There has been pressure on social media companies to shut down anti-vaxx pages. This is the latest step in our cancel culture mentality that anything that “we” don’t agree with has to be shut down, put down or torn down. This might be de rigueur for social justice warriors on a mission but it is not a conversation scientists confident about their work should be having.
Simply put: science communicators and scientists who try to shut down sites with challenging or dissenting views on vaccines are more in the wrong than the liars-for-hire willingly spreading fake news and conspiracy theories. Worse, they are giving more power, publicity and influence to this ragtag group of naturopaths.
But Mr Monger, you don’t understand. We are at a crucial point in the coronavirus pandemic where we need high public vaccine uptake so we can return to our normal lives. If we don’t control the misinformation by shutting down these anti-vaxx social media pages, the public will get confused, made afraid and forego the vaccine. These lunatics are “entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts”.
The Zuckerberg made me do it!
I get that this can be frustrating but we have to be better and smarter in our communications, outreach and engagement on “vacc*nes”, and quite frankly we haven’t done a good job. Trying to pressure or attack Mark Zuckerberg for giving these activists a voice is inherently short-sighted and shouldn’t even be a last resort. The scientific community’s expressed outrage towards Zuckerberg’s defence of free speech and tolerance is worse, and more embarrassing than any anti-vaxx tirade I’ve heard.
Perhaps even more disturbing, and this was confirmed in the recent documentary, The Social Dilemma (ironically on Netflix, a medium repeatedly committing most of the sins they portrayed), is that rather than accepting fake news, bias and familiar beliefs as a human (tribal) foible, we want to blame social media (the devil) for making us spread such falsehoods. We’d rather blame the serpent for tempting us with the forbidden fruit rather than address our own weaknesses. And the solution seems to be to get social media companies (which prefers to consider themselves as a platform than a media source) to start censoring what we don’t like.
But who is the “we”, and what is it that “we” don’t like?
Cancel the Risk-Monger!
This “we know the facts” censorship campaign creates a slippery slope. After silencing the anti-vaccine lobby, do we shut down sites offering alternative medical treatments? What about those rogue economists not falling in line with capitalist orthodoxy? Should we allow biologists to have opinions on chemical exposure? How about “climate deniers”? Whenever I question the green lobby’s useless solutions to address climate change, I find self-assured consensus scientists and sceptics going after me. I fear our cancel culture epidemic has also led scientists into this state of intolerance, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Martin Heidegger.
Oh my. Fine, Mr Monger, your account has just been taken down.
Well it won’t be the first time. Some might remember when my BlogActiv page was closed by well-connected anti-science advocates and LeMonde “journalists” because I questioned their reporting on IARC and glyphosate. I was the only writer making noise on this five years ago and when I saw how easy it was for populists and activists to censor away uncomfortable thoughts, I set up my own website. So yes, this is personal, but today it has become even more acceptable to censor any challenging views and “fix” any voices of dissent (and that’s what scares me).
Having been attacked on frequent occasions by these activists, I will still defend their right to speak freely (even if their goal is to silence people like me). But it is getting more and more lonely in this corner as “responsible speech” or “speech I agree with” is more widely favoured over free speech. I have given up trying to have reasonable conversations with some well-educated people on social media who have become emotionally invested on certain political issues. This month, on the fifth anniversary of the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, the hashtag #jenesuispasCharlie was trending on twitter.
Planting my Statue on your Pedestal
Intolerance is everywhere (no less so than with the virtue-vigilante science communicators fighting to impose their righteous ideals).
- I don’t want to live in a world where every statue gets torn down (except those commemorating my personal heroes).
- I don’t want my children to go to school with a reading list approved by some mob-conscious functionary or some self-righteous citizen’s panel.
- I don’t want my students to be afraid to challenge my ideas or their own belief systems.
- I don’t want scientists to only speak from what the consensus allows (or hear them claim that is “the” science, end of story).
- I don’t want a society where citizens are afraid of having their narrative questioned by those who think differently.
But … it is what it is. We have a world now where our intellectuals are the most intolerant people in the debate and everyone has to conform and accept their truths and scientism. Alex Jones, Mike Adams, Paul Thacker, Dr Mercola … indeed all horrible people but I fear as these witches get burnt at the stake we’ll need something more to satiate our thirst and hunger. Who then will we go out and “fix”? I’m afraid it will get worse before we wake up and wonder what had ever become of free speech and the right to challenge a public-approved consensus.
The last time humanity let citizen groups get together to make decisions, they erected guillotines in the town squares.
Are we condoning censorship because we are worried about a few misguided anti-vaxxers with a social media following of confused, outraged and frightened wealthy individuals? Are we doing all of this out of some responsibility for the public good? Nonsense. We are censoring anti-vaxxers out of sheer intellectual arrogance, anger and the fact that we are too lazy to improve our communication and engagement skills with a population we essentially hold in contempt. It is the intellectual equivalent of punching someone in the face rather than engaging in debate – bullies.
Indeed, we are drowning in a sea of intolerance.
The Value of Anti-Vaxxers
If I make a mistake, let bias enter or use poor data and sources, my trolls will take delight in pointing it out … and so they should.
Whatever else they do, the anti-vaxxers are there to keep us honest, to make us better at our jobs and to remind us that we too make mistakes. We will never excel at our communications skills if there is no control measure. Censoring people who are watching and judging us is the preferred avenue of the insecure, the unaccountable and the weak. If we make a mistake (especially with vaccines), we should rightly have our feet held to the coals.
Unless, of course, if you’re Sanofi Pasteur. In 2017, they botched the rollout of their dengue vaccine, Dengvaxia, in the Philippines (failing to specify it was only intended for children who had already had dengue). The vaccine-maker acknowledged 100,000 children should not have received the vaccine but to this day still declines liability for the estimated 600 Filipino children who (allegedly) perished. A recent Vaccine Confidence study showed how trust in vaccines in the Philippines has collapsed (as the country now faces a measles epidemic).
This was a scientific and communications disaster that could not be blamed on anti-vaxxers. Dengvaxia was not a result of anti-vaxx fake news. Who are we to then try to censor them? We’re better than this.
Storm on the Horizon
Now, with a good six months to go, we seem to be making a right royal mess on communicating the COVID-19 vaccine (before any has been approved). With market and political pressure promoting an accelerated vaccine development programme, we are letting others with an interest lead the communications campaign (over a cliff).
- Health experts claiming any vaccine will be 100% safe only add to the communications timebomb in the making.
- The agencies responsible for ensuring product safety appear to be cooperative in rushing the vaccine approvals through (jeopardising the last bastion of trust the public has in science).
- Stock prices in companies working on COVID-19 vaccines fluctuate wildly on news of progress or setbacks, creating a positive news incentive.
Markets and opportunism do not lay strong trust foundations for an attractive vaccine communications landscape setting up a nightmare scenario for when the first report of a negative reactions makes the news. Remember when GMOs were rushed onto a hesitant European population … how did that turn out?
Give me a Scapegoat
This COVID-19 vaccine fear is not due to anti-vaxx lies, conspiracy theories and fake news, the authorities are doing a good enough job screwing this up on their own (thank you very much). I’m not sure how censoring the anti-vaxxers today is going to help our health authorities downplay tomorrow’s missteps.
Frankly I don’t know of anyone who is excited about lining up for the first COVID-19 vaccine release. As someone high-risk with comorbidities, even I am hesitant to join the “rush to safety”. This has nothing to do with reports of 5G, autism risks or Bill Gates’ evil intentions. Last year, I outlined six key learnings on how to communicate better on vaccines; that seems to have fallen on deaf ears and their continued failure is making everyone feel uneasy.
But rather than admitting that our exuberant confidence at unconventional research methods was unsettling; rather than accepting there is a rush to put a vaccine on the market; and rather than putting a vaccine within the context of a larger strategy, we are denying there is a problem and are now putting pressure on Mark Zuckerberg to shut down the voices of caution and dissent. I’m relieved to see how the Boy Wonder has finally grown into his role and has become a rare defender of free speech (despite SJW accusations he is defending the extreme right).
Yes, but Mr Monger, these people are creating unfounded fears, spreading lies and cultivating mistrust. They are dangerous to society’s well-being.
They weren’t the first and they won’t be the last. Anti-vaxxers are just the latest fundamentalist religion. In past conflicts, it was the religious zealot who used every tool at his disposal to silence the scientist, stop critical thinking and demand that all people fall in line with the consensus (from Rome). While I cringe at the thought of comparing the likes of RFK Jr or Del Bigtree to Copernicus or Galileo, I don’t see much difference in the ignorant dogmatists persecuting them (and opportunistically, neither do they).
Let the zealots speak and battle them with the confidence of your knowledge, facts and evidence; don’t resort to fear, censorship and arrogance. You will never win an idea with force but rather through the force of your idea.
We’re better than this.
Cover image: Martin Heidegger
Postscript: Twelve Ideas for a COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake Strategy
Let me end this on a positive note (I’m told people are not happy when my articles are too dark so let me say what everyone wants to hear: It is not too late to salvage the science communications on a COVID-19 vaccine). Rather than censoring opponents, here are twelve ideas I feel are worth consideration to improve our vaccine uptake communications strategy.
- Stand up for science: Science should stay out of politics, but science needs to stand up to politics. I get that a particular person running for re-election is hanging his hopes on a vaccine before November 3, but each time he makes that promise, the scientific regulators need the backbone to stand up and say: “The vaccine will be ready when it’s ready and not a day before.” I don’t see that courage at the moment.
- Create choice: There are many vaccines in the Phase 3 testing stage and there should be a variety of vaccine choices on the market. Assuming they all pass safety protocols and are effective, I would rather see people debating which vaccine to get (eg, number of jabs, dose levels, age-related advantages…) than worrying if any vaccine is safe. And competition will encourage further developments and iterations.
- Open access: Publish all data and information on the research, development, ingredients and production of the vaccines. One of the common (and successful) tricks anti-vaxxers use is to claim industry and the complicit regulators are not telling the truth. Eroding trust is easy when you can claim someone has something to hide. Only with full transparency can those susceptible to conspiracy theories think twice about Bill Gates trying to insert some sort of chip inside of us.
- Publish a set of safeguards and approval protocols: To avoid the perception that a COVID-19 vaccine is rushed through the approval process or that corners had been cut, regulatory agencies should publish the different stages of the process and walk the public through each step when the vaccine candidates are being evaluated. Trust is gained with public engagement and buy-in; it is lost when people feel decisions are made behind closed doors.
- Free access: One of the more curious tactics I have heard is the mathematical proposal to pay people to get the COVID-19 vaccine (up to $1000 per jab in the US, which is fine I suppose since we have got over our inhibition to print and give away trillions without scrutiny). I don’t think people should associate a societal responsibility with lucrative gain but since money is no issue, then the vaccine should be freely and conveniently available. Often people get their flu vaccine in the office, but as many are working from home, creativity is needed here. Those most vulnerable need to have the vaccine brought to them, freely, easily and voluntarily.
- Communicate on quality: In many developing countries, people are hesitant about vaccines and other pharmaceutical products out of a belief (not entirely unfounded) that the high-quality products are reserved for the affluent nations. The highest quality in production, distribution, management and administration has to be guaranteed for everyone, everywhere.
- Strengthen the lifestyle and historical narrative: Anti-vaxxers portray themselves as leading health-conscious lives full of virtue and commitment (contrasted to the “sheeple” who are misled by evil chemical-pharmaceutical industries colluding with corrupt governments … and Bill Gates). There isn’t a positive name for people who vaccinate (OK, maybe “responsible”, but aren’t we all supposed to be so?), no honouring of the great vaccine research achievements, no chapter in school history books… It was not until the recent increased media coverage that the public learnt there was a field called “virology”.
Getting a vaccine should be a celebration of how science has conquered some of the greatest threats of nature. Instead the naturopaths have framed it, like everything else science and technology has achieved, as diabolical.
- Get spokespeople to speak up: I can think of a dozen Hollywood celebrities feted for their anti-vaxx position; I can’t think of any celebrity standing up and campaigning in favour of vaccines. These celebrities tell heart-wrenching stories of vaccine victims (and stories always speak louder than facts). I get that public health authorities don’t have those budgets, but this needs to be run like a marketing campaign. (Like everything else in our community-driven world, vaccine perception is a marketing campaign.) If I were given this “campaign account”, I would get family members of COVID-19 victims to share stories of their departed loved ones, and end with a simple message: Don’t let this happen to your dearest and nearest!
- Provide positive voluntary benefits / entitlements: Telling a parent that little Johnny cannot go to school unless he is vaccinated is an invitation for outrage. Rather than penalising people for not vaccinating (or worse, force vaccinating), why not create positive incentives? Perhaps offer a reduction in health-care costs (since money is no longer an issue), a QR code with access to public spaces, large events… Carrots always work much better than sticks.
- Avoid publicly expressing scepticism: The scientific method is sceptical by design but the public does not understand that. When scientists disagree in public debates, the message we receive is: uncertainty, fear and loss of trust (and the media loves to play up disagreement … as the BBC did claiming the “science was divided on vaccines” when one discredited physician questioned the safety of the MMR triple jab). They perceive all scientists on the same level and expect consensus. So when there is news of Russian or Chinese vaccine developments, explain how you are cautiously looking into it (rather than rejecting it outright).
- Lower expectations: While it is important to not be too publicly critical or negative, we should also avoid being overly positive. I have a sense that many publics feel that once a vaccine is approved, that the COVID-19 coronavirus will immediately “melt away”. Authenticity (a key element of trust) is when experience meets expectation. So science communicators have to learn to lower public expectations, be more sober and less exuberant. The public needs to know that beating the coronavirus will take some time and while a vaccine will improve the situation, the virus won’t just go away.
- Focus on safer, not safe: Nothing is 100% safe and risk-free and while the precautionary-based docilian mindset demands these emotional reassurances of total safety, the public needs to understand that a vaccine is part of an immunity-building strategy that reduces risk of illness but is not perfect. Otherwise the first case of a vaccinated person contracting the coronavirus, or the first bad vaccine side-effect, will be met with a firestorm of fear and disappointment. I hold these precautionistas, with their zero-risk demand, as the main reason for the rise of anti-vaxxers. It is sad to see how many vaccine authorities willingly go down the “safe” rabbit-hole. We desperately need to return to risk management (making our world safer) and abandoning this reckless two-decade precaution-based experiment (demanding 100% safe).
These are some simple ideas (there are many more, I’m sure) to try to resuscitate the COVID-19 vaccine outreach strategy. This has also been published as a separate piece. As long as the market and politicians are leading the discussions and framing the narrative, we can expect public pushback (not just from anti-vaxxers). The present strategy of refusing to admit failure and censoring those who challenge us is not only an admission that the anti-vaxxers are winning, it guarantees it.
We’re better than this.