Members Only | September 15, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

To fight vaccine disinfo, first understand how anti-vaxxers coopt science to spread it

We should worry less about the ravings of anti-vaxxers obsessed with microchips, and more about the falsehoods that, enjoying a patina of scientific authority, are harder to identify and harder to correct. 

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Since the covid pandemic struck, Americans have been exposed to scientific information at an unprecedented rate. While such availability of science is a welcome development, the news is not all good. 

Given the nature of science and academic research, even thoughtful media consumers may be misled by reporting, even when it’s accurate. This has presented purveyors of disinformation with an opportunity. 


Two recent cases of such scientific misrepresentation demonstrate the effectiveness of this anti-vaxx strategy: research on natural immunity and the relative infectiousness of vaccinated people.


Anti-vaxxers in particular have appropriated research to great effect. By distorting findings, and selectively appealing to others, anti-vaxxers give their misinformation a veneer of scientific credibility, rendering propaganda both harder to spot and more difficult to correct. 

Two recent cases of such scientific misrepresentation demonstrate the effectiveness of this anti-vaxx strategy: research on natural immunity and the relative infectiousness of vaccinated people.

The case of “natural immunity”
In recent weeks, anti-vaxxers have gone wild over an Israeli study comparing natural immunity to vaccine-induced immunity. The preprint reported that breakthrough infections among the vaccinated were more common than re-infections among the unvaccinated. The authors interpreted this as indicating that natural immunity is more robust than vaccine-induced immunity, at least in the short term. 

Anti-vaxxers eagerly misinterpreted these findings. People on Reddit, Twitter, and elsewhere reasoned that, if natural immunity is more robust than vaccine-immunity, as science says, it is thus preferable to become naturally immune than it is to be vaccinated. This bizarre conjecture ignores the fact that covid infection carries great risk, including death and permanent damage to lungs, kidneys, heart and brain. Serious risks from vaccination are virtually non-existent. 

Notice, the strength of the science is not at issue. The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, may be perfectly sound. What’s troubling here is the fallacious argument that you should prefer to become naturally immune. We’re led to believe this enjoys the authoritative stamp of scientific approval despite its utterly unscientific pedigree.

Misinformation about natural immunity is not just relegated to the dark corners of the internet. Harvard medical professor Martin Kulldorff has given the Israeli study a heavy boost on Twitter while offering no context about how the findings should be interpreted. Although replies to his tweets are filled with anti-vaxxers declaring vindication, Kulldorff has issued no correction. When another researcher cautioned Kulldorff to be careful about the data and subsequent inferences, anti-vaxxers responded with incredulity: how dare you question a Harvard scientist? Predictably, conservative media then amplified the flawed information. 

A related myth alleges, based on the Israeli study, that vaccinated people are more dangerous to others than those with natural immunity alone. Additionally, politicians and conservative media are using “natural immunity” as a counterpoint to Biden’s recent call for vaccine mandates, asserting that the research proves Anthony Fauci, Democrats and the CDC are the real enemies of science. 

The case of “infectiousness of the vaccinated”
Another prominent case of the misuse of scientific information concerns the infectiousness of vaccinated people. 

In late July, the CDC published research indicating that viral loads among vaccinated people who experienced delta-breakthrough infections did not significantly differ from unvaccinated people. Other studies have shown similar results. These findings received substantial media attention of variable quality. While many headlines specified that the scientific data pertained to vaccinated people with breakthrough infections, others were less cautious, generalizing to the entire vaccinated population. For example, the AP declared, “Study: Vaccinated people can carry as much virus as others” and the New York Times tweeted, “The Delta variant . . . may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated.”

Many people — and not just anti-vaxxers — came away with the mistaken impression that science had demonstrated that all vaccinated people are just as infectious as the unvaccinated, such that, even if they had not progressed to infection, they were still as likely to carry the virus. This inference is spurious because vaccination vastly reduces the risk of getting infected in the first place; further, preliminary research indicates that several factors, including decreased viral shedding and less severe symptoms, may render even infected vaccinated people less contagious. 


This subtler variety of deception, cloaked in the language of science, is far more troubling.


The CDC and other officials reacted appropriately to the research on breakthrough infections and viral spread by advocating for increased caution among vaccinated people. In the presence of scientific uncertainty, an abundance of caution approach is warranted.

However, anti-vaxxers seized on this same information to further undermine the rationale for vaccination. For months the public health message has been that people should be vaccinated to protect themselves and their communities. Anti-vaxxers are now exploiting the research on breakthrough infections to contradict that message, arguing that, if science tells us that vaccinated people are just as likely to spread the virus, what’s the value in getting vaccinated at all?

Fox News leaned in heavily on this message, with Tucker Carlson implying that the CDC data on transmissibility among vaccinated people was a direct contradiction of President Biden’s argument that vaccination was a patriotic duty. And, as we saw with natural immunity, Carlson wrapped himself up in a cloak of scientific authority, claiming “It turns out that the COVID vaccines — those wonder drugs that were absolutely perfect, more impressive than the moon landing, the drugs you were not allowed to question in any way — don’t actually work in the way they told us they did. The science is more complicated than we thought.”

Notice that the research on breakthrough infections appears to be sound. The problem is not the science itself, but how it has been misrepresented by members of the public and, in some cases, the straight news media. Indeed, the more credible the research, the more credibility is lent to the anti-vax propaganda it allegedly supports.

The role of risk perception
To some degree, misunderstanding of public health, particularly in the domain of personal risk perception, has made this abuse of science even more effective. Reporters and pundits — not just conservative ones — have consistently emphasized personal risk of contracting covid over community risk. Parents have been advised to make decisions based on the risk-profiles of their children, rather than considering the risk they pose to the community. Young adults have been told, repeatedly, their personal risk from covid is minimal.

Framed this way, it’s easy to see why people come to believe some of the anti-vax messaging, particularly if it’s framed as scientific. If you perceive your own risk as low, why would you get a vaccine when you’ve just heard natural immunity is superior? And what’s the point in protecting your community if vaccinated people are just as infectious? 

The interplay between bad scientific interpretation and risk perception will also likely play a role in the next big covid battle: childhood vaccination. 

A recent poll found only 51 percent of parents said they would “probably” or “definitely” vaccinate their children — much lower than the percentage of parents who are vaccinated themselves. 

This effect was present even for Democrats: though 88 percent of this group is vaccinated, only 66 percent responded that they were likely to vaccinate their children. Predictably, this number is even lower for Republicans: Though 55 percent of Republicans are personally vaccinated, only 35 percent say they will vaccinate their kids. 

Conservatives are already seizing on this framing, claiming natural immunity and low childhood risk render childhood vaccines not just unnecessary, but evil

If we are to combat misinformation, we need to appreciate how science has been coopted to spread it. We should worry less about the ravings of anti-vaxxers obsessed with microchips, and more about the falsehoods that, enjoying a patina of scientific authority, are harder to identify and harder to correct. This subtler variety of deception, cloaked in the language of science, is far more troubling.


Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.

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