February 28, 2019
Anti-Vaccine and Flat Earth: Why Do These Theories Persist?

Journalists who traced the path to anti-vaccine and flat Earth videos were surprised to see how easy it is to get them.

by Mario Rustan, Columnist
Issues // Politics and Society
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In early 2010s, some conservative Muslims in Indonesia were concerned about vaccination, since they heard that vaccines might contain pork protein. In Pakistan, polio persisted following a story that the intelligence team that scouted Osama bin Laden’s hideout disguised themselves as polio vaccine surveyors, hence polio vaccination program was associated with the CIA.

The conspiracy theory persisted through mid-2010s, now with further hoax that vaccination was a Jewish plot to sterilize Muslims. Meanwhile, Christian students I knew gradually believed in the Illuminati conspiracy theory more seriously and said that global celebrities, business leaders, and athletes were members of the Illuminati. I asked what’s dangerous about the Illuminati and they said of course it’s dangerous, since the organization opposes Christianity.

Doubt about vaccination also came from non-Muslim mothers who worried that vaccination might cause autism. Although every doctor would say that vaccination does not cause autism, they didn’t want to take the risk. If you ask where they got the information, they would say from their friends or relatives. Or online, through Facebook, WhatsApp, or some blogs.

By late 2010s, this anti-vaccine stance has become deadly, with measles and meningitis outbreaks taking place in the United States, the Philippines, and Europe. In Australia and Germany, healthy adults contact measles after traveling overseas; they grew up in the 1990s when measles vaccination was not mandatory. The World Health Organization now identifies “vaccine hesitancy” – the hesitance of parents to vaccinate their children – as a top global health threat.

In the Philippines, the measles outbreak is linked to a botched trial program of dengue vaccination, and the fallout made parents hesitate to vaccinate their children further, until a measles breakout happened. On the other hand, the majority of anti-vaccine parents in the West are white and upper middle class. Whatever their political compass is, they ground their convictions in conspiracy theories: either pharmaceutical corporations bribing doctors and schools to enforce vaccination, or a secret organization (call it Illuminati, or New World Order, or Freemasons) attempting mind control through vaccination.

In Italy, the ruling government supports anti-vaccine views on several grounds: parents who skip vaccination are not responsible for outbreaks, but immigrants are (although immigrants have better vaccination history and have passed medical tests before they were allowed in); parents know their children better than doctors; and there’s a global conspiracy to cover up the negative impact of vaccination and to shut out critics of vaccination.

Medical professionals and advocates are frustrated with the easiness of anti-vaccine messages to spread online, especially through Facebook and YouTube. Both websites are taking measures to purge anti-vaccine and “flat Earth” (the belief that we don’t live in a spherical planet, but on a disc) contents, but in many places including Indonesia, a hoax doesn’t need a video or an article to spread. A forwarded typo-filled message on a chat group with similarly horrible argument is enough to do the damage, since it is sent by an influential member of the group.

So why do these hoaxes spread rapidly? Perhaps it’s human nature to take rumors seriously, because our ancestors couldn’t afford a “wait and see” or “trust but verify” approaches when dealing with rumors of plague, invasion, or rebellion. Secondly, this Information Age is dizzyingly fast and revolutionary – in less than a generation we have moved from dial up modem to BlackBerry to service apps – and it’s hard to keep up with the technologies and the news. We complain about too much information, but we also can’t get enough of them.

Several journalists who traced the path to anti-vaccine and flat Earth videos on YouTube or Facebook were surprised to see how easy it is to get them: just a search of “immunization” or watching an astronomy video could lead to suggestions of anti-vaccine and flat Earth videos. YouTube and Facebook have been blamed for pushing videos with high engagement and popularity, no matter what their content is.

When I watch a YouTube video on football or video games, I would get suggestions of Islamist videos. Perhaps YouTube bases its suggestions on what people in my neighborhood see, or what other viewers of football and video games videos in Bandung see. But I am sure those Islamist videos are suggested because they are popular with plenty of clicks, comments, and followers.

Thankfully, anti-vaccine parents here are not as plenty and loud as in the West, partly because of the strong culture of mandatory vaccination in our society. Still, there anti-vaccine parents coming from different groups; and upper middle-class parents have more space to choose schools where vaccine history is not mandatory.

Flat Earth believers, meanwhile, are widely ridiculed everywhere, but conspiracy theory believers are certain that they are wiser and smarter than the general public. By itself, the flat Earth theory is harmless and several believers insist that they are just being ironic, or that they are not different to feminists and LGBT folks who follow astrology.

Unlike followers of astrology, however, believers of flat Earth theory tend to follow more dangerous ideas, such as anti-vaccination, homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Just like conspiracy theories’ believers in the West believe that Jewish elites import Muslim and African migrants, believers here are convinced that the government has imported millions of Chinese migrants. Therefore, they are interested in xenophobic political figures who validate their fear and hatred.

I am not sure how to change the mind of conspiracy theorists, especially on anti-vaccination. A recent The Conversation article advocates dialogue and empathy with people who oppose vaccination, but so far we have seen little success in holding dialogues with groups such as anti-feminists and homophobes. Meanwhile, confrontation, name calling, and snarks are not helping either.

Some people believe in the transmission of good information through attractive media – video presentation, infographics, Twitter threads, and apps. If these efforts are still not enough to convince anti-vaxxers and flat Earth believers to change their views, perhaps they still would be effective to keep the public away from their lies.

Also read Mario’s thought on being biracial in Indonesia and follow@MarioRustan on Twitter.
Mario Rustan writes opinion pieces for The Jakarta Post and is working on some other online projects and was featured in Guardian Football and SBS Radio. His dream job is still teaching High School History by day and writing for feminism by night.