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Researchers tracked 2,500 people during a measles outbreak to learn why anti-vax myths won’t die

Researchers tracked 2,500 people during a measles outbreak to learn why anti-vax myths won’t die
[Photo: John Vachon/Library of Congress]

Did you know that there’s a journal called the Misinformation Review? There is, published by Harvard, and this month they ran a study tracking 2,500 adults to see where anti-vaxxers get their knowledge.

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First, the misinformation: Roughly 1 in 5 believe that:

  • vaccines are full of toxins
  • vaccines cause autism
  • vaccines can be delayed without risks
  • it is better to develop “natural immunity” by getting the disease itself

That sound you hear is this writer’s brain cells imploding.

Those anti-vax beliefs are remarkably persistent: 81% held the same beliefs five months later, despite extensive news coverage of last year’s measles outbreak in the interim, as well as a slew of associated public health campaigns. Of the people whose opinions changed, 64% were more misinformed and 36% were better informed. Sigh.

The take home: Whether or not knowledge shifted hinged on where people go for information. Those who followed social media grew increasingly misinformed; those who read traditional media coverage grew more informed.

The researchers suggest an all-court press:

  • further state mandates requiring vaccines
  • empathy and patience from doctors when discussing vaccines with patients (which, the researchers note, doesn’t always work because anti-vaxxers often seek out doctors who allow vaccine exemptions)
  • pro-vaccine social media campaigns
  • further social media company efforts to tweak their algorithms to block vaccine misinformation—including making sure that user searches for vaccine information link to scientifically accurate information.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest have all attempted to reduce anti-vaccine misinformation, not always successfully: a 2018 change in Facebook’s policy backfired, resulting in difficulties for pro-vaccine ad buyers.

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