Thank Facebook’s tendency to play fast and loose with data privacy. After the social media giant was rocked with scandals, including unauthorized data mining by Cambridge Analytica and accusations that Russian operatives used the platform to influence US elections, Facebook opened a searchable Ad Archive of politically-charged advertisements in a bid to increase transparency.
Vaccines, the platform decided, were just such a politically-charged subject. Now, researchers writing in Vaccine have conducted an analysis of vaccine-related Facebook ads. It’s a peek behind the curtain at the intriguing politics of vaccination.
The researchers combed through more than 500 vaccine-related ads that ran between May 31, 2017 and February 22, 2019. Not counting ads deemed irrelevant, there was a pretty even split: 53 percent were pro-vaccine and 47 percent were anti-vaccine, totaling 309 ads.
That’s where the similarities ended, however. According to the study results, antivax ads were much more monolithic than pro-vaccine ads, both in terms of messaging and in terms of who was running them.
Almost half of all anti-vaccine ads had a message that emphasized the supposed harms of vaccines. Vaccine choice and vaccine fraud rounded out the messaging. By contrast, although one type of message—one that urged people to get vaccinated—there was a much greater diversity of messaging in the pro-vaccine ads. Other pro-vax messages included:
Antivax ads were also much more likely to paint with a broad brush. Four out of five ads were against vaccines in general. When they were about specific vaccines, the flu vaccine was the one most likely to be called out, but only 8 percent of the ads did so.
Only one out of every five pro-vaccine ads were general. These ads talked most about the flu vaccine as well, 39 percent of the time.
The results of this study point to cash-strapped local organizations promoting vaccination programs on one side, and NGOs with long reach and deep pockets funding anti-vax ads. Pro-vaccine ads were far more likely to have a lower budget and be shown to fewer people.
Single-vaccine ads run only in one state and paid for by a local organization such as a state department of health or a state health insurance provider. More than three out of four had a budget of less than $100—compared to 55 percent of anti-vaccine ads—and were shown to fewer than 1,000 people, versus only 14 percent of antivax ads.
Pro-vaccine ads had more than 80 buyers. In contrast, only 27 buyers ran antivax ads. The top five accounted for 75 percent of all ads. Two organizations dominated the anti-vaccine ad space: World Mercury Project, helmed by attorney and antivax crusader Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Larry Cook, with Stop Mandatory Vaccination.
Cook’s Stop Mandatory Vaccination bought the second-highest number of ads, at 36. Stop Mandatory Vaccinations is a for-profit entity that crowdfunds donations for marketing campaigns and Cook’s pocket. Many of Cook’s ads in the study focused on grieving parents who lost children to what they believe was a vaccine injury.
Kennedy’s group the World Mercury Project (WMP) bought the most ads in the study, at 47. Through WMP—known as Children’s Health Defense since 2018—Kennedy, an environmental lawyer by trade, is as famous for his antivaccine advocacy as he is for his environmental advocacy and his name and namesake.
Though an environmental lawyer by trade, Kennedy grabbed headlines in July 2019 when representing 55 families in an Amish community suing the state of New York. The plaintiffs lost a challenge to a state ban on vaccine exemptions on religious bases. New York was the epicenter of a measles outbreak that nearly cost the United States its measles elimination status.
Nationwide, the American Medical Association beefed up its vaccination policy in June 2019. The physician group will now “actively advocate for legislation, regulations, programs and policies that incentivize states to eliminate non-medical exemptions from mandated pediatric immunizations, according to a statement.
California eliminated non-medical exemptions in 2015, but saw its medical exemptions rise since. State lawmakers have now set their sites on dodgy medical exemptions. California state senate bill SB276 would require physicians use federally accepted exemption criteria and submit their exemptions for review by state health officials.
The state medical board has accused three vaccine-denier physicians of writing unethical exemptions, with one providing more than a quarter of all school exemptions in San Diego. Pediatrician and California state senator Richard Pan, MD, told MedScape Medical News that doctors could sell exemptions for $300 to $500 apiece.
The authors of the study in Vaccine note in their conclusion that they do not believe that just because some vaccine-related content should be monitored doesn’t mean all vaccine-related content should be monitored. “The choice to broadly categorize all vaccine-related advertising content as political and/or of national importance plays into this politicization, indirectly reinforcing the notion that vaccines are controversial and legitimizing the idea of vaccine ‘debate,’” they wrote.
Some members of the antivaccine movement—possibly including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—are motivated by the noble desire to protect children; their methods are just misguided. Others are bad actors motivated by profit, such as Cook and Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced UK physician who kicked off the antivax movement in 1998, and don’t care about the harm they’re doing to public health.
The authors, and most others in the scientific, medical and research communities, contend that the benefits of vaccines massively outweigh the risks and drawbacks. While a small number of people can have adverse reactions to vaccines, vaccinations are one of the cornerstones of public health.
It’s not right to say that the science is settled, because good science relies on modifying hypotheses in response to new data. But for now, the data is clear. The question of the safety and benefit of vaccines should not be a political question or, according to the most current data, even a question at all.
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