Polishing the Unpolish-able – The Anti-Vaccine Movement, Astroturfing and Semantics

A particularly good article is making the rounds in the sceptic community at present called Anti-Vaxxers are Using Twitter to Manipulate a Vaccine Bill, and it highlights so critically something I have known for some time: that the anti-vaccine brand is damaged irreparably by the extremists, and that the more media-savvy amongst them have to work tirelessly to rid themselves of the anti-vaccine descriptor.

There is some worrying stuff contained in the article, even if it isn’t particularly brand new information to anyone who has ever encountered them in the wild before: basically, they love spamming Twitter with hashtags like #cdcwhistleblower (even if this was amazingly and thoroughly debunked), they have leaders who get cranky at followers who don’t toe the party line about using the right hashtags (them and their freedom of choice and expression, after all – they’re such mavericks!), and they run malicious smear campaigns about pro-vaccine advocates, going as far as calling their places of employment to get them fired. Once again, not really a new concept – it’s been happening since Edward Jenner did ever rub a crusty pox scab over a child. But as a tactic, it is pretty vile and more than a bit hypocritical: after all, they have the freedom to say whatever they want, and yet we do not have the right to respond to their claims or engage with the lies.

However, I am choosing to see the article as a positive in a number of ways.

Firstly, the brand is damaged for the anti-vaccine name. Much has been written about the resistance of AV advocates to call themselves ‘anti-vaccine’ – after all, nobody wants to be a Meryl Dorey, or a Stephanie Messenger, because their publicity has been so uniformly dreadful and their public image entirely destroyed by various lawsuits, cancellations of charities and behaviour that has included harassing the families of dead children and likening vaccines to rape. Even personal friend of Dorey and anti-vaccine advocate, Cyndi O’Meara, knows the quagmire of identifying as such:


(Though I guess why bother vaccinating when this would deprive Cyndi of income on all of her ‘immune boosting’ products for sale at her website?)

o'meara store copy
Naughty, naughty Big Pharma – standing in the way of making an honest buck.

The anti-vaccine turd is firmly unpolish-able, and I doubt that there will ever be anyone sexy enough to make it palatable to the middle ground of moderate yet scientifically ignorant parents they are so desperate to attract. Instead, they go with the linguistic techniques of seeking that moderate middle ground: they are, instead, ‘pro-choice’, ‘pro-health freedom’, ‘pro-parent’s rights’, and ‘pro-safe vaccines’. These sound good: moderate, reasonable, ethically justifiable. Hence why they’ve changed them. Semantically, they are far more appealing given the prefix – they’re not cranky stick-in-the-muds, they’re plucky, cock-eyed optimists who are positive that nobody will die after being exposed to potentially-fatal contagions!

The second reason follows from this: the anti-vaccine movement has nothing in its arsenal bar tone: it has no scientific consensus or respected figure to support it, its philosophical standpoint can be summarised as “bugger you, Jack, I’m all right“, and they tend to draw the least coherent, most unethical people like moths to a flame emitting only the most unflattering of light.

middle ground
You’d think they thought punctuation had the autism-inducing properties of thiomersal, they way they avoid it at all costs…

As such, the BNQs (or ‘big name quacks’) are forced to resort to expensive graphic design, hiring even-bigger name quacks for lots of money to lend legitimacy to their cause, and to changing their language, because all they have is the illusion of credibility.

Finally, the fact that there are fewer involved in the cause is – at best – relieving. True to the astroturfing nature of these organisations – which often just front for wealthy altmed companies and individuals like Joe Mercola and Mike Adams who make millions off the sale of supplements or advertising – vast quantities of tweets are generated by only a handful of real people:

There were 250,000 #cdcwhistleblower tweets between August 18 and December 1 of 2014. A whopping 63,555 of these came from 10 prominent anti-vax accounts.

It’s pretty clear that their ‘thinking mom’s revolution’ is more equivalent to a group of angry teenagers who are dismayed at the fall of the pop punk aesthetic. Also, they need jobs – like, real jobs, stat.

Ultimately, I cannot help but be underwhelmed by their desperation, their shameless rooting around for anything to support the cause, and their fearmongering.

However, it also proves a point for us to note our power as advocates for EBM: nothing prevents us from spamming Twitter with our own hashtags (apart from jobs, employment, hobbies, loved ones, a sense of pride and an understanding that people get really annoyed when this happens). We know the costs to the community when reservoirs of contagion are created by low levels of vaccine cover. We know the anguish parents experience when they learn that the ideology they trusted as being more ethical, less influenced by a love for Mammon, and more natural has simply led to their children’s health being imperilled.

To the undecided: this is not a time to ‘split down the middle’ or to consider ‘both sides of the debate’. There are none. There is science, and there is fear-mongering by people with a financial interest in you buying their crappy products:

crappy products
Remember: a bulk-billed vaccine costs nothing. Stupid supplements cost far more. Hospitalisation and intensive care for the treatment of complications for vaccine-preventable diseases like whooping cough, measles or tetanus? I’ll let you do the maths.

As always, think of the children – and of me gleefully donating money to vaccine charities upon getting an anti-vaccine/pro-crazy comment in response to this article.

Because unlike them, I don’t stand to make money off my blog – and isn’t it all about keeping money out of the pockets of Big Pharma, anyway?


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