Social Media’s Influence on the Anti-Vax Movement


Annie Liu

Lola Berger ’20 and Caroline Chin ’20 question the consequences of the anti-vaccination movement.

The increasing prevalence of misinformation dispersed on social media and throughout the web has allowed the anti-vaccination movement to gain immense traction in the past few years. Although controversy surrounds whether or not an individual has the right to refuse vaccination, it is clear that getting vaccinated is necessary for the human population to remain healthy.

Anti-vaccination sentiments have been present as early as the 1800s, after Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments led to the widespread of vaccination throughout England and the U.S. Even then, many expressed fears and hesitations due to the novelty of vaccination, some even forming anti-vaccination groups. More controversies began to surface in the 1900s, two of which include Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (DTP) and Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR). Despite the controversies, laws were passed mandating vaccinations for babies and, eventually, for children who are entering school.

“It’s important to keep in mind not just how your decisions affect you, but also the world at large, especially something as serious as potentially saving a life,” said Caroline Chin ’20.

Amid all the anti-vaccination sentiments, one incident stands out. When Cambridge, Massachusetts passed mandatory vaccination laws following a smallpox outbreak in 1905, Henning Jacobson refused and appealed his case to the Supreme Court. Asserting that states maintained the right to pass laws to protect its residents, the Court ruled in Massachusetts’ favor.

Jacobson v. Massachusetts set the premise for subsequent health laws, providing states with the right to pass regulations that are deemed necessary for the welfare of the general public. It is important to note, however, that this court ruling was made under a time of danger (the smallpox outbreak that occurred); whether the ruling is extended to more general cases is not specified. Not many states currently allow personal beliefs and values to exempt one from vaccination, raising concerns of the importance of free will versus the common good.

There is also a possibility that this decision might be overturned or reconsidered in greater detail if a similar case was brought up to the Supreme Court today. Jacobson appealed under the notion that he had the right to control his body however he wanted; what would the grounds of a twenty-first century case be if there was one? After all, changing times and differing courts have overturned many court decisions in the past.

For the benefit of the majority, vaccination should be mandated. Herd immunity, or the resistance a population has to a specific disease, can protect those who are not immune only if a sufficient amount of the population is immune to the diseases. For many who are medically unable to be vaccinated, including babies, pregnant women, and the elderly, a lot is at stake. “Anti-vaccination is very much a threat to society and puts many people at risk,” Lola Berger ’20 said. Caroline Chin ’20 adds, “It’s important to keep in mind not just how your decisions affect you, but also the world at large, especially something as serious as potentially saving a life.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites fourteen diseases that can be prevented by vaccination, measles being one. However, in the past year alone, there have been 387 reported cases of measles, a formerly eradicated disease, throughout the nation (CDC). This trend has been linked to a drop in herd immunity, causing the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the anti-vaccination movement a threat to public health.

Although much of this information can be found online, increasing anti-vaccination sentiments have led many to grow suspicious of vaccines. In the 1990s, a group of researchers proposed a link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) vaccine and autism, among other diseases and conditions, due to thimerosal, a compound containing mercury that is used to preserve vaccines. Studies have been conducted since disproving the links and thimerosal is not longer used in vaccines, but anti-vaccination sentiments have remained. “It doesn’t help that many celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy have also spoken out against vaccination,” Nina Wang ’20 said.

Anti-vaccination sentiments have been further perpetuated by incidents in China. In January of this year, 100 children received expired polio vaccines. Just a month later, more than 12,000 units of blood plasma used to make vaccines were reported to be contaminated with HIV. Protests have become more widespread amid increasing distrust in the Chinese medical system.

With vaccines facing public scrutiny, companies like Amazon, Youtube, and Facebook have faced criticism from journalists and the media for displaying misinformation about vaccines on their sites. Many companies have since taken efforts to reduce and remove anti-vaccination content, including books, documentaries, and ads. Some have expressed doubts about whether companies are simply yielding to public pressure or because they think it is morally correct. Others, however, have questioned the power these companies hold, a question that has no clear answer. Is the forceful removal of anti-vaccination literature their social responsibility or are they overstepping their power by censoring content?