The motives of anti-vaccine voices on social media

A common claim of anti-vaccine voices is that pro-vaccine voices on social media speak for “industry” (apparently, lumping all doctors, health insurance companies, HMOs, health departments, and yes, vaccines manufacturers, into one big industry, and assuming that all those speaking for vaccines are part of that industry). On the other hand, they try to claim that they are simply parents, with no ulterior motives for speaking up (downplaying the part that vast majority of parents are pro-vaccine).

This post provides a different perspective. There are many reasons anti-vaccine voices are so loud – at least some are not as innocent as what is claimed. This post draws on my observations in over 5 years of encountering and listening to anti-vaccine activists.

Anti-vaccine people can feel passionately and speak up about their beliefs out of ulterior motives, including financial or emotional motives. Let’s take a look at the motives of the anti-vaccine voices.

anti-vaccine voices

Anti-vaccine voices – financial motives

  1. They are alternative practitioners and their business model depends on scaring people about vaccines so that they will turn more to alternative treatments. Or, they have made a career out of anti-vaccine activism on social media, and that is now a main or only source of income. It also seems that several people who became anti-vaccine for other reasons (such as believing – often against the evidence – that vaccines harmed their child) have started business endeavors that draw on the beliefs of anti-vaccine activists – such as selling products like essential oils, promoting (fake) alternative treatments, working for anti-vaccine organizations (like becoming TACA ambassadors, and other lines.
  2. They are researchers who turn to anti-vaccine organizations like the Dwoskin Family Foundation and CMSRI for funding.
  3. They have a pending case in front of NVICP and want to win, or convince themselves they can win.
  4. They are doctors who cater to parents who are anti-vaccine.

anti-vaccine voices

Anti-vaccine voices – emotional/prestige motives:

  1. The only community that supports their belief and fosters them is the anti-vaccine community. That was, or has become, their frame of reference, and they will not believe otherwise. My suspicion is that many parents of children with autism – especially in the 1990s and into the early 2000s – fall into this mold. These parents have, it seems, received a message of no hope from their doctors. The community that gave them hope was a community that also bought into anti-vaccine messages – and selling fake treatments. So they speak up for what they see as their community.
  2. That’s the only community that offers financial or other support for their children. A parent that is convinced that biomedical science would help her or his child would find little financial or emotional support from mainstream medicine for example. They could easily be pulled into the network of practitioners who provide such treatments – and the anti-vaccine movement appears to cover many of those.
  3. They have failed to make an impact in “mainstream” science/medicine and are building a name in the alternative communities, and seek the adoration of the anti-vaccine community.
  4. Identity building: the person has built so much of their reality around Identity building: the person has built so much of their reality around non-vaccinating that their view of themselves and their reality would collapse if their beliefs are successfully challenged.

Less ulterior, but still very powerful, would be the need to explain an unexplained shock or tragedy to the family (and even a condition that is imminently livable with – like type I diabetes – can throw a family into a spin, at least as a first stage – there is likely a period of vulnerability after any diagnosis where those affected are seeking answers). Similarly, the desire to blame.

In short, there are many things that can lead to someone sharing anti-vaccine information online.

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.