By Spencer Williams
It’s January 25th, 2019, and Portland is in a state of emergency, an old disease’s onset being the catalyst. Costcos, Amazon locker pickup stations, schools, churches, dentist offices, public bathrooms, and the Portland International Airport have all been rendered unsafe (Stanley-Becker). The symptoms begin with a dry mouth, an itchy throat, a strangely orange tongue. Then, the skin breaks out with red spots like flattened pepperoni, and the pepperoni sprouts caviar, and the body bakes what must be a culinary disaster of a food metaphor.
The victims were counted and tallied and herded into hospitals by epidemiologists: confirmed, 21 pepperoni-caviar people, now patients in Portland (Stanley-Becker). Measles. A dead disease, beaten into hibernation by a vaccine that is 97% effective (CDC).
Was Portland unlucky enough to house the remaining 3%?
A child is vaccinated. The very next day, he regresses into autism and nearly breaks his hand hitting his own head.
His father speaks. Who’s the culprit? The aluminum adjuvant, tainting blood with metal, unearthed in the autopsies of autistic children? Children fall sick with formerly extinct epidemics, their immune systems scorched with materials that cause lab animals to develop autoimmune illnesses. Science, pseudoscience, pharmaceutical companies, herd immunity, mutation, viruses, the circulation of dark money, the vaccine industry. These buzzwords are plastered across the fronts of websites with dot org endings and splattered on Facebook group homepages in bright, buzzing colors. I follow them to a blog run by the father, a Portland resident who has spearheaded countless fiery diatribes extolling the dangers of the vaccination industry: jbhandleyblog.com.
J.B. Handley is an Oregonian, an author, and a proponent for what he refers to as “alternative vaccinations.” His online blog boasts ten articles, amounting to hundreds of pages of work. His 300-paged book, How To End The Autism Epidemic, broke the top 100 list on Amazon and is an international bestseller. It was mailed to every United States legislator by Robert Kennedy Jr., an American attorney who is the child of the prodigious 64th attorney general. An unattributed quote on the cover of the book states: “His soul, his fight, his love for his son radiates off the pages.”
J.B. Handley once wrote for the online publishing platform MEDIUM. There, his twenty-seven works amassed over one million views. In 2018, he received the following message in his inbox.
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People were afraid to stand up to the pharmaceutical industry, and J.B. Handley’s ban was just the proof he needed that he was David against a Goliath of media control and corporate manipulation. After being kicked off MEDIUM (Handley’s friend wrote in his own blogpost that Handley never found out the reason for his ban), Handley created jbhandleyblog.com with the goal of continuing to disseminate his beliefs (Heckenlively, JD).
I was able to find one of J.B. Handley’s old MEDIUM articles excerpted online. In it, he posits that the MMR vaccine and a combination of antibiotics shocked his son’s body into autism. He cites a study conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in the United Kingdom in which “the majority of the parents of the children in their study had reported regression into autism after a single vaccine: the MMR” (Handley).
I quickly searched for Dr. Wakefield’s study online and found that it had been retracted by its original publisher, the Lancet Journal, which also issued an apology stating that the findings of Dr. Wakefield were incorrect (Eggertson). Although the Wakefield publication was a deeply flawed piece of scientific literature due to its small sample size, unreplicable design, confirmation bias, and “speculative nature,” it drastically decreased the popularity of the MMR vaccine (Rao and Andrade 95). Parents, believing that they were injecting their children with autism, refused to vaccinate.
The DSM-5, short for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition, is published by the American Psychiatric Association and widely regarded as being the dictionary of mental illnesses. It defines Autism Spectrum Disorder as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized most prominently by deficits in social communication ability (American Psychiatric Association). There are no physical indicators of autism, no smoking amygdala; instead, a diagnosis is grounded only in behavioral symptoms which can then be mitigated via behavioral therapy, the only treatment for autism verified by the American Psychiatric Association.
The DSM itself was responsible for the rising fear of vaccinations, too. In 1994, Asperger syndrome, a milder form of autism, was added to the DSM. In 1971, the MMR vaccine was first introduced to the market. In an interview between journalist Jon Ronson and Dr. Allen Frances, who is the former editor of many DSM iterations, Frances admits that the addition of Asperger syndrome to the DSM advanced the notion that the MMR vaccine caused autism (Ronson 243-244).
DR. FRANCES: It’s very easy to set off a false epidemic in psychiatry, and we inadvertently contributed to three that are ongoing now.
JON RONSON: What are they?
DR. FRANCES: Autism, attention deficit, and childhood bipolar.
JON RONSON: How did you do it?
DR. FRANCES: With autism it was mostly adding Asperger’s, which was a much milder form. The rates of diagnosis of autistic disorder in children went from less than one in two thousand to more than one in one hundred. Many kids who would have been called eccentric, different, were suddenly labeled autistic.
The upward relationship between the introduction of the MMR vaccine and the rising rate of autism diagnoses was accidental. Still, no wonder some parents turned on vaccines in their search for answers; the lowered bar for an autism diagnosis, along with the slew of newly introduced vaccines, paired up in timeline. The Wakefield paper, and many others like it, rode the rising fear to the top and were read by millions.
In 2005, J.B. Handley founded Generation Rescue, an international charity with the goal of providing information, treatment, and guidance to families with autistic children. The current medical consensus is that autism is caused primarily by genetic factors and perhaps influenced by environmental factors, though to a lesser extent (Amaral). Generation Rescue is founded upon two principles: one, that autism is caused by vaccines, and two, that a technique proliferated by Handley, biomedical intervention, is able to treat autism. According to Generation Rescue’s resource guide, which is freely available as an online pdf, biomedical intervention includes chelation treatment (a therapeutic process which converts mercury into an inert form via nutritional supplements), long sits in infrared saunas so as to sweat toxins from the body, and gluten-free, GMO-free diets. These treatments allegedly surpass “conventional medicine” in treating only “the symptoms of autism,” instead going beyond to “address the root cause” (Generation Rescue).
On Generation Rescue’s Who We Are page, the following words are headlined: “Today, Generation Rescue is known throughout the world as the number-one place families turn to, to get help after receiving an autism diagnosis [sic]” (Generation Rescue). Underneath, there are rows of headshots containing the smiling portraits of celebrity influencers: Jenny McCarthy, Donnie Wahlberg, Ryan Neufeld and other recognizable names.
Above the grinning celebrities are two rows of eight people who comprise a “Scientific Advisory Board.” Hovering over their smiles causes their names and titles to fade in: Dan Rossignol, M.D., David Dornfeld, D.O., David P. Traver, M.D., etc. Nearly all on the board possess medical degrees and two are Fellows of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a title which is granted only to “AAP members in good standing who have obtained initial board certification in pediatrics or a surgical specialty board” (American Academy of Pediatrics).
Generation Rescue’s website, upon first glance, ticks the boxes of every school-issued checklist for qualifying a source as credible. It’s polished, backed by educated medical professionals, and boasts success stories from big names like Jenny McCarthy, co-founder with J.B. Handley and his wife, Lisa Handley. There’s no wonder that Generation Rescue’s reach is so widespread. The Center for Disease Control published a study indicating that one in sixty-eight children are diagnosed with varying degrees of autism (Amaral). Some of those families, seeking help and guidance, inevitably stumble upon its sleek frontpage.
Still, where’s the harm in changing a child’s diet or making them sit in some saunas, even if it does not cure their autism? Is there not the possibility of cathartic relief in seeking treatment, even if that treatment is ineffective?
But all of Generation Rescue’s treatments, from ionic foot baths (in which one submerges one’s feet within ionic water to boil out autistic toxins) to Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (in which one enters a pressurized chamber and breathes at varying sea levels), makes the charity and its slew of certified medical professionals a ludicrous amount of money.
The ionic foot bath boasts an initial investment of $450 for a rental program up to $1,995 for full purchase (Generation Rescue). The Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy tank, to its credit, has a more complex treatment plan: a patient seeking pressurized therapy must book individual sessions, which can range from $100-150 each. The tank’s information page strikes a bargain and states that “many clinics offer price breaks below $100 per treatment when a patient commits to a 40 hour protocol” (Generation Rescue). A month of treatment may cost between $3,000 and $5,000. At the bottom, I read a sentence that makes my heart sink: “Thousands of families affected by ASD have purchased a chamber for home use to save on cost and to treat at the convenience of the family’s schedule” (Generation Rescue).
When I have researched enough for an interview, I send an email to J.B. Handley.
My name is Spencer Williams and I am a junior at Oregon Episcopal School conducting a literary journalism project on the local anti-vaccination perspective. I would like to learn more about Generation Rescue, the avoidance of controversy in the American medical complex, and how you established your current, thoroughly-researched perspective. I have read through your blog posts and believe that your well-informed opinions would contribute greatly to my research. If you could spend fifteen minutes of your time in an interview, over the phone, over email, or in person, that would be fantastic. Please let me know which one you would prefer, as I value your time and opinion.
Thank you for your time,
Spencer Williams (OES)
Two hours later, J.B. Handley responds.
I’m not “anti-vaccine” and, in fact, propose a safer vaccination schedule in my book. I fear the climate to have an honest debate about this topic has become to [sic] hysterical, so I have decided to stop speaking publicly until we see more moderation. Unfortunately, my choice to remain quiet extends even to local high school projects, so I apologize that I’ll be unable to help you.
All the best,
The following is written on the bottom of Generation Rescue’s homepage:
Disclaimer: None of the information presented here should be considered medical advice or a “cure” for autism. The information presented represents strategies for dealing with autism that have been reported as successful by professionals and/or families with autism. While we believe this information to be accurate we are not in a position to independently verify it and cannot guarantee that it will work in any particular case. No treatment for autism should be without prior consultation with a physician familiar with autism spectrum disorders.
Boost Oregon is an educational outreach organization whose mission is to inform parents of the benefits of childhood vaccinations. Its founder, Nadine Gartner, is a quick-witted mother who has been doing this long enough to scrape facts off the topshelf of her brain effortlessly as we speak. Over the phone, she is collected and eloquent. In her words, her organization aims to provide easy access to healthcare professionals who have been vaccinating patients for decades. Nadine finds the source of the reluctance to vaccinate not to be stupidity but rather to be a gentle, logical, and loving parental concern.
Nadine picks up the phone, and I hear the bubbly laughter of children from the other side.
“I have two kids that are sitting down for dinner, so I apologize if I’m breaking in and out to deal with them,” she says, chuckling, and settles down with a sigh that carries through the receiver. “So, what is the focus of your article?” Her voice is strong and unshy.
“My project is a focus on the rise of the anti-vaccine perspective: individuals who are proponents for alternative vaccinations, and how public organizations like Boost Oregon have been created to combat misinformation,” I say, and stumble over my words. J.B. Handley’s rebuff is fresh in my mind, and I am uncertain of how to label the previously so-simple “anti-vaxxers.”
In Nadine’s words, Boost Oregon is for “the vaccine hesitant. The parents who are unsure about vaccines because of the misinformation that they’ve absorbed for months, and sometimes years, before their own child came into the world.”
“Can you identify for me the harm that you combat?” I ask.
“The anti-vaccine movement changes the goalpost. First, it was that the MMR vaccine causes autism, and that has thoroughly been debunked, although you still hear it a bit. And then it was that mercury is in vaccines. Well, mercury hasn’t been in children’s vaccines since 2000. It was removed from all vaccines given in Oregon and in most of the country, so that’s not an issue now, either. People now say that there is aluminum in vaccines. Well, aluminum is the third most common metal in the earth’s crust, and it’s in everything we do. Babies get more aluminum from breast milk and formula than they do from vaccines. I think you get folks who are doing that kind of damage, who are coming up with theories and jargon to make those theories sound scientific and credible. Then, you get parents who are hesitant. They attempt to do their own research and get understandably concerned. Parents are quick to think that there are some real issues with vaccines,” Nadine answers.
Boost Oregon hosts bimonthly community workshops and informational sessions in partnership with local health organizations. The turnout averages from eight to ten: the largest, twenty-five; the smallest, three. It’s a time-intensive exercise, but Nadine says that the face-to-face talks, most of all, over the online Webinars and the info-packed pamphlets on Boost Oregon’s website, have been the most successful in conveying the importance of vaccines.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re a pro-vaccine organization. We’re a pro-science organization and the science overwhelmingly supports the safety of vaccines. But if there’s ever a credible, scientific, peer-reviewed study that shows a danger about a particular vaccine, we would definitely put out that information. We support the science, but to date, all of the children’s vaccines that are on the schedule for ages 0 to 5 are extremely safe, monitored, and very good at what they do, which is to keep away disease,” Nadine says, a well-practiced undertone. “The point of Boost Oregon is to help parents sift through all the confusing information out there. They can ask whatever question they want, and they will not be judged. We listen to their concerns and we answer their questions. We like to keep the groups small, so we can speak to them one-on one.”
“How often do you manage to convince these vaccine-hesitant individuals?” I ask, and think of J.B. Handley, with his blog stuffed with hundreds of pages of citations and references to studies like the Wakefield publication. To what extent is Boost Oregon’s counseling able to mitigate something like that?
“99% of people report that they plan to vaccinate their children fully after attending a workshop,” Nadine says.
On February 19th, Nadine authored a perspective piece reacting to the Oregon measles outbreak. The Washington Post published the article, which is aptly titled: “How do you get anti-vaxxers to vaccinate their kids? Talk to them — for hours.” In it, she posits that parents who do not vaccinate are not anti-science, nor are they stupid or even necessarily opposed to vaccines: no, they’re simply scared. The desire to do the best for their child is influenced by the propaganda that mushrooms in Facebook communities. Fear takes root, and it doesn’t help that the slew of evolving diseases today necessitates more vaccines for children today than parents received in their youth.
Boost Oregon’s workshops are led by medical professionals who aren’t amorphous, faceless administrators. Parents talk about their hobbies, print out concerning articles they found online, and are familiarized with terms like “community immunity,” a phrase utilized by Boost to combat the robust, negative associations that anti-vaccine propaganda has attached to “herd immunity” (Gartner). Herd immunity is the simple idea that the vaccinated are able to create a shield against a disease to protect the unvaccinated. Infants, for example, cannot receive the measles vaccine. Therefore, they rely on the community they live in to have a high enough vaccination rate to prevent measles from spreading.
I ask Nadine what she believes to be the primary contributing cause to the rise of the colloquially named “anti-vaxxer” perspective.
She pauses. “What’s happening… You know, with the presidency, the investigation, and President Trump. All over the place, there are so many conspiracy theories floating out there. And combined with that is the distrust of expertise—the last couple years, we’ve seen that as well: people aren’t willing to believe in doctors, and the government, and whatnot—the people with expertise. And that has become somewhat of a local phenomenon that’s happening now. All of those things, combined, created the perfect storm with vaccines.”
The issue of fake news is one that is central to the vaccine debate. I think back to J.B. Handley’s MEDIUM ban. During the course of my investigation into his blog, I had begun to ask myself whether the suppression of fake news could be equated to the censorship of free speech. I hoped that Nadine had the answer. “Do you think that social media conglomerates, like Facebook or Twitter, should crack down on the anti-vaccine movement?”
There is a brief pause before Nadine says: “I do. I think that the problem—especially with Facebook groups—is that closed groups become echo chambers for themselves. There is no one there to insert scientific, credible information. That does real damage. There has been an investigation into how Russian propaganda has targeted this vaccination issue to sow discord among Americans, and a lot of the anti-vaccine propaganda that has been out there has also been pushed by Russian bots. That is crazy to think about, but it is a real problem.”
I fall silent. Was it really Russian trolls who proliferated anti-vaccine information, tugging on the strings of Facebook groups and green parents? It sounded like something out of Manchurian Candidate. I searched for “Russian anti-vaccine” and multiple U.S. Library of Medicine journals popped up. One, written by researchers from George Washington University, provided a comprehensive media analysis of hashtag usage on Twitter. The paper, called Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate, found that Russian trolls, bots, and “content polluters” (a term the study assigned to bots that spread malware and broke Twitter’s terms of service), tweeted massive amounts of anti-vaccine content. Content polluters tended to proliferate anti-vaccine content, whereas the Russians heroically fought against each other to simulate conflict (Broniatowski et al.).
Nadine continues: “It’s true on Amazon, too. If you do a simple search on Amazon for vaccines, most of what pops up is anti-vaccine books, videos, and homeopathic remedies.”
I enter the word “vaccine” into the Amazon search bar. The following books are on the first page of results:
“They’re profiting off of parents’ fears, and that breaks my heart,” Nadine says.
“So, taking into account the prominence of falsified information on the internet, does job training for medical professionals now include helping patients evaluate unscientific claims?” I ask.
Nadine doesn’t hesitate before she answers: “No.”
Job training for doctors, nurses, and health advisors alike is lagging behind. At the time of writing, no curriculum addresses the problem of the skyrocketing amounts of medical misinformation on the internet. If professionals aren’t taught to combat their patients’ doubts, how can they practice and retain their craft?
“If you had one message for all the hesitating parents out there, what would it be?” This will be my final question; I don’t want to hold Nadine from her family for much longer. Already she has guided a child, curious about our conversation, back to their dinner table.
“I know you love your children, and you want to make the best possible decisions for them. If you have questions about vaccines, please seek out information from credible, scientifically accurate sources, and speak to pediatricians who have administered vaccines and treated children in the past. Go from there.”
Nadine leaves to eat dinner with her family.
The Gresham Family Medicine Clinic is nestled in an alcove that branches off from Powell Boulevard. It’s rush hour on a springtime Thursday afternoon, and the sunny road is choking with cars. The clinic, resembling a walk-in Denny’s, is easily glanced over. I drive past it at a crawling pace twice before I notice its earthy walls and unintimidating stature.
In the parking lot, I review the profile of Maxwell Cohen, a doctor who leads the Boost Oregon community education seminars which Nadine had assigned a 99% success rate. Sitting on Boost’s scientific advisory board, Maxwell’s repertoire of blog posts includes works straightforwardly titled The MMR Vaccine Does Not Cause Measles Outbreaks and Aluminum in Vaccines. Maxwell was introduced to Boost by a colleague, and he found himself admiring Nadine’s pilot model of discussing vaccines: instead of hard-edged interrogation, an educational discussion geared towards informing confused parents.
I step inside the clinic and am struck by a lack of the distinctively chemical hospital smell. The interior is humble and homely, with a few chairs lined up against the windows. Dated computers hummed on the service desk. Behind the desk, a woman smiles at me. I tell her that I am here to interview Doctor Cohen and she enters into a backroom to retrieve him.
Maxwell enters, a middle-aged man. He’s bespeckled, pale, and looks like he belongs on the front of the Portland Tribune for a hiking advertisement. When he speaks, it’s in short, fast bursts, as if if he does not speak his thoughts fast enough they will slip away from him. When he’s not speaking, he thinks thoughtfully, silently, sometimes taking up to a minute before answering my interview question. His voice is gentle and measured.
Minutes ago, as I sat outside Gresham Family Clinic, I had Googled “naturopath.” The first result was a Wikipedia blurb which characterized naturopathy as a medical speciality that “employs an array of pseudoscientific practices branded as ‘natural’, ‘non-invasive’, and as promoting ‘self-healing’.”
Immediately, I was reminded of one of the central tenets of anti-vaccine philosophy: that one’s body is naturally immune to diseases, therefore vaccinations are invasive measures invented by Big Pharma to be profit makers. Why is a naturopath, who allegedly employs pseudoscience (albeit according to the first, likely inaccurate Google search result), sitting on the scientific advisory board for Boost Oregon?
I am suspicious as Maxwell leads me to his office. He opens a door to reveal a warm nook enclosed by bookshelves, whirling printers, and swivel chairs. It is the most comfortably humble doctor’s office I have ever seen. I immediately feel much more at ease.
“What is the difference between the N.D. and the M.D.?” I ask, pulling over a chair with a cracked leather seat. The M.D. stands for medical doctor; N.D. stands for naturopathic doctor. Maxwell completed four years of standard medical training, then completed his residency at the National University of Natural Medicine in Portland.
“Our training is around being a primary care provider; we don’t specialize; I cannot be a trauma surgeon, nor can I be an EMT,” Maxwell says. A primary care provider is a general medical practitioner who sees to and diagnoses whatever malignancies arrive at the door. If a patient has contracted something that requires speciality care, a primary care provider would send that individual to an expert specializing in a field, such as a pediatrician, a trauma surgeon, or an EMT.
Much of naturopathy is philosophical. “We are trained to look at a hierarchy of treatment,” Maxwell explains. “Say that someone comes in and their cholesterol is high. Maybe their blood sugar is not great, either, but they’re not diabetic, so they should exercise and eat a healthier diet. That’s what any medical professional would recommend, but we focus a lot on the diet and lifestyle changes side of things. We need to not just slap bandaids on things. Type two diabetes is mostly caused by your lifestyle, and giving you an antidiabetic medication is important, but it doesn’t address why you became diabetic in the first place.”
“That seems like common sense to me,” I reply, strangely relieved. Although I knew Wikipedia was an unreliable source, it had still managed to make my expectations of Maxwell negative—unfitting for the owl-like, warmly observant man sitting in front of me with his hands folded in his lap.
“I don’t know a single medical practitioner who would say anything different,” Maxwell says.
“Well, then, how would you respond to the notion that vaccines are unnatural therefore incompatible with the more naturopathic view of natural healing?” I ask.
“Actually, vaccines are very natural. They’re made out of a tiny amount of a naturally occurring disease which then allows the body to practice a natural immune response to it so that you will naturally be resistant. Compare that to Tylenol. Tylenol is a 100% synthetic molecule invented in a laboratory. I have never had someone come in, concerned about giving their kid Tylenol. But each dose that you get of Tylenol when you are growing up increases your risk of allergies and asthma. No one ever comes in worried about Tylenol, though. They come in worried about the micrograms of dead bacteria…”
“And the aluminum!” I interject.
“Yes, the aluminum,” Maxwell says, then returns to the topic of his profession. “What I do is… Naturopaths spend a lot of time on the behavioral and diet sides of things. I am also trained in motivational interviewing, which helps patients identify the changes they need to enact to improve their health. We also do a lot of learning around botanical medicine and herbal medicine.”
Insurance does not cover plant medicines for two reasons, he explains. The first is that there is a lack of robust research into the botanics. The second is that plants cannot be patented, and therefore do not make much money. “You cannot patent foxglove, but you can patent digitalis, which is a derivative of foxglove,” he says. I suspect that the second reason caused the first reason to be true.
Maxwell admits that the lack of insurance coverage skews the population he’s able to access. The more economically privileged patients are, the more they’re able to access botanical treatments.
“How has the recent measles outbreak affected your patients?” I ask.
“People are worried,” Maxwell sighs. “There are a lot of questions, both in clinical practice and in virtue of being a medical professional among a group of friends. Everyone wants to know what’s going on and if it’s a big deal. I have patients who have said that they don’t want take their kids outside of the house because they’re too young to get vaccinated. But I haven’t seen a measles case in the clinic. There haven’t been a huge amount of cases—the vaccine is effective and we still have a pretty good vaccination rate in the Pacific Northwest. There are just pockets where the rates of vaccinations are lower.”
“What are those pockets?” I ask, fearing the worst—I attend a private school.
“Charter schools and private schools. Vaccine hesitancy tends to track very strongly with upper socioeconomic status and increased education. There are also certainly areas that have lower vaccination rates due to issues of access. Those places are tinderboxes in this environment.”
I suddenly realize that Maxwell’s patient population, which he had just admitted to me is rich beyond the need for having their insurance cover their medical costs, is the opposite of what I expected it to be. “It seems counterintuitive that those who have access to higher educations are more likely to be anti-vaccine,” I posit carefully.
Maxwell nods. “When you’re a successful person able to parse information effectively, you feel that reading up on vaccines online gives you a solid understanding. Yet, in truth, it’s really, really hard. My understanding when I was an undergrad compared to my understanding now is different. We need to trust the people who are doing the grunt work to give us their data and their interpretations. We need to trust science. But because of past malfeasance by the pharmaceutical industries and the drugs that are now off the market, there is a lot of skepticism. If you read a really polished website about how vaccines are going to give your beautiful, perfect kid autism or encephalitis, then you, trusting yourself, go down the rabbit hole.”
I take time to transcribe Maxwell’s words. In the silence, cars buzz past outside the clinic’s windows. As I write, I think back to the expensive treatments listed on Generation Rescue. Another motivation for organizations to become anti-vaccine was slowly emerging. I ask Maxwell if he agrees: it’s about the money.
“Most of the people who are strong anti-vaccine proponents have the biggest websites, and they make money off it. Online stores, specialized medical practices… you can even get a medical exemption by paying money.” Maxwell frowns. “Andrew Wakefield, the British physician who published the first false reports about the MMR vaccine, was looking to patent his own version of the vaccine. He was going to make quite a bit of money.”
At this point, the printer next to us whirs so loudly that I thought it had gained sentience by virtue of becoming possessed by Andrew Wakefield. Instead, a man in a white coat walked into the room.
Maxwell perks up. “Hey doc! Just doing an interview about vaccines,” he says.
The doctor glances to me. “Oh,” he grunts, picks up his papers, and leaves.
“Sorry, I just lost my train of thought,” Maxwell says.
“Money,” I remind, realizing that the disgruntled doctor perhaps believed me to be anti-vaccine.
“Oh!” Maxwell exclaims, and launches right back into his diatribe. “There is absolutely a money-making venture around vaccine alternatives. ‘Buy my book about why vaccines are bad!’ The people who stand to profit are the people I see promoting anti-vaccine ideas most frequently.”
“You know, you bringing all these books and treatments up reminds me of a man named J.B. Handley,” I say, an image of Mr. Handley’s Amazon’s bestseller at the forefront of my brain, and Maxwell’s eyes widen as he gives me a knowing nod. “He refused an interview with me. He said he was going to lay low because of recent controversy.”
“Like, diseases that were eradicated coming back into the public sphere?” Maxwell groused. “Probably a good call on Mr. Handley’s part. He’s attacked Boost quite a bit. He wrote an article about us online, in MEDIUM, accusing us of being a front for the vaccine industry. If that’s the case, then I want my money!” Maxwell laughs, and I wonder if that article was why MEDIUM banned J.B. Handley; harassment was against their terms and conditions.
“I recently heard an argument that providing the same platform to climate change deniers and climate change scientists legitimized the former. Do you think the same is true of doctors and anti-vaxxers?” I ask.
“I do. I think that giving them a platform is generally harmful. But, at the same time, the anti-vaxxers have already won the messaging war.” Facebook groups. Twitter hashtags. Thousands of blog posts, YouTube videos, Instagram captions. Russian robots programmed to simulate and escalate conflict among Americans. “They are already so vocal, so quoted; it is already such a big deal that we are having recurrent diseases, so it doesn’t serve us to sit quietly by.”
Maxwell thinks for a long time, then says: “In terms of responsible journalism, I think that it should be: ‘Well, here’s someone who thinks that vaccines cause autism. There is absolutely no evidence that they do, and here is why they are wrong.”
Down the rabbit hole, Maxwell had said. You, trusting yourself, go down the rabbit hole.
Are the majority of anti-vaxxers parents who just stumbled across the wrong websites when in a fog of concern about their child’s wellbeing?
I read J.B. Handley blog posts. They are incredibly coherent. This did not surprise me because J.B. had graduated from Stanford, was a successful author and businessman, and had become a pioneer in the anti-vaccine movement. He is lauded by his colleagues as living proof that the most educated members of society are on the side of the anti-vaccine. J.B. had only become anti-vaccine after his son was diagnosed with autism after being vaccinated.
During the course of my project—researching, conducting interviews, typing this now—I thought that anti-vaxxers were uneducated conspiracy theorists. But they’re not.
Nobody is immune from the rabbit hole.
No wonder J.B. refused my interview. No wonder those who are anti-vaccine feel silenced, humiliated, and against the grain. They navigate the internet, with all its menacing jargon and glossy websites and arcane statistics, in order to find out the best option for protecting their children—as all concerned parents do.
Whose fault is it that the internet has grown claws? The prominence of bots, trolls, and misinformation is skyrocketing, but nothing has been developed to protect the parents. There is no guidance from social media pages; a great amount of Facebook and Twitter’s traffic revenue comes from bot accounts. There is only silence from medical schools and facilities; doctors are not trained to gently advise parents to make scientifically informed decisions.
None would disagree that we have entered a new age of widely accessible information. Yet even as previously extinct diseases rise from the dead, little has been done to mitigate the unintended consequences of this new era. In Portland, Boost Oregon stands as a bulwark against the slew of vaccine misinformation by speaking to parents, one-on-one, face-to-face, establishing personal connections that overwhelm the distant antivaccine social media groups, bots, and Generation Rescue. But Boost’s corner of the internet is only one piece of a much larger, poisoned, panic-inducing pie. Anti-vaccination is but one battle in a larger war over the establishment of Truth.
The internet has a monopoly on rabbit holes. It’s allowed for the proliferation of countless narratives, all given an equal platform. The days of every citizen watching ABC News, each citizen holding a nearly identical consensus on what is true, is over. Everyone who can use a search engine has more information at their fingertips than any brain can store. The days of a single story are over. Read enough Wikipedia articles, parse through some search terms, have enough self-trust, and anyone can become an expert on anything. This boundless access to every narrative in existence, combined with knowledge or the illusion of, transforms opinions. Transforms J.B. Handley.
You’re walking on soft grass. The earth slopes, catches your foot, and you trip.
Rabbit holes, carved out by concerned parents or private Facebook groups or Russian bots or well-meaning charities, catch everyone.
Watch your step.
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