I’ve just been reading my first Kindle book, “Believing Bullshit: How not to get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole” by Stephen Law, which was recommended to me by a friend. Chapter 8 talks about different methods by which people can be brainwashed into believing strange beliefs. These include:
Isolation – removing the person from associating with people who might have dissenting views
Control – limiting a person’s access to resources which only push your point of view
Uncertainty – creating doubts about any other belief system
Repetition – repeating the same beliefs over and over again.
Emotion – inducing fear is considerably effective, as is making people feel guilty about considering dissenting views.
As I read this list it hit me that the structure of many anti-vaxxer sites and the behaviour of anti-vaxxers involve these techniques.
Many anti-vaxxer sites ban or block those with dissenting views, isolating their members from challenging information and controlling the type of information their members are exposed to. Key (often erroneous) beliefs are often repeated ad nauseum, for example, the belief that vaccines contain aborted fetal material or that there is a medico-industrial conspiracy to poison people with vaccines. Such conspiracies also create an “us” vs “them” mentality which further enforces the isolation. Many erroneous claims are promoted about vaccines, creating uncertainty. Finally, and in my opinion most insidiously, antivaxxers use emotions such as fear and guilt to bully their opponents. Jibes and threats of the most vile nature have been leveled against vaccine creators, and last year members of the anti-vaccine Australian Vaccine Network were accused of harassing the parents of a child who died of whooping cough. Pictures of crying babies faced with large needles play on a parent’s protective instincts, distracting them from seeing the benefits of vaccination.
So are anti-vaxxer websites venues for brainwashing? Make your own mind up. Next time you visit an anti-vaxxer website or listen to an anti-vaccine advocate, watch for these techniques.