This article's header image is from the City of Toronto Archives
Public health and community wellbeing are under threat from "Digital Pandemics". With the spread of scientifically inaccurate information, shaping malformed attitudes and behaviours towards medical treatment (such as vaccinations) online, advocacy is becoming a threat to accuracy. 8 in 10 people now seek health information online and in today's Digital Age, where vast amounts of information can be accessed at anytime, "expert patients" and "citizen journalists" leave the boundaries between medical authority and quasi-proficiency blurred.
In our "always connected" society, peer-to-peer influence remains a primary factor in all areas of decision making. Peer-to-peer networking platforms have allowed many with similar health conditions to come together and get support from one another. High connectedness among these groups can foster normative values and behaviours and, unfortunately in some cases, these online communities embrace scientifically inaccurate information which can have detrimental consequences. A particularly serious case of this is the propagation of anti-vaccination content.
These online spaces have acted as a catalyst for outbreaks of Measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases in the US and other developed countries over the past few years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a total of 125 measles cases in a 40 day period between 2014-2015. Among them, 49 had not been vaccinated with 28 of these being unvaccinated because of personal beliefs.
There is a multitude of online networks where "anti-vaxxers" congregate to discuss the "truth" about vaccinations - some claiming that they are the cause of autism, citing pseudo-scientific research as a basis. Many of these have a substantial following.
Here are a few examples:
The closed Facebook Group has 9000+ members.
"I always KNEW in my gut that it was wrong to take my kids for ROUTINE vaccines...but NOW I KNOW WHY. It is because vaccines cause irreperable [sic] damage and even death!"
"This is an anti vaccination and Anti circumcision group. No (pro) posting of these will be tolerated. Period. Thank you and ask questions to group at any time."
A public Facebook Group with over 33,000 followers.
- Exposing vaccine fraud & Industry/Media/Gov’t malfeasance.
- Providing the most complete source of safe alternatives to vaccines available.
- Preparing for multiple Class Action Lawsuits to be served to our respective Health Agencies around the world.
- Identifying the real cause & cure for Autism.
A public Facebook page with over 3800 followers.
What's particularly interesting about this group is that it is part of a company called TTAV Global, LLC. The company also has a youtube channel with 21,000 followers which promotes their 7 part DVD series which ranges in price between $147-247. At the bottom of all their websites (including their sister company's; The Truth About Cancer) there's a disclaimer note that states "... this information is not intended as medical advice, but rather a sharing of knowledge and information based on research and experience. TTAV Global encourages you to make your own health care decisions based on your judgment and research in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional."
How do we intervene?
You would think that simply presenting these groups with the facts would sway their opinions but in many cases, this doesn't work. The self-proclaimed study group, "Vaccine Truth Warriors United" clearly state that they will not accept any posts promoting vaccination and studies have shown that infiltrating fringe health groups (such as pro-anorexia groups) with intervention messages can actually be counterproductive in the long run.
Prevention is better than cure which is why Logically's systems have been specifically developed to first identify health misinformation content in order to minimise consumers reactions to it before it is internalised and shared. It's also important to monitor how misinformation proliferates through networks as such content can spread far and wide at lightning speeds.
Although their beliefs are (simply put) outright wrong, freedom of speech and expression are fundamental rights which should always be respected but when it is to the detriment of public wellbeing, it is paramount that we develop comprehensive solutions to these complex problems.
To find out more about how Logically's systems tackle health misinformation, get in contact with us here.