New media, old messages: Why anti-vaccine arguments haven’t changed in 100 years

TORONTO — “Nature heals – not the doctors.”

While this might sound like something shared on the internet by anti-vaccination supporters today, these words were actually printed in a 100-year-old pamphlet by the People’s Anti-Vaccination and Medical Freedom League of British Columbia.

The league’s secretary treasurer and activist Ada Muir penned the pamphlet, writing in opposition of the mandatory vaccination of schoolchildren during a smallpox outbreak at the time. The league argued that every person has the right to bodily autonomy and therefore “to select their own system of healing.”

“What fascinated me when I found this pamphlet and I’m reading through it, is how similar some of the arguments of the anti-vaccination movement in the 1920s were to the arguments of anti-vaxxers in the early 2020s,” said Forrest Pass, a curator for Library and Archives Canada, in a phone interview.

He points to recurring themes such as a general mistrust of medical experts as well as concerns over alleged side effects. Muir described the smallpox vaccine as a cause of syphilis, for example, but this was based on inaccurate medical reports. The pamphlet also includes anecdotal evidence from one family who developed severe throat infections after being treated for diphtheria.

These types of stories tend to be used because they help create a more personal narrative, said Pass. Putting a face to the argument creates an emotional connection that allows it to have a much greater impact.

“It’s easy to understand a concrete anecdotal illustration of someone who appears to have suffered from a side effect,” said Pass. “It’s much harder to make a compelling case about statistical data.”

But even with these tactics, the league’s attempt at encouraging anti-vaccination sentiment was not successful. Within just six months of the smallpox outbreak in 1920, more than 80 per cent of schoolchildren in B.C. had been vaccinated. By the following year, provincial public health officials reported a 75-per-cent decrease in the number of smallpox cases.

Pass explains there was a clear correlation between vaccination and managing the outbreak. While anti-vaccination sentiment may not have picked up steam in this case, movements have been persistent ever since, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just last month, an anti-vaccine demonstration was held outside a pop-up COVID-19 clinic in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, where three people were arrested. Another protest in Prince George, B.C. saw about 200 demonstrators rallying against vaccination, while the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia recently filed a court injunction calling for an end to anti-vaccine demonstrations in the province. A study conducted by Abacus Data in April discovered that out of almost 2,000 Canadian adults, 28 per cent displayed some level of hesitancy towards the COVID-19 vaccine, while eight per cent said they would never take the vaccine.

“The anti-vaxxers have their moments when they come back into the public limelight,” Heather MacDougall, professor emerita at the University of Waterloo specializing in health-care history, said in a phone interview. “And clearly, they’re in one of those moments right now.”

SAME MESSAGES, DIFFERENT METHODS

Past or present, Pass notes that anti-vaccination supporters typically rely on different forms of media to spread their messages – he describes pamphlets as the Twitter accounts of the early 20th century, for example. Not only are both relatively cheap to produce, but there’s also little moderation in terms of what’s published.

The Center for Countering Digital Hateis a non-profit organization studying the spread of COVID-19 misinformation online, with offices in London and Washington, D.C. According to its founder and CEO Imran Ahmed, anti-vaxxer groups are some of the most advanced users of social media and modern communication platforms today. A recent report by the CCDH found these groups have more than 60 million followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

“Social media has given these people an unprecedented megaphone to access billions of people and to benefit from algorithmic amplification – it’s kind of a dream come true,” said Ahmed in a phone interview.

What makes today’s anti-vaccination movement especially unique is that supporters are easily able to make money from the content they share, said Ahmed. He points to social media users selling supplements they claim will protect against COVID-19, as well as access to websites and books with special knowledge on the virus. Ahmed’s organization estimates that the anti-vaxx industry could be worth up to $1.1 billion in annual revenue to social media platforms.

“Social media has allowed the creation of a business model in which the undermining of faith in these vital therapies is actually monetizable,” he said. “This is the development of a new industry of people who have monetized vaccine hesitancy.”

The spread of COVID-19 misinformation on social media continues to be a huge concern, explains Ahmed. An experiment conducted by the CCDH earlier this year revealed that out of more than 800 COVID-related social media posts reported for violating site policies around misinformation, just 12 per cent were marked with warnings or completely taken down.

“If there are no consequences for the spread of misinformation that might kill people, then they’ll keep doing it,” said Ahmed.

FIGHTING MISINFORMATION IN THE ERA OF COVID

Combatting misinformation is tough but especially important during a pandemic, said MacDougall. Another strategy for protecting against COVID-19 misinformation is seeking out peer support. One resource she points to is I Boost Immunity, a non-profit health initiative created by the Public Health Association of British Columbia. The site combats vaccine misinformation by encouraging users to share their personal stories on getting immunized and why it’s important.

“People listen to their family and friends,” she said. “Posting selfies after you’ve had your shot, or buttons or T-shirts, any visible symbols that show you support immunization, that influences people.”

If you have questions, Pass suggests sticking with official health websites like the Public Health Agency of Canada, as well as this infographic on how to spot fake news regarding COVID-19 from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. He also recommends speaking to experts you trust and checking the credentials of anyone providing medical information.

“There’s no new thing under the sun,” he said. “We have been through pandemics and we have, as a species, survived those pandemics, and part of the way we have done that is through science and through our own ingenuity.”

“To see that those arguments were laughable in the 1920s, better equips us to combat them today.”

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