Instagram is banning anti-vaccination hashtags, but it's not without risk

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The eradication of infectious diseases such as polio, small pox and more recently measles in 2000, is one of modern medicines greatest achievements. However, in the last few years, although once extinct, new life has been breathed into measles leading to epidemics popping up around the world. 


The World Health Organisation has cited the growth in people refusing to vaccinate themselves or their children as a key reason behind the spread of highly contagious diseases and a public health emergency. In recent months, we have seen epidemics pop up in New York, Australia and Europe happening in concert with rising vocal opposition to vaccination. 


Social media has become a place where the voices of people who have concerns around vaccinations can shout as loud as they want. And by doing so, they reach a captive audience of thousands or more, many of whom access these platforms to get health information. For young mothers, social media is a leading source of information around the decision to vaccinate.  


Platforms like Instagram offer a wealth of anti-vaccination information from aspirational young female ‘lifestyle influencers’ whose lifestyle and assertions of independence from oppressive medicine resonate. Even educated people, some with science backgrounds can communicate the idea that vaccines are dangerous and unnecessary. Influencers tap into people’s legitimate concerns and questions, say they have done their ‘research’ which usually amounts to reading disproven theories and misinterpreting science often from unreliable sources. 


Instagram has taken the necessary step to damp down anti-vaccination hashtags from the platform in a move that has been applauded by many, myself included. This follows on from previous decisions by social media giants such as Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram to ban the spread of information that encourages self-harm. Previously, social media has banned hashtags such as #thispiration, a hashtag used by some with eating disorders to promote it. 


There is no doubt we need to stop the spread of dangerous health information but by banning it, there is a risk of fanning the flames. Anti-vaccination sentiment can have an undertone of fear that may involve conspiracy theories or loss of autonomy. Silencing the opponents could reinforce the idea of being gagged and oppressed. In general, our society believes that free speech is not as important as the safety and wellbeing of the population at large. 


Debunking anti-vaccination sentiment is a challenging exercise. Even just by repeating the myth to be debunked, we risk familiarity which accidentally serves to reinforce the very idea we want to expose. We can provide huge amounts of information to support the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, and yet pervasive ideas still persist. The original MMR-autism study published in The Lancet by disgraced and deregistered doctor Andrew Wakefield was discredited as a lie and has spurned many more research studies that have shown there is no link. And yet, confirmation bias and anecdotes keep people believing that the medical community is delivering lies and danger with each and every needle. 


The likelihood of changing the minds of absolute believers in the dangers or conspiracies of vaccination is close to zero. What we must focus on are the people who are on the fence, who feel torn between two worlds; one of science and one of tribalism with vocal vaccine deniers. These are the people that may change their minds and they are also the people who are the most vulnerable to dangerous messages. Reducing their exposure to anti-vaccination communication may help some and for that reason, it’s important.


Vaccination discussion online can prompt incredibly emotive responses.  Just posting a picture of me getting my flu vaccine on Instagram has resulted in some incredible online vitriol. The move to limit the fall out to vulnerable people is absolutely necessary, but we must be aware of the possible backlash and strengthening of the arguments of dogmatists against this vital tool in modern medicine. 


People who explore the vast platform of Instagram or anywhere else for that matter, are not bad people. Quite to the contrary, they genuinely want the very best for themselves and their children. Bans on Instagram are one tool, an important one, but we must not disregard the importance of compassion and curiosity in debunking anti-vaccination sentiment. We need to be on the same team not just engaging in war.