In October 2018, Heidi Larson, a professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the London School of Hygiene, published her personal view on the spreading fear of vaccines (Larson H. The Biggest Pandemic Risk? Viral Misinformation. Nature. 2018 Oct;562(7727):309.).
Larson predicted that the next major outbreak caused by an infectious disease wouldn’t be due to a lack of vaccines or available technologies — as was the case for the 1918 influenza pandemic. Rather, it would be due to “emotional contagion,” that would be “digitally embedded,” and “erode trust in vaccines so much as to render them moot.”
Larson argues that misinformation can be grouped into four separate categories:
- Those that proffer bad science to support an ill-founded point of view. Andrew Wakefield, who published a now discredited hypothesis that the MMR vaccine caused autism, was used as an example.
- Those who see anti-vaccine debates as a way to sell books, services or other products. For example, websites that sell “cures” for autism.
- Those who view anti-vaccine information as a means to polarize society. For example, Russian trolls and bots used emotional language to spread misinformation and sow divisions among Americans.
- Those whom Larson refers to as the “super-spreaders.” Parents who use social media to convince others that vaccines cause irreparable harm.
Larson concludes that we have to get better at confronting these various groups. And that while providing the best information is important, strategies that include listening and engagement are also critical.