In 2010, I became involved in the Australian vaccination controversy.
I’m a social scientist. For decades, I’ve been studying scientific controversies such as over nuclear power, pesticides and fluoridation. My view is that it is valuable to be able to hear different perspectives in a controversy, preferably in a respectful way. Members of the public then can make up their own minds. The ideal is deliberation, in which views are carefully considered, discussed and evaluated.
The Australian vaccination controversy had a prominent feature I hadn’t encountered before: a ferocious and sustained attack on a citizens organisation, intended to shut it down. This is the antithesis of deliberation.
Personally, I don’t have strong views about vaccination. However, because of my longstanding commitment to free speech, I intervened in the debate, defending the right of vaccine critics to express their views.
To some, this might seem like becoming a critic of vaccines. Actually, it’s different: I am a critic of censorship, not of vaccination.
I share with SAVN the goal of protecting and improving children’s health. However, I do not support several of the methods used by some SAVNers, such as abusing and censoring critics.
There’s another factor here. I am intrigued by the tactics used in social struggles. Indeed, analysing tactics against injustice has been a key research focus of mine for the past decade. The injustice in this case is censorship.
The Australian vaccination struggle
The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN)[*] was set up in the mid 1990s to present views critical of vaccination and to support parental choice in vaccination decisions. This citizens group was similar to various other vaccine-critical groups in Australia and other parts of the world. In 2009, something new occurred: the formation of Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), a group whose explicit goal was to shut down the AVN. SAVN’s techniques included online abuse (especially of Meryl Dorey, the AVN’s founder and driving force), complaints to government agencies, and attempts to deter or censor public comment by the AVN or by media covering the AVN.
I soon experienced the standard SAVN techniques myself. I wrote a long article, “Debating vaccination“, describing the vaccination debate and the methods used by SAVN. After it appeared, the SAVN Facebook page was filled with derogatory commentary. Several SAVNers wrote to me, some with disparaging or condescending remarks. I sent a draft of my next article, “When public health debates become abusive“, to Ken McLeod, a key figure in SAVN. He sent it to others in SAVN; their responses included derogatory comments and complaints to my employer, the University of Wollongong. In 2014, I joined Twitter and made a few tweets, and experienced a similar sort of hostile commentary from SAVN tweeters.
I soon came to expect misrepresentation, abusive language and complaints. After one of my articles discussing the vaccination debate, and mentioning SAVN, appeared in an academic journal, someone complained to the editor and publisher, alleging an undeclared conflict of interest on my part. This person had not bothered to contact me. This was a technique I recognised and had written about for decades: complaining to employers or editors but not to the person concerned is a typical feature of what I call suppression of dissent.
However, on a few occasions I noticed a different type of response or rather non-response. Some of my contributions were ignored even though I had expected a furious attack from SAVNers. What was going on?
SAVN is not a single conscious entity. It is a collection of individuals with a common cause, though not a completely unified position. To attribute agency to SAVN is misplaced. Nevertheless, the collective behaviour of SAVNers can be analysed and understood as an adaptive response, sometimes effective, sometimes not. One of my goals as a social analyst is to understand how participants in scientific controversies operate.
SAVN is a special case, because nothing quite like it seems to exist anywhere else. So I tried to understand the pattern in SAVNers’ responses to my statements and publications, and have come up with two preliminary generalisations. These probably attribute more intent and conscious planning than is warranted, but may be useful nevertheless to stimulate further investigation.
1. As a general approach, SAVNers attempt to shut down visible critics of vaccination. By using derogatory commentary and making complaints to government agencies and the media, they attempt to discourage participation by critics and to discredit them.
2. In some cases, SAVNers instead ignore critics, especially when SAVNers do not want others to hear or read what critics have to say.
Point 2 recognises the possibility of censorship backfire: attempting to censor or discredit a view sometimes can lead to more attention to it than otherwise would occur.
Point 2 is the phenomenon I hadn’t previously recognised. In studying censorship tactics, it’s easy to see abuse and ridicule. However, it’s also possible to learn from what isn’t mocked or even mentioned.
Although I am not a critic of vaccination, SAVNers have treated me like one. Initially they tried abuse and complaints, but on some occasions they have ignored my comments and articles about the debate.
I should also mention that a few SAVNers have been willing to engage in dialogue with me, in the time-honoured approach of exchanging views and seeking to identify points of both agreement and disagreement. I do appreciate this.
My new assessment is that SAVNers – especially the administrators of SAVN’s Facebook page – prefer to ignore some contributions, especially ones that are balanced and well argued. SAVN administrators may not want other SAVNers, or indeed anyone, to read these contributions.
So here is a list of some items that, it seems to me, SAVN does not want you to read. This is a tentative list, open to revision and reconsideration. I welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org
April 2014: Medical Observer Neil Bramwell wrote an article about the vaccination debate that was published in the Medical Observer on 15 April 2014. Bramwell interviewed people with different perspectives, including Patrick Stokes, whose article “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” has been lauded by many SAVNers. Normally SAVNers would comment on an article like Bramwell’s, but they seem to have ignored it. I think the main reason is that the article is so balanced, presenting various perspectives, not just ones favoured by SAVN.
March 2014: Science & Engineering Ethics My article “On the suppression of vaccination dissent” was published in the journal Science & Engineering Ethics. In this article, I discussed the phenomenon of suppression of dissent and used several vaccination examples to illustrate ways to evaluate whether suppression has occurred and to compare suppression of citizen campaigners with suppression of researchers and doctors. Although several of my previous articles had triggered a huge discussion by SAVN bloggers, I saw no comments.
March 2014: “Biased reporting” On 18 March 2014, I posted on my website “Biased reporting: a vaccination case study“. It is a lengthy critique of an article by Rick Morton in The Australian. I first sought comments from Morton, but he did not provide any. Meryl Dorey wrote a blog about my critique; her blogs are scrutinised by some SAVNers, so they would know about my post. Normally I would expect to see some comments from them, not on Dorey’s blog but on the SAVN Facebook page, SAVNer blogs or emails to me, but I did not see any.
September 2012: SAVN and conspiracy theories After my article “Dealing with dilemmas in health controversies” was published in Health Promotion International, SAVN figures Paul Gallagher and Peter Tierney criticised my views in their blogs. Tierney and others defended their claim that the AVN believes vaccination is a global conspiracy to implant mind control chips. Tierney initially allowed me to comment on his blog. I invited him to join with me in submitting our views to independent experts on conspiracy theories. After one of my posts, Tierney removed it and did not make any statement that he had done so. I described all this on my website. My interpretation is that they terminated the interaction to prevent others from seeing their refusal to submit our views to review by experts.
August 2012: dossier of attacks on the AVN On 31 August 2012, Meryl Dorey posted “Dossier of attacks on the AVN” on the AVN website. The dossier contains examples of false claims, abusive comments, threats, sending of pornography and other types of attacks. It names individuals who made the attacks, most of whom have been involved with SAVN. There was an initial flurry of criticism of the dossier by SAVNers, but subsequently they seem to have largely ignored it. It is reasonable to suggest that SAVNers are not keen to draw attention to their own methods of attack.
March 2012: two articles about SAVN In March 2012, I posted two new articles, in preprint form, on my website, and alerted several key SAVNers. These articles described actions by SAVN in making abusive comments, among other things. Based on previous experience, I expected a furious response from SAVNers, including posting of abuse and making complaints to university officials. Instead, to my great surprise, there was hardly any response. In retrospect it was the first indication of an emerging pattern of not responding to contributions that are well written and that SAVNers do not want others – including their supporters – to read. The two articles were later published: “Online onslaught” and (in collaboration with Florencia Peña) “Public mobbing“.