How One Scientist Is Fighting Anti-Vaxxers and Their Online Harassment Campaigns

In recent years, the anti-vaccine movement has become increasingly prominent in the U.S. and, indeed, other countries around the world. This is particularly concerning given that experts believe vaccine hesitancy—the delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite their availability—may be helping to fuel new outbreaks of easily preventable diseases, such as measles, in certain regions or communities.

To underline the seriousness of the problem, the World Health Organization recently listed vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 threats to global health in 2019.

In their war against the scientific establishment and pro-vaccine advocates, anti-vaxxers employ several tactics. But one of their primary weapons is targeted online harassment campaigns, which often originate from dedicated international networks of closed Facebook groups and conspiracy theory websites that promote anti-vaccine messages.

To find out more about these harassment campaigns, Newsweek spoke to physicist, cancer researcher, science writer and pro-vaccine advocate David Robert Grimes, who has been targeted himself and has received the John Maddox Prize for communicating science in the face of hostility.

Grimes has previously researched how conspiracy theories spread and is currently working on a study that looks to quantify the online harassment of science advocates. He is also writing a book, The Irrational Ape: Why Flawed Logic Puts Us All at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

How widespread is the problem of online harassment when it comes to the issue of vaccines?
Becoming the target of vitriol from all corners unfortunately is a common playbook at the moment, and I've experienced this for several years now. Often, young scientists and researchers go out there and they get this absolute slew of hatred, and a lot of the institutions are not good at defending the people that are attacked in these coordinated campaigns.

I would say everyone I know who has put their head above the parapet on certain topics—electromagnetic hypersensitivity, chronic Lyme disease, fluoride, but particularly on vaccines—you will be identified as a target and what usually happens is a coordinated campaign against you. It doesn't tend to be just one complaint from one individual. These people usually go into their own forums or Facebook pages and share your work, and you get a kind of coordinated round-robin attack.

Can you tell me about your pro-vaccine advocacy?
Public understanding of science and medicine is a major passion of mine because I believe scientists have a duty and role to play in improving understanding and making our world a little bit better. I'm a cancer researcher, so I have a major interest in the HPV vaccine, which actually prevents about 5 percent of cancers worldwide, it is majorly effective. And yet in several countries we've had a sustained campaign against them. Japan saw its vaccine rate fall from 70 percent uptake to 1 percent, Denmark from 79 percent to 17 and Ireland, where I'm from, saw 87 percent coverage going down to 50 percent within a year because of scaremongering.

Now we all talk about the MMR vaccine in 1998 (the year discredited former doctor Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study in The Lancet—which has since been withdrawn and debunked—proposing a link between MMR and autism). I've debated Wakefield, which is a horrible experience because he's a mendacious individual. People like him are obviously discredited, but they still have these massive platforms. Social media has made anti-vaccine information ubiquitous.

Behind every disease statistic is a loved-one lost, a family torn asunder. We can prevent many of these diseases. But we have this boneheaded, egotistical, conspiracy theory minority who are undermining that. I don't want anyone to have to say, "My daughter or mother died of cervical cancer." That can be history.

Can you break down the anatomy of these attacks? How do they tend to play out?
The fundamental thing that unites these groups, whether they're anti-vaccine or something else, is a conspiratorial mindset. What tends to happen is conspiracies diffuse slower than scientific news, but it diffuses farther. I can often get an attack from a particular anti-vaccine subgroup many days or weeks after an article has come out.

If I write an article for The Guardian, let's say, these anti-vaccine groups will pick it up and share it on a forum. Then you suddenly get a commentary on that, and what I usually get in my capacity is anti-vaccine activists complaining to the university that I'm affiliated with. They're vexatious complaints, totally overstated, accusing me of all sorts of things. I am very lucky, because I have a public profile in doing this and universities know that I'm on the frontline, so I've always been well-supported. But some of my colleagues have not been.

David Robert Grimes
Pro-vaccine advocate and researcher David Robert Grimes. David Robert Grimes

For example, I have a good friend who does a lot of vaccine advocacy because she's a doctor and broadcaster. What they did with her was complain to the medical councils, which necessitated a full investigation. I know a lot of people who are intimidated. They'll often go on Twitter or Facebook and threaten you. They do it to scare you and put you back in your place, make you feel uncomfortable. To silence the voice of dissent. Unfortunately, it works. And this is a truly international problem. If I share something on my Facebook, that's seen by the American audience as much as it is by the European audience because all these networks are interconnected.

Are there any particularly prominent anti-vaccine groups? What can be done to tackle online harassment?
Stop Mandatory Vaccinations is the one that everyone goes on about. Someone did a network analysis of the groups and the way they share this information. And they found that there are only about five or six major hubs, but then a huge amount of small local groups. This author was arguing that if Facebook really wanted to target this, they could shut down major groups and that would cripple all the others. The major groups have a huge number of followers and the localized anti-vaccine chapters, if you will, disseminate that further, if this analysis can be trusted.

First Amendment rights matter in the U.S., so people have the right to express anti-vaccine views. But we have to as a society improve our critical thinking skills and become slightly savvier about what our sources are. So, if I go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization or another reputable organization and look up a specific vaccination, I will get impartial, detailed, trustworthy information. If I go into a search engine and put that in, I will not. I'll get Facebook posts, I'll get memes, I'll get these weird anti-vaccine sites and they outnumber reputable information.

The problem is now that there's a lot of research that indicates people don't gauge the trustworthiness of the source in ways that you might conventionally think they do. A lot of the times, a very flashy website, or a well-put-together meme is enough to convince someone that something has a veracity that it does not.

For example, a 2016 study asked Stanford undergraduates to evaluate articles from two organizations—the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians. The former is a real respectable organization, while the other is a homophobic hate group. When they gave the information to undergraduate students in Stanford—you'd think this is a good cohort—and asked them to work out which is a more reputable source, they were totally unable to do so. So, it's not an easy problem. We're going to constantly be bamboozled by anti-vaccine information.

The misinformation is often very emotive: "Look at the damage it's doing, it's killing our children." And automatically you trigger people's danger sense. They're scared. Then once people are scared, it's very hard to reframe the narrative. Vaccines have been a victim of their own success in many ways. We don't see people dying of polio anymore, or people brain damaged by measles, or people scarred by smallpox. So, I think that those kinds of graphic reminders aren't as common, and people can get complacent. We have to remind people that things like measles can do long-term neurological damage or kill you.

How do you reach people who are deeply mistrustful of official information sources, given the emotional quality of anti-vaccine arguments? Is being just as emotive in countering these arguments the way forward?
That's a really good point, and I can give you an example of that. Ireland is the only country in the world that's had an HPV vaccine crisis and successfully reversed it. And the way we reversed it comes down to the work of almost one woman. So, the Irish health service (HSE) over here realized that we couldn't win against emotive reports of damage. We started a vaccine alliance where we created packs of information for schools, which had some positive impact. But what really changed things was a brilliant and articulate young lady called Laura Brennan, who had been diagnosed with incurable cervical cancer.

She came to HSE and offered to share her story, so that other women wouldn't have to go through what she had endured. So, the campaign that we launched to counter this put her at the forefront. We hit lows of 51.2 percent HPV coverage but now we're back up to the high 70s, whereas Japan is still in the doldrums and so is Denmark. People connect to the emotive first. What we needed to do was remind them what this vaccine was for, what it was actually doing.

influenza, vaccine
An influenza vaccination is prepared for a patient at the CVS Pharmacy store's MinuteClinic on October 4, 2018 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images