Measles spread with viral 'anti-Vaxxer' misinformation on the internet | News Coverage from USA

Measles spread with viral ‘anti-Vaxxer’ misinformation on the internet

opinion

When I first began using the “virus” analogy to describe the rapid spread of misinformation and its potential to do serious harm, I didn’t realize how fitting, or timely, that comparison would become.

The recent outbreaks of measles, one of the most contagious diseases in the world, make that connection alarmingly real.

Thanks to a safe and effective vaccine, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Yet this year, as of April 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 704 cases of this potentially deadly illness in 22 states. More than 500 of those cases were in people who had not been vaccinated. On April 15, the World Health Organization reported that measles cases in the first quarter of this year were up 300% over the same period in 2018. This year looms as the worst one for measles in the U.S. in decades. 

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What changed? In recent years, the “anti-vaxxer” movement has flooded social media platforms with misinformation questioning the safety of vaccinations. Articles, videos and posts replete with conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pseudoscience have, well, gone viral. Many people have been persuaded to make health-care decisions based on provocative, frightening and false content that puts their children, and their communities, at risk.

The internet often acts as an echo chamber, serving up content to reinforce a person’s opinions regardless of compelling evidence to the contrary. Anti-vaxxers have benefited from this phenomenon. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote this about them in March: “They turn to the internet, which is both a hall of mirrors and an overstuffed bazaar. It lets them customize their input and thus tailor their reality, which is reinforced by the like-minded company they keep online.”

Life or death information

Information is the basis for many of the decisions we make, and those decisions, in turn, become the basis for our actions. In the case of vaccination, these actions can have life-and-death consequences.

Online anti-vaxxer communities cross political, religious, geographic and income divides. What they have in common is their steadfast belief in dangerous and disproven information — including that vaccines cause autism, or that toxic compounds are used in the formulas.

For years, studies have repeatedly shown the safety of vaccines and their role in saving lives. Most recently, a study published in April in the Annals of Internal Medicine looked at data from more than 650,000 children in Denmark and found no link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. Yet those false claims persist.

The tangible consequences from the anti-vaxxers’ misinformation campaigns are lower rates of vaccination and the all-but-inevitable outbreaks of disease. Those who refuse to vaccinate their children not only put their sons and daughters at risk, but potentially make others who come into contact with them vulnerable as well.

Ogbonnaya Omenka, a public health expert and assistant professor at Butler University, recently told USA TODAY, “The impacts of misinformation and lack of trust have not been fully appreciated.” The World Health Organization calls “vaccine hesitancy” a worldwide public health danger.

Inoculate against misinformation

There is a proven vaccine against the pandemic of misinformation: the News Literacy Project’s Checkology virtual classroom. Equipped with the news literacy skills to separate fact from fiction, young people gain an innate resistance to information that aims to mislead, incite, frighten or provoke. They also learn to question what they’re thinking about sharing with others so that they aren’t complicit in infecting others with harmful information.

Since 2016, more than 126,000 students across the U.S. and in more than 100 other nations have been inoculated against the misinformation virus through this platform, which teaches young people how to confidently navigate today’s complex and challenging information landscape.

Today’s students — who are tomorrow’s decision-makers, voters and parents — are on the front lines of the fight for facts. We must equip them with skills and resources to protect themselves from the rampant misinformation virus. Otherwise, the health of our democracy — and in the case of the anti-vaxxer movement, the health of the public — is at risk.

Alan C. Miller, a former journalist with the Los Angeles Times, is the founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project. Follow him on Twitter: @alanmillerNLP

 

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