Health professionals and policymakers see vaccination skeptics as a public menace, but forcing Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and others to shut them down has its own hazards, and probably won’t work either.
From giving a hero’s welcome in Congress to the Ohio teen who defied his mother to get his jab, to a slew of editorials, to panicked statements from public officials about the return of measles and other retro diseases, there is a coordinated campaign to give vaccination a booster shot.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) itself called what is now politely called “vaccine hesitancy” one of the top health issues of 2019.
There is nothing sinister here, but has often happened since the moral panic over Russian hacking, the initiative has taken a gangrenous turn online.
There are now calls for Facebook to ban anti-vaxxer groups, and YouTube has “deprioritized” videos discussing potential side effects, making them harder to find.
Image-based social media site Pinterest has implemented the simplest solution of all – blocking searches containing the word ‘vaccination’. What you don’t know can’t hurt you.
A reminder: however misguided one believes the anti-vaccination stance to be, its proponents are neither breaking the law, nor inciting for it to be broken.
This is, at heart, a scientific debate. Censoring one side is not winning that debate.
Also, who else holds views that the establishment finds unpalatable? What about statin skeptics who believe that the side effects of the cholesterol-lowering medicine are underreported, while the profit-making benefits are exaggerated? Trendy diet advocates? Climate change ‘deniers’? Researchers of genetic theories of IQ? Probably not Flat Earthers – even the government isn’t sure what to do with them.
Are they next? This might appear to be a standard slippery slope argument, but if we hadn’t seen a geometric progression of things politicians want banned from social media, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.
A putatively neater proposal is simply to “demonetize” anti-vaxxer advocates online, preventing them from making a living from putting forward their views.
As always, let’s transfer it to a world most people find more familiar: would we be comfortable if authors writing books on ‘unproven’ scientific theories were banned from selling them for profit? Should there be a committee of esteemed academics, bureaucrats and publishers that rules on what is a valid hypothesis before the public has a chance to decide for itself?
Those pushing for these measures might consider an attack on fundamental liberties a price worth paying. As always, it is justified by the most urgent imperatives – in this, case saving lives.
But will it even have the desired effect?
Anti-vaccination concerns were not created by the ubiquitous ‘right-wing trolls’ or meddling Russians, nor did they first appear on social media.
Multiplying for decades, they are a symptom of wider societal mistrust of authority, mixed with genuine concern among millions of parents for their children. Also, an unintended consequence of the near-eradication of illnesses tackled by some of the most common vaccinations, which have changed the risk calculations. Mum and dad are happy to take the chance little Jack doesn’t catch polio playing outside.
Now, as a senior official looking at people as outcome statistics, you might think that the public at large can be irrational and complacent idiots. But the heavy-handed approach here is likely to incubate resentment, and only give more succor to the conspiracy theorists.
If the problem is a lack of education, educate people. You can’t teach people by cutting off access to information. If the imminent loss of herd immunity is a public health crisis waiting to happen, campaign as politicians to make vaccination compulsory and see how far you get.
But don’t trample on citizens’ fundamental rights – that is a shortcut, not a serum.