement.
The names of journalists and bloggers who question the work of the movement, or disparage it, are shared on websites and among followers, as people to avoid.
The AVN offers a “buddy service”, where believers are paired with parents attending doctor appointments, “so you don’t get bullied into vaccinating against your will”. It has also joined forces with international groups, where the movement has gained greater traction and actively lobbies politicians.
“The anti-vaxxer cause have knocked on most politicians’ doors,” said Peta Credin, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff. “And most politicians have seen through it and dealt with it with medical fact.”
Professor Brian Owler, a former president of the n Medical Association and a board member of Autism Awareness , said the consequences of not countering claims put forward by the anti-vaccination movement are too dangerous.
“You’ve only got to see the stuff on the internet to know this is the stuff of conspiracy theories. It’s really dangerous if we allow this stuff to go unchallenged. You have to educate every new group of parents. It’s a constant message that needs to come out.”
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