How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers

by |February 8, 2019
vaccine needle

Research assistant Rachel Alter became a “pro-vaccine troll” so you don’t have to. Photo: Pixabay

When Rachel Alter started off as a graduate student, she expected to investigate epidemics, bioterrorism and disease eradication. But her focus started to shift after she began chatting with anti-vaxxers—people opposed to vaccination—on Facebook. Now, as a research assistant at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Earth Institute, she wants to find ways to better communicate about vaccine safety.

In recent op-eds, Alter has called for a national movement to dispel the myths that feed into anti-vaccination fears. Despite an abundance of evidence showing that vaccines are perfectly safe and save lives, many people reject them, stoked by the frightening misinformation that spreads over social networks.

Vaccine refusal is having a real-world impact. Two decades ago, measles was all but eradicated from the U.S. Now, cases are skyrocketing, with more than 1,700 infections since 2010. Alter notes that in the first six months of 2018, more than 41,000 Europeans contracted measles and 37 died.

In her op-eds, Alter has argued that it’s time for a movement to battle the spread of false information about vaccines. She’s calling on organizations—such as FEMA, the Red Cross, and the American Academy of Pediatrics—as well as faith leaders and survivors to get involved in the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She also suggests that celebrities could play an important role in setting a good example, and that schools could help students learn how to distinguish between credible and non-credible information.

What you can do

One of the most important things you can do to combat the resurgence of obsolete diseases is simply to get vaccinated. Not only does this help prevent you yourself from getting sick, but also makes it harder for the disease to find its way into your community, thanks to herd immunity. And when you get vaccinated, tell your friends. They’ll be more likely to get vaccinated, too.

You could also try talking to the people in your life who refuse vaccines. From her experience as a “pro-vax troll”—she’s been booted from several groups simply for sharing real science—Alter has learned a few lessons about navigating this sometimes tricky terrain.

She says that she sees three types of people in the anti-vax community. She rarely engages with the strongest vaccine opponents, nor the profiteers—people who make money from selling anti-vaccine hype—because those discussions are rarely fruitful. When she does, her goal is not to convince them to change their minds, but to have a public conversation with them so that people on the fence about vaccines can read along and come to their own conclusions. It’s those people on the fence, the less vocal majority in the Facebook groups she’s joined, that Alter hopes to convince.

“They’re people who just get so much information that they don’t know what to believe and they don’t know how to pick apart the real data from the fake data,” she explains. “They’re the ones who you can have fruitful conversations with.”

Here are a few of her strategies for engagement:

1. Be respectful. Nobody likes to be called an idiot or be told that they’re bad parents. “We have to come from a place of empathy,” says Alter. “The vast majority of [anti-vaxxers] are really just trying to do what’s best for their families and their kids, and they don’t have the science literacy to weed through all the information.”

2. Don’t bombard them with facts. Facts and statistics can be helpful, but too much at once can be overwhelming and exhausting. “Be mindful,” Alter advises. “Note how that conversation is going” and adjust accordingly. If it looks like someone else is handling it well enough without your input, sit back for a bit; you can always join in later.

3. Ask questions. Questions like “What is your concern about…” and “How do you perceive…” can get the conversation going in a way that doesn’t feel like an attack. They encourage the other person to examine their beliefs more closely, and can also help you to…

4. Find out where they’re coming from. Learning what’s important to your conversation partner can help you find common ground and suggest ideas that fit with their worldview. A variety of studies have found that vaccine opponents are pretty evenly split between liberals and conservatives, and they have a range of different reasons for rejecting vaccines. For many conservatives, for example, it’s a matter of having the freedom to make their own choices. So, Alter says, explaining that vaccination helps protect others in the community might resonate well with liberals, but fall flat with someone who places a higher value on personal liberty.

The World Health Organization has more helpful tips on how to respond to vaccine deniers. You can use a lot of this advice in other contentious areas as well, such as arguments over climate change.

The tip of the iceberg

Alter says that although it’s impossible for her to know whether her conversations have led to people getting vaccinated, sometimes people thank her for answering their questions. “I like to think that I’m actually affecting them, but I’ll never be able to prove it,” she says.

The conversations have helped her develop some new lines of research. She’s currently seeking approval for a study that would ask vaccine opponents, “What would you need to see, learn, or understand better before you vaccinate yourself or your children?” The study’s goal would be to compile reasonable suggestions to recommend to doctors and other stakeholders. Some of these suggestions might take the form of offering allergy tests before vaccination, for example, or listing what each ingredient in the vaccine is used for.

And she couldn’t have picked a better time to get involved. The World Health Organization names “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the 10 public health threats to worry about in 2019. “It’s such a growing problem,” Alter says, “and it seems like it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

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4 thoughts on “How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers

  1. Rich S says:

    There is a tax credit for children that was established during the Clinton administration. I have long felt that it should not be “no strings attached”. Why not require proof that the child of the taxpayer claiming the deduction is up to date with vaccinations?

    If the parent making the decision decides not to vaccinate their child, they should lose the deduction. Many of the anti-vaxxers are likely not committed enough to their belief that they would give up the tax deduction.

  2. Lee K. says:

    This is a good post. I do have a question – what do we do with people whose entire objection to vaccines is based on a misguided belief that “chemicals” are bad? If the entirety of their argument is that vaccines contain a lot of scary-sounding compounds…. well, yes, that’s true. They do. Yet somehow no amount of the usual explanations (e.g. pointing out that the mercury compounds in vaccines are inert, that everything is made of chemicals, that they’ve been extensively tested for safety) seems to penetrate this barrier.

    When the opposing argument boils down to “vaccines sound scary, and essential oils sound natural and safe and harmless”, how does one effectively refute this, without resorting to citing articles that will be dismissed as “paid for by Big Pharma”? I want to help fight the rising tide of anti-intellectualism, but it’s hard to do so when reputable sources are not considered reputable by the anti-vaxx crowd.

  3. Christina says:

    The single biggest thing I would ask to see – as a scientifically literate, educated person who knows vaccines work as designed and declines to administer them – is the removal of vaccine research and production from the commercial/capitalist domain. As a public health matter, vaccine R&D and implementation should be entirely managed by public health institutions that have no profit motive attached. Ethically, those institutions would research and evaluate and fund all sorts of systems that benefit public health without bias toward systems that enrich industrialists. I just finished City if Thorns – about the world’s largest refugee camp, in Kenya – they vaccinated 600,000 people against polio, but couldn’t be bothered to improve sanitation systems which would have protected against polio as well as cholera, dysentery, etc. Scientists can be very close-minded about the tainting of research by money.

  4. Donna Bass says:

    Perhaps seeing that anti vaxxers are really really well read. They have found much of the ammunition they need from the very body of work you are pulling from. These people are afraid of damage to their children. Not just autism…but neurological damage that is a real danger. There are real dangers with vaccines. I didn’t make that up, and you know that is true. I realize these dangers are thought to be very rare but…its really easy to make a case for them being more common than we think. Let’s talk about potential damages. Let’s talk about how to take care of children and adults that have been damaged rather than yelling at each other. Lets come clean and talk about the possible down sides rather than people reading about downsides that are not being talked about. People see that there are real possibilities for damage and also see that pro vax people are losing their minds and wonder what is being hidden. Lets all come to the table and talk about the cons, the pros and all of the risks together. There are reasonable points on both sides, and as a “troll” I am sure you already know this.

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