Comparable tactics: antivaccination and antievolutionist persuasion efforts

Antivaccinationism and Darwin-skepticism differ in their goals and retinue, yet counter-vaccine media often exhibit similar persuasion characteristics to those that this book has identified in antievolutionist communications. Such antivaccine media also displays a rhetorical edge not generally found in provaccination materials.’ This includes repeated fear appeals emphasizing purported risks associated with the toxic ingredients of vaccines, as well as professed hazards to overstimulating infant immune systems.10 In concert with its emotive language, antivaccination media features a suite of allegations that coincide with persuasive cues detected in Darwin-skeptic media. This includes the use of Asking Questions as well as the Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect.

In relation to these persuasive elements, audiences are told by counterimmunization media makers that provaccination policies encroach upon civil liberties, while they are asked rhetorically about the fairness of such rules. Antivaccine media also frequently question whether there is truly enough empirical data supporting vaccine efficacy, and rhetorically cross-examine the motives of vaccination advocates.11 In a similar fashion to Darwin-skeptic messages, antivaccination negative contrast involves biting attacks against supporters of vaccines, depicted as blind adherents who irrationally reject an alleged mountain of evidence favoring vaccine refusal. Audiences are warned that the burden of proof regarding the safety and usefulness of vaccines still lies with vaccine supporters, because more research is needed to empirically test and negate the existence of vaccination dangers. Just as antievolutionists argue that scientists have provided insufficient proof for evolution’s validity, antivaccination media contends that vaccine

From science-skepticism to intervention 235 safety has not been scientifically substantiated.12 Moreover, akin to antievolutionist claims that their opposition is despotically enforcing Darwinian orthodoxy, counter-vaccine spokespeople assert that governmental vaccination policies are totalitarian.13 It can also be observed that, as with antievolutionist communications, vaccine critics continually question the moral character of vaccine supporters, while further maintaining that vaccination stakeholders and pharmaceutical companies, together labeled Big Pharma, are fraudulently immunizing the public with toxin-saturated vaccines primarily for financial gain.14 Antivaccination media commentators habitually attack any and all opposition to their cause, much like their Darwin-skeptic counterparts.

Notably, these verbal assaults are replete with conspiracist ideation, asserting that a vile Big Pharma-supporting cadre is hiding the useless and dangerous nature of vaccines.1’ Such messages coincide with the Scarcity Principle, as vaccine-denialists routinely announce that they are being censored by a powerful pro-vaccine lobby. It is claimed that adverse vaccine reactions are also being underreported because doctors fear reprisals from governments and pharmaceutical companies, or, conversely, medical practitioners are actively colluding with these bad actors for their own gain.16 Much like antievolutionists, vaccine critics thus ask audiences why their opponents seem to dread fair discussions and resist balanced reporting on vaccinations, while further stating that publics should refrain from trusting supposed “vaccine experts.”17 With its disputations of rival authorities, antivaccination media further resemble Darwin-skeptic broadcasts by continually appealing to Messenger Credibility.18 Some broadcasts even liken antivaccinationists to Galileo in much the same way that antievolutionists tether Darwin-skepticism to the credibility of the Scientific Revolution’s luminaries. Also, in a rhetorical move rather consonant with antievolutionists claims that religious knowledge supersedes scientific findings, opponents of vaccination stress nontechnical counter-expertise. This includes the informal awareness parents have of their own children’s health, said to override any physicians’ inferior book learning. Analogically, counter-vaccination mavens profess to have superior insider knowledge, frequently boasting that they have greater understanding of vaccine facts than do their own local general practitioners.19 What is more, numerous celebrity endorsements besprinkle counter-vaccination broadcasts, further reinforcing messages with the influential magnetism obtained via famous personalities.20

Attempts at enhancing credibility are also built around claims that there are numerous rebel doctors secretly endorsing antivaccination efforts, while under threat of institutional retaliation and censorship. These pronouncements correspond with Darwin-skeptic statements about underdog antievolutionist scientists, linking the repute of scientists to Social Consensus cues. Counter-vaccination media further cultivate Social Proof through copious anecdotal and emotionally charged testimonials of vaccine injury, along with underdog biographies of virtuous antivaccinationists braving persecutionagainst the Big Pharma superstructure. Overall, antivaccination spokespeople argue that so many people cannot be wrong in their choice to refuse vaccines, while it is unthinkable that thousands of individuals and underdog physicians around the globe are mistaken concerning the perceived damage vaccinations have caused to their own family members.21

These narratives are frequently supplemented with statistics on apparent vaccine dangers, allusions to reportedly genuine counter-vaccine science, research papers styled as authoritative sources, and the conspicuous use of technical jargon and complex health-related terminology. Though differing in subject matter and delivery, such persuasive elements approximate similar instances of specialist language and the use of statistical data appearing throughout Darwin-skeptic communications. Further paralleling creationist and ID media, antivaccination materials also emphasize the shared values and ideals maintained by both the counter-vaccine movement and various publics. In the case of antivaccinationists, these tend to be values associated with professed notions of equality, fairness, and individualism, including favoring ideas related to freedom and autonomy in opposition to discrimination and authoritarianism.22 While referencing colluding doctors and conspiratorial plots, for instance, it is declared that unlike the pro-immunization lobby, vaccine-doubters truly support open-mindedness, the balanced analysis of facts, fair dialogue, as well as healthy skepticism and critical thinking. These messages mirror the same sorts of claims articulated by Darwinskeptic leaders. Antivaccinationists also frequently appeal to the rights of citizens to make their own medical choices, because it is maintained that an individual’s own moral authority and the right to act self-determinately in vaccine refusal should be respected by government officials.23

In conjunction with persuasive media attributes, researchers of anti-vaccinationism have also identified the prevalence and likely influences of counter-immunization mass communications. As with Darwin-skeptic spokespersons, antivaccinationists use every available online resource at their disposal. Several studies further indicate that vaccine deniers outperform provaccinationists with respect to the number of counter-vaccine websites and social media outputs, as well as in terms of media readability and rhetorical potency.24 Added to this are observations that many people report turning to online media as a primary source for information about vaccines. Consequently, large numbers of information-seekers light upon countervaccination sites and anti-immunization claims simply due to the pervasiveness of online vaccine-rejecting materials, as well as information-seeking tendencies.25 Investigators of these trends have also warned of the effects of such antivaccine communications, indicating that even brief exposures to online antivaccination rhetoric can have long-lasting negative influences upon immunization attitudes and behaviors.26

In broad strokes the analogous persuasion motifs observed across antivaccination and Darwin-skeptic media are summarized in Table 8.1. These attributes are deployed throughout an extensive range of communication

Table 8.1 Persuasive Commonalities of Darwin-Skeptic and Counter-Vaccine Media

Persuasion Variables

Darwin-Skeptic Media

Antivaccinationist Media

Asking Questions

  • • Questioning an opponent’s understanding of scripture.
  • • Questioning empirical data confirming evolution.
  • • Querying the moral principles of proevolutionists.
  • • Questioning of the fairness of pro-vaccine policies.
  • • Asking whether empirical data supports vaccine efficacy.
  • • Queries regarding vaccine supporter motives and

Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect

  • • Contrasting Darwin-skepticism’s empirical support with evolution’s supposed deficits.
  • • Comparing antievolutionists’ honesty, open-mindedness, and commitment to science with proevolutionists’ duplicity and blind faith.
  • • Contrasting the religious corroboration for Darwinskepticism with the spiritual insufficiencies of accepting evolutionary theory.
  • • Contrasting data supporting vaccine efficacy and safety with the claimed empirical and anecdotal support for vaccine hesitancies.
  • • Comparing antivaccination honesty with vaccine lobby corruption.
  • • Contrasting a devotion to critical thinking and personal autonomy with pro-vaccine authoritarianism and close-mindedness.

Scarcity Principle

  • • Conspiracist notions of evolutionists suppressing incriminating scientific findings, and censoring creationist/ID supporting empirical data.
  • • Discriminatory hiring practices against Darwinskeptics.
  • • Conspiracy theories involving Big Pharma and government coverups of vaccine dangers and ineffectiveness.
  • • Doctors and researchers co-conspiring to censor counter-immunization data.

Source Cues

  • • Appeals to sacred authority, including divine sanction and scriptural support.
  • • Appeals to academic qualifications, scientific proficiencies.
  • • Linking antievolutionism with founders of science, religious pacesetters.
  • • Mentioning antivaccine scientific expertise and purported scientific papers.
  • • Superior insider knowledge, as well as the deeper understanding of personal wellbeing and family members’ health.
  • • Celebrity endorsements.

Social Consensus

  • • Testimonials from supporters.
  • • Descriptions of antievolutionism’s popular support.
  • • Mention of underdog antievolutionist scientists.
  • • Testimonials of vaccine injury.
  • • Claims of rebel antivaccine scientists and doctors around the globe.


Table 8.1 (Continued)

Persuasion Variables

Darwin-Skeptic Media

Antivaccinationist Media

Statistics and

Technical Jargon

  • • Biological Sciences, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Mathematics, Physics, Astronomy, and Theology technical jargon.
  • • Scientific and survey statistics.
  • • Medical sciences terminology.
  • • Statistics validating the dangers of vaccinations, or figures invalidating the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

Fear Appeals

  • • Invoking fears regarding social evils resulting from evolutionary theory.
  • • Fears concerning a decline in Christianity precipitated by evolution.
  • • Narratives of toxic vaccine ingredients and vaccine injury.
  • • Frightful accounts of medical/corporate malfeasance.

Highlighting Shared Values

  • • Emphasizing shared religious and moral values.
  • • Underscoring mutual sociopolitical values associated with national narratives.
  • • Asserting a commitment to the values of equality and fairness.
  • • Mentioning values linked with individualism.

From science-skepticism to intervention 239 outlets by representatives of both parties, to degrees that often rhetorically outstrip their pro-vaccine and evolution-supporting rivals. Along with these likenesses, and as has been noted above, researchers have documented how persuasive antivaccination messages can have enduring effects that trade upon people’s online information-obtaining proclivities. In like manner, this book has examined the ways in which antievolutionist media are infused with sizeable quantities of persuasive elements, which suggest a persuasive potency likely to influence targeted audiences in print and on the Internet. With these resemblances in mind, we are presented with a picture of two different forms of counter-science media exhibiting comparable persuasion attributes, and the potential to trigger the contestation of established science. What then, we can ask, have researchers of vaccine hesitancies concluded about how best to respond to antivaccination influences bearing many of the same persuasive attributes as Darwin-skeptic mass media? To start, by all accounts it appears that trying to frustrate such counter-science initiatives and their affiliated attitudes via intensified fact dissemination is unlikely to succeed.

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