Fake news, anti-vaxxers, and unreason

Yesterday, news broke that Donald Trump had asked Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a well-known anti-vaccine activist, to lead a panel on vaccine safety. While Trump’s team deny that he will be involved, the men did meet yesterday, and Trump himself has suggested a link between vaccines and autism in the past.

This is hugely dangerous. The potential impacts of parents refusing to get their children inoculated against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella are well-known; not only are parents putting their own kids at risk, but also children who rely on herd immunity as they are unable to have the jabs themselves. It is grossly irresponsible, and the Trump administration seems intent on indulging it.

Today, Donald Trump refused to take a question from a CNN reporter during a press conference, labelling the organisation “fake news”; a bitter irony from a man who spent years pushing conspiracies about Barack Obama’s citizenship.

Whilst CNN is no part of it, the proliferation of fake news is certainly a problem, and is currently the subject of an inquiry set up by Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

The spread of fake news and the anti-vaxxer movement both flow from the same source; a growing rejection of expertise and a disdain for some perceived elite. This “elite” establishment can be defined as whoever you happen to disagree with, whether it be doctors, the media, or whoever.

This dynamic is frequently helped along by the tendency of media companies to treat two opposing opinions — on, say, climate change — as equally valid, as if the two sides both had reasonable points and we could argue the toss.

Waters are also frequently muddied by bogus studies which give superficial cover to a false claim, and allow nonsense to pass as facts backed up by evidence. Andrew Wakefield’s study which led to his claims of a link between MMR and autism didn’t even show a causal connection, and his findings were unsupported by many larger investigations. The tobacco industry funded studies designed to play down the dangers of smoking. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters continue cite debunked studies which aim to prove the media is biased against him.


When I phonebanked in support of Owen Smith’s doomed leadership challenge last year, I spent some time talking to an older man who was very supportive of Jeremy Corbyn. He started to wax lyrical about The Canary, saying he read it every day. In the gentlest terms possible, I expressed that I felt the site was completely unreliable. In reply, he merely said that The Canary struck a chord with him. In effect, he responded positively to it because it told him what he wanted to hear; it confirmed his beliefs. Who needs objectivity when you can be validated? We’re all sick of experts now anyway.

And the thing is, experts and the “elite” can and do get things wrong. The tragedy of thalidomide. The Sun smearing Liverpool fans caught up in the Hillsborough disaster. And of course, the phone hacking scandal.

This is not an argument to blindly trust experts, or to unquestioningly support the establishment. Skepticism is healthy. But it’s not being skeptical to dismiss everything you disagree with out of hand as biased, and then unquestioningly accept sources you agree with, regardless of how flawed they may be.

This attitude has consequences. Anti-vaxxers’ strident and unfounded opposition to jabs puts countless children at risk. Fake news leads to verifiably untrue things being accepted as fact, with potentially deleterious impacts for a healthy democracy. Sometimes, it isn’t ok to agree to disagree. Sometimes, people are just wrong.

If there is to be a fightback against the extremes of left and right, a key component of it will be to show up these charlatans as the snake-oil salesmen that they are; be they fake news purveyors, climate change deniers, or the President-elect of the United States.

2016 was terrible. To make 2017 better, let’s start by refusing to treat bullshit with anything other than utter contempt.

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