We are living in the post-truth era. This is a time where the focus is not on rationality or coherence but on sensationalism, regardless of the cost. The Oxford Dictionary has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year, defining it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
In this era, “fake news” is in. It consists of deliberate misinformation from phony sources spread through traditional print, broadcast news media or online social media to meet a specific agenda. Though it may seem to be one of the latest buzzwords, saying that fake news is new is, in fact, fake news – there is nothing new about it. In the 1200s BC, Rameses the Great purposely spread incorrect information portraying the battle of Kadesh as a victory for the Egyptians over the Hittites, when in fact it was a stalemate.
In the 21st century, fake news has been targeting climate change and vaccine safety. Climate-change skeptics have been denying robust scientific evidence being accurately and clearly communicated to them by experts. For decades, cynical anti-vaccine groups have endeavored to undermine public trust in vaccines with mistrust and misinformation that appeals to emotion over hard evidence.
The anti-vaccine movement is not new; in fact, it started essentially right after vaccines were first used. One of the most famous anti-vaccine advocates was Lora Little, a seamstress from Minnesota, who fought hard to stop smallpox vaccinations. Lora’s campaign started when her son died of measles and diphtheria.
She did not blame those vaccine-preventable diseases, but believed it was the smallpox vaccine that killed her son. Her arguments were very similar to the modus operandi of modern anti-vaccine groups – a combination of heart-wrenching personal stories and conspiracy theories involving politicians, doctors and the healthcare industry. Lora was successful in introducing legislation in 1903 that prohibited compulsory vaccination as a prerequisite to attend school. A few years later, Minnesota experienced a major smallpox epidemic that infected 28,000 people. Why did Little’s campaign become so successful?
Fast-forward to the present, and Minnesota is also experiencing the state’s worst measles outbreak in decades. There have been over 70 cases, and to put that in perspective this number exceeded the total number of cases reported elsewhere in the entire United States last year. How did this happen? Anti-vaccine supporters repeatedly invited Andrew Wakefield, the author of the unethical and unscientific publication that started the modern anti-vaccine movement, to talk to local Somali-American communities, a vulnerable and marginalized population who do not necessarily have the capacity for advocacy for themselves. Why was the Minnesota anti-vaccine campaign so successful? Was it due to a lack of knowledge of the scientific evidence available?
Even with retractions and apologies, Andrew Wakefield’s discredited study is still quoted by parents who put their trust in it when deciding to delay or refuse vaccines. This fraudulent publication still lives in blogs and gets shared every now and then. Public health information campaigns do not work; neither do one-on-one explanations of why the vaccine-autism link is untrue. Moreover, social networks have allowed people to communicate and exchange information (and misinformation) at a much greater speed and on a much wider scale than ever before, while publishing platforms enabled anyone to easily create websites that contain information from self-published pseudo-scientific paperbacks.
We have the tendency to search for, embrace and recall information that supports our own pre-existing beliefs and hypothesis. In some instances, the more you try to persuade people in the anti-vaccine movement, the more convinced they become that they are right. Therefore it is challenging to convince people to listen to scientific data that shows a different perspective. Parents have the inherent desire to protect their children; by playing on their emotions, Wakefield’s lies are heard more than statements by public health officials supported by decades of robust research.
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The truth is that there will always be people who will share pseudo-science on social media, and there will always be people who will believe without critically examining what they read. There will always be communities with strong negative views about vaccines. The consequences of believing in fake news can be fatal. In Romania, there are over 180,000 children not vaccinated against measles; so far, there have been 8,246 cases and 32 deaths. This shows us a glimpse of the future in our own countries if we allow vaccine coverage to fall, thanks to fake news from anti-vaccine activists.
These are difficult times for science and the principles that guide all scientific endeavors. Science, medicine and public health are at risk in today’s era of fake news and science denialism. People in the scientific field need to rethink how they communicate. How do we pursue and protect the truth and convey new findings to the public in an increasingly post-truth environment? How do we create trust between scientists, the public and decision-makers? Facts do matter and they do persuade people, but only if they are thoroughly understood and effectively framed.
Scientists need to remain steadfast in the pursuit of science and the truth. Scientists should speak up when robust scientific findings are being disregarded or treated as mere matters of faith. These are challenges we have faced before and will almost certainly face again in the future. Speak up, however you can. It is essential that every member of the scientific community speak to their friends, family, colleagues, make their voice heard on social media and to policy-makers and the public about the importance of science to the future of the world.