Propagandizing Anti-Vaccination: Analysis of “Vaccines Revealed” Documentary Series
In 2017, a nine-episode documentary series, Vaccines Revealed, was shared on a closed Facebook group affiliated with anti-vaccination topics. Since then, the content information on the series had 29,000 shares on Facebook alone. These films were promoted as being superior to the knowledge of doctors and were often referenced in Facebook comment threads as the trigger which convinced “ex-vaxxers” to discontinue vaccinating their children or to never begin in the first place.
Because of a dearth of analysis on the documentary series, a team of researchers at the University of Florida decided to study the content, sources, and messaging around the series. Such an analysis could be beneficial in describing the messages impacting vaccine-hesitant parents, which can then seek to combat misinformation about the harms of vaccines.
The researchers designed a study to determine who was endorsing the series, and what role these individuals have in attempting to persuade parents not to vaccinate according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended schedule. The researchers also set out to identify the overarching themes present within the series.
Five overarching themes were found throughout the series: (perceived) solidified science, collusion and conspiracy, canary in the coal mine, fear appeals, and morality and necessity of individual choice.
(Perceived) Solidified Science: To solidify the perception of science, the series presents information as rational, educational, and logic-based. Jargon is frequently used to build credibility, and visual imagery such as charts and pictures of microbes are used. These methods create an underlying message of trust in experts who have allegedly done extensive research.
Collusion and Conspiracy: “Big Pharma,” governmental agencies and the media are portrayed as interested only in financial gain in regards to what information is being presented to the public. Pediatricians are portrayed as uneducated and blindly misled. The series seems broadly concerned with “perceived lack of informed consent, and lack of testing for the safety and efficacy of vaccines.”
Canary in the Coal Mine: Just as coal miners used live birds to alert them to danger, the series presents a message for parents to watch out for signs so they can be poised to discover a problem before it becomes widespread. Specifically, adverse side effects such as minor skin infections at injection sites and autism are presented as the canary showing parents that there is still time to detox children and prevent harm.
Fear Appeals: Dramatic music, parent testimonials, and clips of children and adults suffering from alleged vaccine injury run throughout the series, creating a sense of fear.
Individual Choice: Finally, the series emphasizes the freedom of parents to choose whether or not to have their children vaccinated as a basic human right. Morality and the necessity of individual choice is a major theme, with not being able to opt-out of vaccines presented as un-American.
This study shows that the pressure on parents from peers and from resources such as this documentary series is strong, and such strong pressure may lead to a non-scientifically-based alternative vaccine schedule to satisfy the public’s desire for individual choice.
Future studies should take this research a step further by surveying public opinion on mandatory vaccines and interviewing the people involved in making this and other such resources. This will allow for better understanding of the balance needed between parental autonomy and the greater good of public health.
The original research paper, “Propagandizing anti-vaccination: Analysis of Vaccines Revealed documentary series,” appeared in Elsevier, 22 January 2020.
This summary was written by Marie Morganelli, Ph.D.