May 13, 2020 - Health

The viral spread of anti-vaccination sentiment

Anti-vaccine protestors

Women hold up anti-vaccination signs at a protest in Washington state on May 13. Photo: Jason Redmond / AFP

Anti-vaccination movements could grow large enough to disrupt efforts to create public immunity when a vaccine is developed, according to new research.

Why it matters: Vaccines are only effective if enough people take them to develop herd immunity against a new infection. Anti-vaxxers, though small in number, have an online savvy that makes them powerful.

Driving the news: Last week, a YouTube video titled "Plandemic" promoting the baseless idea that a future coronavirus vaccine would kill millions of people received more than 8 million views before it was deleted by the platform.

  • Anti-vaxxers are increasingly showing up at protests against stay-at-home orders, according to reporting by the New York Times and NPR.

Though vast majorities of Americans still support vaccines, a recent Gallup survey found that number had fallen somewhat over the past two decades. Now a new analysis of Facebook pages published in Nature suggests that while the anti-vaccination presence online has fewer followers than the pro-vaccination side, its pages are more numerous and more often linked to by undecided Facebook pages.

  • The research suggests anti-vaxxers are proving more successful at reaching persuadable groups like parents than pro-vaxxers, who appear largely disconnected from public sentiment.
  • Anti-vaxxer pages are growing faster, and based off computer simulations, the researchers suggest anti-vaccination views might dominate Facebook within 10 years, according to Nature News.

What they're saying: "The anti-vaxxers have been practicing for this," tech columnist Kevin Roose wrote in the Times. "They are savvy media manipulators, effective communicators and experienced at exploiting the weaknesses of social media platforms."

The bottom line: As shocking as it might seem at a moment when the world desperately needs an effective COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic seems poised to make the anti-vaccination movement even stronger.

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