By Roy Ulrich
The anti-vaccine movement, as it’s called, is not new. Typically, it cuts across political parties. But not this time, not in the midst of a virulent pandemic. A majority of those who are part of the movement, often referred to as “anti-vaxxers,” are conservative Republicans. Some of the same people who refuse to wear masks and rally against lockdowns populate the anti-vaxxer movement. The arguments they make revolve around the concept of personal autonomy.
Leaders of anti-vaccine groups describe the COVID-19 vaccines as a pivotal opportunity to sow distrust in vaccination and have laid out planned online campaigns to do so, according to a report from an organization opposing online misinformation. The report, from the U.K.-based Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), quoted leaked audio from an October 2020 conference in which anti-vaccine leaders, many of whom have huge social media followings, discussed strategies to encourage skepticism and fear of vaccines in the months ahead. The report’s authors noted that social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7-8 million people since 2019 and that anti-vaccine conspiracy accounts grew by nearly 50 percent over that year.
Some activists, particularly conservative influencers, darkly warn of impending government mandates and “forced vaccines” absent any evidence that such a program would be put into practice. They disparage the idea that immunization benefits a broader community. That includes pushing misleading story lines — for example, focusing on instances when people experienced side effects from an injection and using those examples to argue dangerous side effects will be widespread. Another strategy is to target online health influencers with large followings and African Americans, playing on their historical skepticism of the medical establishment resulting from racist practices such as the infamous Tuskegee experiment.
Before October of last year, virulent anti-vaxxers were posting on Facebook and other social media platforms, arguing that the government was using the COVID-19 vaccines to secretly implant microchip identifiers in people. This is much more than misinformation. It’s lunacy.
Then, Facebook announced on October 12, 2020 that it will join platforms such as YouTube and TikTok in removing false claims about COVID-19 vaccines. [This might seem like an obvious move; the virus has killed to date more than 400,000 people in the U.S. alone, and widespread misinformation about vaccines could be one of the reasons.]
But until now, Facebook, wary of any political blowback, had refused to remove anti-vaccination content. Even though it’s not clear whether removing content outright is the best way to correct misperceptions, Facebook and other platforms plainly wanted to signal that, at least in the current crisis, they don’t want to be seen as feeding people information that might kill them.
In 2018, before the current outbreak of Covid-19, the National Center on Biotechnology Information issued a report entitled “The Anti-vaccination Movement: A Regression in Modern Medicine.” The report focused on the false narrative that the measles vaccine causes autism in some children. This false narrative led to a precipitous decline in immunizations in recent years.
The report’s conclusions are just as relevant today as we face a bigger threat from a world-wide pandemic:
The rise of anti-vaccination movements in parts of the Western world poses a dire threat to people’s health and collective herd immunity. People of all ages have fallen victim to recent outbreaks of measles, one of the most notable “eliminated” diseases that made a comeback as a direct consequence of not reaching the immunization threshold for the measles vaccine. These outbreaks not only put a strain on national healthcare systems but also cause fatal casualties.
In between the pro- and anti-vaxxers lies those in the middle, unsure about what to do. They include some rural residents, immigrants, and day laborers. Some are suspicious of science, especially vaccine science. As Vish Viswanath, professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health puts it, “These people have legitimate questions. They want to do the right thing, but they have doubts. This is where we need to be focusing our attention,” he added. “At all times, we must remember that conspiracies thrive in low-trust environments,” he concluded.
So, what accounts for this lack of trust in governments at all levels, especially in our national government?
First, the data: According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in government remains near historic lows. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).
It wasn’t always so. When Pew began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. That figure remained fairly constant until Ronald Reagan came to town.
In 1981, at his first inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol, he said: “Government is not the solution to our problems; it’s the problem.”
Today, all too many Americans believe that to their very core.
The negative view of the federal government continues to this day. In 2017, Barack Obama told a town hall meeting that when he was president, he received a letter from a woman who wanted to let him know that the government should keep its hands off her Medicare.
Finally, an inside-the-Beltway joke goes like this: A pollster asks, “Do you trust the government more or less than you did five years ago? Ten percent of those surveyed said they trusted the government more; 15% said they trusted it less; the remaining 75% refused to answer because they thought the survey was some sort of government plot.
But it’s hardly a joke. Here’s a partial list of what the United States government has accomplished just in the last century – the government landed a man on the moon, passed civil rights laws, and gave us social security and the Internet.
These are American accomplishments that were promoted, orchestrated, and facilitated by an activist federal government. To that list, we can add that the government of the United States has substantially reduced the number of elderly in poverty, built interstate highways, made loans to homebuyers and students, insured bank deposits, and made public education a right.
And there is more. In 1965, 44% of adults smoked cigarettes. Today, that number is 25%. It wasn’t a corporation that led a campaign to reduce the smoking rate. The federal government, more specifically the Surgeon General, had much to do with this dramatic decline.
Yes, there is still much to accomplish. Upward mobility is down and inequality is at new highs. Our universities are much admired around the world, but a B.A. at one of the top schools can come with a huge price tag. Even with Obamacare, universal health care needs to be made a right. And then there is the virus, which needs to be attacked in the same way the United States – along with its allies – fought and won World War II. To do this, we need a competent, well-functioning, and importantly trusted state.
The Biden Administration has an ambitious agenda to stimulate the economy and distribute vaccines and address the climate change crisis. These are all actions that will be undertaken by the same federal government that Ronald Reagan said was not the solution to America’s problems, but the problem itself. With a little luck, Biden will finally put such poisonous rhetoric to rest.
Healthy skepticism or even distrust of government is one thing. But taken to an extreme, rage against the national government provides fertile fodder for anti-vaxxers and the Trump acolytes who refuse to believe, among other things, that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.
Roy Ulrich is a retired lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy at U.C. Berkeley.