Three months ago, Ethan Lindenberger asked Reddit how he, an 18-year-old son of anti-vaxxer parents, could get vaccinated. Following the advice he received, Lindenberger made an appointment and got all of his shots in a move his mom called it a “slap in the face.”
The whole ordeal made Lindenberger a poster child for the vaccination movement. He was invited to testify today alongside public health experts in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Here’s what we learned.
Anti-vaxxers don’t act out of malice.
In his original Reddit post, Lindenberger called his parents “kind of stupid,” but not mean. “Anti-vaccine individuals do not root their opinions in malice, but rather a true concern for themselves and other people.” In other words, anti-vax parents believe that they’re acting in the best interests of their families.
Speaking of his own mother, Lindenberger said “Her beliefs were not true, and propagating these lies is dangerous. However, it is not necessarily ill-natured.”
Misinformation is the biggest problem and social media is the largest source of misinformation.
In his written testimony one sentence is in bold: “The sources which spread misinformation should be the primary concern of the American people.” He pointed to the Atlantic‘s finding that “just seven anti-vax pages generated nearly 20 percent of the top 10,000 vaccination posts” on Facebook in the past 4 years.
Lindenberger described watching a video from one of those pages, stopmandatoryvaccines.com. It showed Del Bigtree, a leader of the anti-vaccine movement, talking with Dr. Bob Sears, who claimed falsely that no one had died from measles in the past 15 years while 449 had died from the MMR vaccine.
Personal beliefs shouldn’t outweigh public safety.
Lindenberger told the committee about being pulled out of class every year and told that he wouldn’t be able to attend school without his shots. Every year, his mother opted him out of those restrictions, as she had every right to do under Ohio state law that doesn’t distinguish between personal views and safety concerns.
Later in the hearing, Lindenberger elaborated. “My decision to get vaccinated was based around the health and safety of myself and other people.” Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, an MD himself, replied: “Thank you for caring for the people you went to school with as much as you cared for yourself.”
Making good information available is crucial.
Sen. Jonny Isakson of Georgia asked Lindenberger how he came to the conclusion that he wanted to be vaccinated. The teenager described seeing people push back on his mother’s anti-vax social media posts and being curious. He cited the CDC, WHO, scientific journals, and the Institute of Medicine as his primary sources of information. If people are going to online medical research, it is important to have good information available.
Stories resonate more than data.
On the other hand, data is necessary but not sufficient to win what’s essentially become an information war, particularly given how effective the anti-vaccine movement’s strategies have been.
“A large portion of the foundation they build to communicate with parents is on an anecdotal level, sharing stories and experiences,” he said. “My mom would reaffirm that her position was correct because she knows people and she’s seen stories.” Those stories were always more powerful than his logic-based retorts.
A better way forward, he argued, would be to use stories to advance the pro-vaccination cause, something that his side hasn’t done a great job of. “When you convince parents not that their information is incorrect but that their children are at risk, that’s a much more substantial way to cause people to change their minds.”