What is said online can cause real and lasting harm offline, IRL (in real life).
One of the most striking examples is how the viral spread of misinformation has led to a resurgence in childhood illnesses like measles and mumps.
Children will needlessly be sickened and die as a result.
But how can we – and should we – limit the spread of harmful anti-vaccination information, particularly through social media sites and search engines?
The depressing reality is that there is no truly effective technique for quickly changing people’s beliefs. There is no magic fairy dust that can be sprinkled over society so that citizens don’t believe nonsense and conspiracy theories.
But we have a pretty good idea of what doesn’t work. Badgering and insulting, such as calling parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children “irresponsible” and “bad parents” is largely ineffective.
Compelling vaccination and punishing refuseniks is easy but not necessarily the best approach; it tends to make anti-vaccinators dig in their heels and reinforces the impression they are being persecuted by the Big Brother state.
Bombarding people with scientific information also won’t change hearts and minds. No amount of data dumping can overcome anecdote and emotion.
The reality is that no one wants to hurt their children. For the most part, parents who don’t vaccinate, or delay or partially vaccinate, just like those who get their children fully vaccinated, believe they are doing what’s best.
Vaccinating your kids requires a leap of faith. It requires trust.
Trust is hard to come by in a world where lies have been weaponized, greedy and self-serving leaders are as commonplace in business as in government, and misinformation is as easy (or much easier) to find than facts and truth.
Anxiety and mistrust spread like wildfire online. The swapping of gossip and tall tales that used to happen at the playground and after church, now happens on a much grander scale in Facebook groups, on YouTube and on Twitter.
Of late, there have been increasingly loud demands for internet giants to crack down on those who propagate anti-vaccination disinformation.
To their credit, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Google and others have started to take action, albeit belatedly and cautiously.
The caution is warranted. Social media sites are public conversation platforms. We shouldn’t expect their owners to be arbiters of truth or moral guardians.
When it comes to spreading misinformation, intent matters. You can’t solve ignorance with better social media or search engine algorithms.
But you can help change the conversation.
In recent days, Twitter has implemented a system where, if you search certain terms – they won’t say which precisely but, for example, “vaccine harms” – you will get a pinned tweet from the Public Health Agency of Canada saying: “If you have questions about vaccines, we have answers.”
Similarly, Facebook is tweaking its algorithms to give more weight to authoritative scientific sources, and to down-rank anti-vaccination groups.
These initiatives are important because they nudge hesitant parents toward credible information, and nudging is one of the most effective techniques for changing views.
If you remove information people are looking for entirely, they will just work harder to find it. The goal is to help them find correct information serendipitously.
We cannot, however, depend entirely on the benevolence of the rulers of cyberspace.
Public health officials and scientists also have to step up their game, and fight anti-vaccination forces on their turf and their terms.
If you spend five-10 minutes on an anti-vaccine website, you will have doubts. Why? Because they tell compelling stories presented in a readable fashion.
Public health has to do the same. For far too long, it has embraced a “father knows best” attitude. That doesn’t cut it in a skeptical/cynical world.
To earn trust you have to demonstrate caring and competency. That has to happen on a one-on-one basis with physicians and nurses before it can spread to peers in Facebook groups.
The vast majority of parents who don’t fully vaccinate their children are not dogmatists. They have doubts and fears, and questions that deserve answers.
We have to do a better job of ensuring that citizens are digitally literate, that they know how to consume, digest and understand information.
If you want people to change their beliefs, they have to feel good about it. You have to, in the words of U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “always give someone a golden gate of retreat.”
In short, we need a patient, heuristic approach, focused on trust-building, not pious condemnation.