The idea that those who try to influence elections through covert social media campaigns are as happy to sow uncertainty as they are to have a preferred candidate elected has moved to the centre of the debate on election security. By exacerbating doubt, unfortunately not that hard to do, a troll can create a vacuum that leads to fractured, ineffective politics. Discontent festers, laying the ground for ever-more incendiary intervention. The EU has warned this tactic will be in play in next month’s elections, it may have been influential in yesterday’s election in Spain.
It would be naive to imagine that this doubt-and-confuse ploy is confined to politics. Those with most to lose if we ever take climate change seriously may be behind the denials still, and dangerously, offering comfort to those who refuse to modify their behaviour. Health Minister Simon Harris entered these murky waters last week when he said he wants to make children’s vaccinations mandatory. He criticised “populist nonsense” in the Oireachtas which led to a dramatic decline in vaccination rates. He must be relieved that though the issue is divisive, it is not a matter of life or death — but it can be. Just last week, polio vaccination workers were killed in Pakistan by the Taliban who believe vaccinations cause infertility and are an attack on their culture. In America, white supremacist and far-right sites have jumped on the anti-vaxxers’ bandwagon, encouraging suspicion of government and mistrust of big pharma. Italy’s Five Star Movement has harnessed resistance to compulsory vaccinations, exploiting resentment around “elites”. Conspiracy theories abound, rejuvenating old fears. In extreme cases the struck-off doctor Andrew Wakefield’s discredited linkage of autism and the MMR jab is disinterred.
In the midst of this flat-earthing, America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week warned that measles is at its highest level in 25 years at 700 cases. In Britain, the NHS warned of a “public health timebomb”, with half a million children missing their first MMR dose. Measles cases have almost quadrupled in the UK in a year and doubled in Europe. The situation is so unnecessary that Britain’s health secretary will confront social media companies this week on how they host anti-vaxxer content. In Ireland, measles jumped by more than 200%, from 25 cases in 2017 to 86 last year. Vaccine apathy has reached such a dangerous pitch that the HSE had to launch a campaign over significant drop-off rates in girls taking the HPV vaccine.
This denial epitomises the infamous taunt from the philistine Michael Gove who, in 2016 refused to name any economists backing Brexit. saying that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. If experts are no longer believed, if we surrender to the fantasy that Facebook campaigners or Dr Internet are more reliable than your local doctor, then where does doubt end? Just at vaccines? Or do we doubt everything we rely on? Without active faith in proven scientific knowledge, we take a step toward ignorance and darkness. Yes minister, it is right you confront this issue — which is about much more than a minor illness long-ago defeated by science.