Misinformation: A Tool Used by Cults (and Anti-vaxxers) to Control People

A cult is a group of people who organize around a strong authority figure. Cults, like many other groups, attempt to expand their influence for the purposes of power or money. No one joins a cult; they are recruited by systematic social influence processes. However, to achieve these ends, destructive cults employ a potent mixture of influence techniques and deception to attain psychological control over members and new recruits. This fundamental level of control is known alternatively as ‘brainwashing,’ ‘thought reform,’ or ‘mind control.’ A successful induction by a destructive cult displaces a person’s former identity and replaces it with a new one. That new identity may not be one that the person would have freely chosen under her own volition. Cult leaders are typically malignant narcissists and want people who will be obedient to them.

For the most part, normal, average people join cults – people like you and me. Research indicates that approximately two-thirds of cult members are psychologically healthy people that come from normal families. The remaining third are likely to have depressive symptoms, usually related to a personal loss–perhaps a death in the family, a failed romantic relationship, or career troubles. Only 5 to 6 percent of cult members demonstrate major psychological problems prior to joining a cult. When approaching new recruits, members pique interest by starting innocuous conversations that make it seem like they are concerned members of society, such as “We’re here today to talk to you about the recent issue of (fill in the blank of a legitimate current community event or tragedy.)” The next step in recruitment is to instill in the new recruit an early sense of fear and paranoia.

No one joins a cult voluntarily; they are recruited into it. There is lack of informed consent. Everyone has vulnerabilities. Possible situational vulnerabilities include illness, the death of a loved one, breakup of an important relationship, loss of a job, or moving to another city, state or country. Cults maintain their power by promoting an “us vs. them” mentality. Cults prove powerful because they are able to successfully isolate members from their former, non-cult lives. One of the ways cult leaders achieve this is to convince their followers that they are superior to those not in the cult. Cults isolate followers by controlling their personal relationships and by restricting information sources to the cult. The lack of alternate information and true havens undermine a follower’s cognitive processes on matters regarding the group. The cult can now do the thinking for them – the essence of brainwashing.

With the rise of social media and the Internet, vaccine hesitancy and vaccine denial may seem to be new phenomena. However, since the first vaccine was administered over 200 years ago, some form of vaccine hesitancy has existed. According to psychologist and cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer, cults flourish during periods of social and political turbulence and “during breakdowns in the structure and rules of the prevailing society.” Cults were prevalent after the fall of Rome, during the French Revolution, and in England during the Industrial Revolution. Since the popularization of cults in the mid-20th century, the intrigue surrounding these organizations and how they attract their members has grown. Despite the typical negative connotation, the controversial nature of cults is what some say makes them so appealing. Anti-vaxxers are using the same tactics as cults do to attract followers on social media.

Widespread smallpox vaccination began in the early 1800s, following Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments, in which he showed that he could protect a child from smallpox if he infected him or her with lymph from a cowpox blister. Jenner’s ideas were novel for his time, however, and they were met with immediate public criticism. The rationale for this criticism varied, and included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections. For some parents, the smallpox vaccination itself induced fear and protest. Some objectors, including the local clergy, believed that the vaccine was “unchristian” because it came from an animal. For other anti-vaccinators, their discontent with the smallpox vaccine reflected their general distrust in medicine and in Jenner’s ideas about disease spread. Suspicious of the vaccine’s efficacy, some skeptics alleged that smallpox resulted from decaying matter in the atmosphere.

Many people objected to vaccination because they believed it violated their personal liberty, a tension that worsened as the government developed mandatory vaccine policies. The town of Leicester was a particular hotbed of anti-vaccine activity and the site of many anti-vaccine rallies. The local paper described the details of a rally: “An escort was formed, preceded by a banner, to escort a young mother and two men, all of whom had resolved to give themselves up to the police and undergo imprisonment in preference to having their children vaccinated. The three were attended by a numerous crowd – three hearty cheers were given for them, which were renewed with increased vigor as they entered the doors of the police cells.” The Leicester Demonstration March of 1885 was one of the most notorious anti-vaccination demonstrations. There, 80,000-100,000 anti-vaccinators led an elaborate march, complete with banners, a child’s coffin, and an effigy of Jenner.

Social media use has become a mainstay of communication and with that comes the exchange of factual and non-factual information.  The Internet has become a huge influence on vaccine knowledge and the emergence of social media has created a vast community that allows multi-person discussion to happen instantaneously and with little supervision. A handful of misguided influencers on social media – employing visuals on social media like memes, videos, photos, posters and emojis are processed faster, accepted without being questioned, and remembered for a longer period than text posts. These anti-vaccination groups use all the four propaganda techniques known to be effective in political campaigns. They define the pressing issue as vaccine safety/injuries and inefficacy and blame pharmaceutical companies for “cutting corners” to rapidly produce vaccines. They also make moral judgements by suggesting a coalition between corrupted politicians and profit-driven health care industries and recommend rejecting vaccines as a remedy to this problem.

Discerning accurate information from misinformation is a challenge that individuals may not be able to completely resolve. Social media puts us in a bubble called, “Echo chambers” where we are surrounded by like-minded individuals who reinforce our own existing views rather than being challenged by different views. Studies have shown that debiasing individuals especially from anti-vaccine beliefs is an extremely challenging task because health beliefs are deeply ingrained in our cultural backgrounds, political/religious beliefs and lifestyle choices. Thus, it is recommended to prevent populations that are especially vulnerable and susceptible to health misinformation from being exposed to it in the first place. It is essential to suppress the propagation of vaccine misinformation via social media. We should consider solutions that can be embedded in tools like fact-checkers installed in our web browsers that warn readers if the information to be presented is likely to be false.

A study showed that the anti-vaccine community is made up of many profiles that share content produced by a few influencers with large numbers of followers. Results show that, before his Twitter profile was suspended, former US President Donald Trump was the main anti-vaccine influencer: while he did not share anti-vaccine content himself, his tweets were widely shared by the anti-vaccine community. The tendency to believe in several conspiracy theories is likely due to how people come across various types of information on social media. For instance, if a person believes the 2020 US presidential election was rigged and is lingering or clicking on posts supporting this belief, then they will likely be exposed to anti-vaccine views, thanks to social media platforms’ polarization-reinforcing algorithms. This creates two diametrically opposed communities – one supportive of vaccines and one opposing their use – with little in common, and therefore no room for discussion.

The anti-vax movement has been radicalized by the far-right political extremism. Misinformation cannot be left unchallenged. Misinformation can exacerbate the gap between attitudes in society (i.e., issue polarization) and hostility among different-minded groups. Research on vaccine hesitancy around the world has demonstrated that a number of contributing factors to vaccine hesitation are directly linked to a persistent decline in public trust in institutions and government policy. In recent years, this trend, along with escalating political polarization, has shaped the anti-vaccine movement into its current form. Reconciling the divided public opinions on COVID-19 vaccination policies is not a simple task. As long as social media platforms continue to not bat an eye at misinformation out of concern for their click-through rates, and governments continue to ignore structural injustices driving political radicalization, it is unlikely that vaccine resistance will be reduced without increasing polarization.

History of Anti-Vaccination Movements https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-anti-vaccination-movements

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