Hi everyone, Inge here, Coda’s Impact Editor. This week, I want us to dip our toes into the real-life implications of vaccine skepticism. With two friends who are anti-vax, and my son currently attending one of the notoriously vaccine-sceptic Waldorf schools, I’ve heard all the arguments before. On both sides, the discussion is tainted with strong emotions about the wellbeing of our children. 

As a parent, when your child is sick, it’s the worst feeling in the world: you feel helpless. As I write this, my son is lethargic on a couch with a nasty ear infection. But it’s just an ear infection, and I know it will pass. 

Parents in the small Pacific country of Samoa haven’t been that lucky. The island nation with a population of less than 200,000, has been struggling with a major measles outbreak for a few months now. The disease has so far infected around 4,500 people and killed 76, of which more than 60 were younger than four.

The outbreak has animated both sides of the vaccination argument. People from all over the world have been passionately arguing about the subject on the government’s official Facebook page.

This horrible tragedy shows what happens when vaccine skepticism takes a hold. 

Vaccination rates in Samoa plummeted to just 31% after July 2018, when two young children died after receiving vaccinations. It was a tragic accident. The nurse administering the vaccines had mixed the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine powder with expired muscle relaxant instead of water. But for those already fearful of vaccines, the deaths served as proof that vaccines are dangerous.

With children dying of measles, you may think this clearly shows how dangerous it is to decline vaccinations. But to those who worry vaccines might kill their children instead, a deep-rooted fear has led them to believe in the existence of a massive cover up in Samoa. And they are sharing their views on the government’s official Facebook page. 

Prior to the 5th of December, the government’s official Facebook page had only seven reviews. The recommendations all praised the government and seem to have come from a few of Samoa’s residents. 

But that all changed when Samoa began a mandatory immunization drive in November to vaccinate 90% of the population. Authorities also arrested a prominent anti-vaccination campaigner Edwin Tamasese, charging him with incitement against a government order. Tamasese had described the government’s vaccination program as “the greatest crime against our people”, and falsely claimed vitamin C could cure the infected children.

In merely a week, Samoa’s Facebook page became the battleground of a war between anti and pro-vaxxers. 

“A tyrannical government run by the cartel to arrest a man for giving Vit A and C to dying children with measles (who improved), while pharmagov gave out ineffective Tylenol and antibiotics. Government of Samoa places revenue and pride ahead of health safety,” one Facebook user wrote while giving a 0-star review.

Renee DiResta, a disinformation expert recently interviewed by Coda reporter Isobel Cockerell on how anti-vaxxers get around Instagram’s new hashtag controls, noticed an increase in negative reviews regarding the government’s new vaccination policy.

“A brigade of antivax Karens from the US descending upon the FB page of the Government of Samoa *to leave 1-star reviews* is…next level,” she tweeted

In response to the reviews from anti-vaxxers, hundreds of Facebook users took to the page to support the government’s mandatory vaccine policy. 

For many, it’s hard to understand why people would be so vehemently anti-vax and the outbreak in Samoa exemplifies how a refusal to vaccinate can kill. But for the anti-vax community, the belief that vaccines kill is stronger and linked to a decline in trust in expertise. 

As mentioned in almost every negative review on Samoa’s FB page, the community believes that the medical establishment – often described as Big Pharma – is paying scientists and governments to push unsafe vaccines. In their defense, it wouldn’t be the first time: medical companies have influenced research on the effects of sugar, exaggerated the importance of cereals for breakfast and downplayed the addictive nature of opioids, resulting in a massive addiction crisis in the U.S. These scandals have contributed to a growing distrust in science and medicine.

Starting in 2020, we are launching our new coverage on the war on science, and we’ll be investigating why people lose trust and how some bad actors take advantage for monetary gain or political power. We hope our coverage will uncover the many layers of this discussion.

My favorite Coda Stories this week:

We recently reported on the disinformation surrounding the measles outbreak in Ukraine. Like Samoa, Ukraine is one of the countries hardest hit, with more than 115,000 cases and 40 deaths since 2017.

Other recommended reads:

  • Disinformation has infiltrated the media and elections in the West. In Italy, Russian propaganda now seems to have played a role in a murder trial. (New York Times)
  • Read this special issue of the Columbia Journalism Review which focuses on disinformation. (CJR)
  • Listen to this Power 3.0 podcast interview with Coda Story’s co-founder Natalia Antelava, in which she discusses new and innovative ways to report disinformation, as well as the impact of authoritarian technologies.