Officials Say Social Media Plays a Role in the Spread of Vaccine Misinformation

Share:
A nurse prepares to administer the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine as well as a vaccine used to help prevent the diseases of diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, and polio on April 28, 2017.

A nurse prepares to administer the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine as well as a vaccine used to help prevent the diseases of diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, and polio on April 28, 2017. (Courtney Perry/For the Washington Post)

March 7, 2019

More than 200 individual cases of measles — which the U.S. declared was eliminated in 2000 — were confirmed across 11 states in the first two months of 2019. In Washington state, where more than one-third of the cases have been documented, the governor declared a state of emergency in January.

Against this backdrop, a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Monday reinforced the scientific consensus that there is no link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The researchers looked at the cases of more than 650,000 Danish children who were born between 1999 and 2010. Over time, 6,517 children were diagnosed with autism.

Comparing rates of autism between children who received the MMR vaccine and those who were unvaccinated, the researchers found that “the study strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism.” The study also found no evidence of the MMR vaccine triggering autism among children who had a sibling with the disorder.

As they combat the current outbreak of measles, which is highly dangerous, health officials have tried to emphasize the safety of vaccines and urge immunizations. One enduring misconception about vaccines stems from a now-retracted and repeatedly debunked medical journal article from the late 1990s that implied a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, that myth — and others like it — has endured. And health officials and lawmakers say that social media has played a key role in the spread of misinformation.

A Senate committee held a hearing Tuesday on vaccines and preventable outbreaks. “There’s a lot of misleading and incorrect information about vaccines that circulates online throughout social media,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. He blamed “internet fraudsters” for “preying on the unfounded fears and daily struggles of parents” and “creating a public health hazard.”

Many of the people who testified before the committee brought up the spread of vaccine misinformation online, including an 18-year-old Ohio high school student who decided to get vaccinated against his mother’s wishes.

“My mother would turn to anti-vaccine groups online and on social media looking for her evidence and defense, rather than health officials and through credible sources,” Ethan Lindenberger told the committee. He said, “These sources which spread misinformation should be the primary concern of the American people.”

John Wiesman, Washington state’s secretary of health, wrote in prepared testimony for the Senate committee that “public health officials throughout the country are gravely concerned about the latest misinformation originating from a well-organized and orchestrated anti-vaccination movement.” He also wrote that “the increasing influence social media has over personal health decisions by promoting false information is alarming.”

Renee DiResta, a data scientist, spoke to FRONTLINE in May 2018 about how she first noticed social media being used to amplify anti-vaccine messages around 2014. She and her research partner found that a small group of people were creating fake accounts to target certain hashtags on Twitter in order to dominate messaging and appear larger than they were. “This was the first indication that groups were doing this mass coordination to shape public opinion about particular policies, particularly smaller groups who were able to leverage the social ecosystem to make themselves look a lot larger and to have an impact,” she said.

In February, YouTube said it would prevent accounts from making money off advertising on anti-vaccine videos. Later that month, Facebook also indicated that posts containing misinformation about vaccines would appear less prominently on its platform.

Epidemiologist Anders Hviid, one of the new study’s authors, said that the persistence of the idea that vaccines are linked to autism prompted their research. “The idea that vaccines cause autism is still going around. And the anti-vaxx movement, if anything, has perhaps only grown stronger over the last 15 years,” he told life science news site STAT. “The trend that we’re seeing is worrying.”


Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@priyankaboghani

More Stories

Kherson After Liberation: Co-producer of ‘Putin’s Attack on Ukraine’ Documentary Describes Visit
A Ukrainian filmmaker and journalist who was on one of the first trains traveling to the newly liberated city talks to FRONTLINE about the damage he saw in Kherson after eight months of Russian occupation.
November 29, 2022
As Donald Trump Announces His 2024 Run, a Look Back at His Presidency and Impact
FRONTLINE has built a unique public record, in documentary format, of the former president’s impact on American life, politics and democracy — and his previous battles with a special counsel and the Department of Justice.
November 16, 2022
How American Politics Reached This Fraught Moment: 12 Documentaries to Watch Ahead of the Midterms
As a divided America prepares to vote and fears of political violence continue, these FRONTLINE documentaries show how U.S. politics reached this moment.
November 4, 2022
How Russian Soldiers Ran a "Cleansing" Operation in Bucha
"I’ve already killed so many civilians,” a Russian soldier told his wife from Bucha, Ukraine. The Associated Press and FRONTLINE obtained hundreds of hours of CCTV footage and intercepts of audio calls by Russian soldiers that show for the first time what a Russian "cleansing" operation looked like.
November 3, 2022