To me this was a serious wake-up call. We all want to believe that we are immune (forgive the pun) to misinformation and fake news. Particularly as a researcher I pride myself on my ability to find relevant, factual, reliable, and credible information online: my entire career—the start of one at least—is built on that skill. And while my mum does not have a PhD, she is well-educated, smart, and thinks critically. If even someone like her can so easily fall prey to lies and propaganda, how could we possibly expect the rest of the world to distinguish between truth and falsehood?
Searching for facts
As a follow-up test I used a different search engine, DuckDuckGo. First I used the same Dutch terminology, and the first hit was again a conspiracy website, although weirdly it was an article on the “nonsense” of climate change. (The link between the two is unsurprising, but that’s a story for a different time.) The second was another major anti-vaccination propaganda site (of which DuckDuckGo was not allowed to show a description!) and the rest was more conspiracy blogs, some in Swedish. When I then used the English terminology—“polio vaccine Gates Africa”—I finally found a website that actually debunks the anti-vaxxer propaganda, but it was the second hit and it was surrounded by propaganda and conspiracies, including my personal favourite InfoWars.
Ponder that. Even if you’ve never searched for any conspiracy theory before, even if you use a search engine that does not track your movements and so does not return hits relevant to your interests, you will still be overwhelmed by lies and misinformation. It’s no wonder that anti-vaccination is increasing in popularity: it is just hard if not impossible to find the facts between all the conspiracies. And if you’re not a medical expert on vaccination, it will be hard to figure out what to believe.
Now one might point out that I clearly was not searching for just vaccination information. Since we’re dealing with conspiracy theories, the results of my search were obviously going to be conspiracy websites. That is a fair point, but here’s the thing: if we want to prevent outbreaks of preventable diseases, then we have to make sure that the truth is easily accessible. If someone stumbles onto a conspiracy website and decides to factcheck, and all they find is more propaganda, they will likely be inclined to believe those lies, or at least become sceptical about vaccination. So not only does correct information has to be the first line of defence when people start to google vaccination, it should be the second and third line of defence. The first ten hits on a Google or DuckDuckGo search should always be factual websites that are designed to take away people’s fears. If there is a lie out there, there should be ten websites that show why it’s a lie. It might not be the whole solution, in fact it likely won’t be, but it will help prevent innocent people like my mum getting caught in a paranoid web of lies, half-truths, and conspiracies.
Who to trust?
We cannot possibly expect lay people to understand when someone is an actual expert and when information is trustworthy, particularly in the age of fake news. But clearly we should try, because if smart, critical, and well-educated people can so easily fall prey to propaganda and conspiracy theories about vaccination, then the risks of preventable, deadly diseases making a major comeback will only increase the coming years.