Social media swarms don’t reflect reality

Originally printed in the Batesville Daily Guardmars_attacks__1_swarm_attack_by_rafaelgallur-d6ptqve

As we leave 2016, we leave behind a year that was ruled by Facebook and Twitter. The two social media sites had always been influential, but this year they became the heart of the nexus which includes public opinion, propaganda and information. They were places that regular people could actually say something to their leaders and just maybe get a response, whether they be national, state or local.

One consequence of this was that the whole world also had access to those officials. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s bad, but state boundaries are no longer a deterrent when it comes into offering opinions to state officials.

But as far as the bad, one group that has found a way to influence policy via social media are fringe groups and conspiracy theorists, who rely on insinuation and distortions instead of research and fact.

We had a case of that in Arkansas over the last week.

Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood) filed a bill to remove religious and philosophical exemptions for vaccines when it comes to children who attend public schools in Arkansas. It did not remove the medical exemption.

Since even the Amish allow for vaccines, the religious exemption doesn’t make for much purpose. Aside from the Dutch Reform Church, there are pretty much no branches of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism that bar their members from taking vaccines, not even the Amish. And last I checked, I don’t think there is a single congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church in Arkansas at all, much less many Dutch.

On the other hand, the philosophical exemption pretty much allow a person to not vaccinate a child for any reason they want. Whether it be the debunked “vaccines cause autism” claims, “making my kids take vaccines is communism” claim or the “natural diseases are better than modern medicine” ideas or “vaccines are mind control” conspiracy theory … they’re all equally valid in the philosophical exemptions.

They are also all equally dangerous. It bears to repeat that small pox, a disease that killed millions, has been eradicated due to vaccines. Polio, which left many people disabled, has been eliminated from most of the world, with cases in the single digits worldwide — all in third world countries. Measles, mumps and chicken pox all of which have been linked to blindness, deafness and sterility have become very rare in the U.S., at least until the last couple of years when those diseases have started making a comeback.

Those comebacks renewed calls to tighten up or eliminate exemptions for people who lacked a medical reason.

Makes sense right? People want to protect their kids.

And I’m sure Brown took note of that when she wrote her bill.

Of course, she probably didn’t expect the swarm.

When I say swarm, I mean an anti-vaccination social media group caught wind of her bill and took to her social media, leaving shrill messages accusing her of being a shill for “big pharma” to wanting to give kids autism. Most of these messages don’t seem to be from people who are in her district, or even Arkansas. I saw posts from people in Virginia, Michigan, Kentucky and a person from Los Angeles who says he works at, and I quote, “Stop Mandatory Vaccination” — which I suspect is the source for many of Brown’s comments.

I’m not sure if Brown took this into account when she withdrew the bill on Tuesday. But the same people, not from Arkansas, gave her thanks for “representing her constituents.”

Brown’s case, which is not unique, shows the power of swarms on social media. The swarms can create the impression that the majority of people are in favor of fringe beliefs, anti-vaccination movements and chemtrail belief are two examples of this, simply by drawing people from all over the country to overwhelm an account with posts. Some of these go further, giving out phone numbers and emails, leading to an endless stream of harassment.

I hope Brown will reconsider her withdrawal of HB1043 sometime in the future. We do not need to let fact-based policies that would benefit our public health brought down by a minority who just happen to have loudest mouths (er, fingertips, I guess would be more accurate). If politicians start letting Facebook and Twitter determine their actions, then we are putting our fates in the hands of anyone who is capable of combining links with the right hashtags on the internet. This may eventually cause our policies to be driven by an alternate reality which thrives online.

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A little bit hillbilly, a little bit beatnik and a whole lot of nerd.

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