Anti-vaccine activists generate and spread misinformation again

This article about anti-vaccine misinformation tactics is based on a series of Twitter posts by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. She is also a member of the Vaccines Working Group on Ethics and Policy.

This article are quoted verbatim, except for minor editing changes. We both felt a broader audience for this anti-vaccine tactic to spread misinformation will be useful to understand. In essence, an anti-vaccine group asked the CDC for a single patient record, something the CDC doesn’t keep, and then imply something nefarious is happening because the CDC couldn’t provide that information.

Below, Professor Reiss reviews how this is a cynical tactic to make it appear something is going on with vaccines, when it isn’t.

mad formal executive man yelling at camera
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Anti-vaccine misinformation tactics – misusing an FOIA response

This is a good example of how antivaccine activists generate and spread misinformation. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does one thing – it allows you to get access to existing agency records, unless there’s an exception. So whatever you are asking for has to be an agency record.

So for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to find anything her, there would have to be an agency record for an unvaccinated individual infecting an unvaccinated one. Why would CDC have such a record? CDC officials do conduct studies on data. But the data is often not theirs as are agency records. (Editor’s note – the CDC does not often keep individual patient data, except in extraordinary instances, such as tracking Ebola victims that have come to the USA.)

So the reality is, CDC isn’t likely to have this as a record. When someone brings a FOIA request and they search their database, no record will come up. That’s all that their response answer said. All it means is “our computers don’t have a record with these terms.”

Now, the law firm here, which has been closely working with antivaccine organizations for over a year doing just this, likely knows the limits and meaning of FOIA. They may not know what CDC has or has not as records, so may not have been sure they won’t have this.

person holding an eyeglasses near a vintage typewriter
Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels.com

But they have to know that this does not mean the CDC admits anything except “a search didn’t find this record.” Not finding a record does not mean a fact doesn’t exist – just that something isn’t in agency records. The law firm knows that.

But it allows it’s letter to be used to claim otherwise, and since this is a recurring issue, I suspect this was done exactly to allow it to be used this way.

That’s the generating of misinformation. And then, an army of foot soldiers who don’t know FOIA, but are sympathetic to the antivaccine effort – like the art dealer I opened with – help spread this bit of disinformation and serve to mislead others into harm.


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Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.