This article about anti-vaccine social mobilization was written 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.
Viruses are the ultimate parasites. Viruses are little packages of genetic material whose whole existence is about finding a host cell they can enter, use the cell’s machinery to make copies of themselves, often killing the cell in the process, and move to another cell – often inflicting substantial damage on the whole host organism (when the host is not a single cell).
Obviously, no human is like that. Nor is a movement like anti-vaccine social mobilization. But the term “viral” has been used to describe things that are not actually viruses. In several ways, the anti-vaccine movement can be argued to have similar qualities to viruses.
First, viruses succeed by misrepresenting themselves. They get into cells by convincing the cell’s receptors that they should be pulled in, that they belong. In a similar way, anti-vaccine social mobilization simulates other social movement’s use of the law by misrepresenting legal claims – blatantly or less blatantly.
They present settlements as wins. They present a case that rejected an argument that the Childhood National Vaccine Injury Act embodied the idea that vaccines are “unavoidably safe” by saying “US supreme court ruled vaccines “unavoidably UNsafe” [sic] in 2011.”
Second, anti-vaccine activists are parasitic in the sense that they coopt previously successful legal claims used by other movements. For example, in attacking laws trying to tighten vaccine mandates anti-vaccine activists compared them to segregation, going as far as to refer to Jim Crow, Rosa Parks, and separate water fountains.
In more than one lawsuit they cited Brown v. Board of Education to support a claim of discrimination (Reiss, 2018). More recently, they invoked the language of “my body, my choice” used by supporters of reproductive rights, and to the Me Too movement.
Third, anti-vaccine activists’ content goes viral. Although the content does not often break outside their network, the coordinated nature of their network and their sophisticated efforts make it quickly go viral within the network.
In these different ways, the anti-vaccine social mobilization has a viral-like quality, with more than one meaning, that is unlike the social movement previously written about.
As the editor, I’d like to add a fourth point. Viruses have no intelligence or free will. They are organisms at the edge of life, barely living. Compare that to the anti-vaccine social mobilization. Just saying.
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