Celebrities’ fears are not news

Here’s the New York Times last year: Who Cares What Celebrities Think?

Last week, just ahead of back-to-school season, New York State health officials issued emergency regulations limiting medical exemptions from vaccination requirements for kids attending schools or day care centers.

What do celebrities think about this development? Hopefully, the public won’t find out — because it doesn’t matter. But unfortunately, when it comes to opinions about vaccination, we in the media typically make two big mistakes. We treat celebrities’ opposition to or fears about vaccines as news. And in the rare cases in which their beliefs do deserve coverage because they could potentially affect public health, we too often amplify unfounded or misleading talking points without sufficiently correcting the misinformation.

Ill-informed, scaremongering celebrities have been a key part of the anti-vaccination movement as this paper notes:

Persuasion from entertainment and pop culture figures can influence health behavior and decision-making about vaccinations (eg, Tiedje et al). Celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Schneider, and Robert De Niro used fear-based messaging to influence parents to avoid vaccination, particularly in claiming a false link between vaccinations and autism. Political leaders also play a role in spreading misinformation. Donald Trump shared anti-vaxx messages on social media, although in recent months he encouraged vaccinations. More recently, vocal representative Jonathan Strickland in Texas described vaccinations as “sorcery.”

The paper also talks about the problem of ill-informed sharing on social media.

Skeptics also use online platforms to advocate vaccine refusal; as many as 50% of tweets about vaccination contain anti-vaccine beliefs. Research suggests that it only takes 5 to 10 minutes on an anti-vaccine site to increase perceptions of vaccination risks and decrease perceptions of the risks of vaccine omission.

Among these social media influencers are parents who attribute the deaths of their children or illnesses they contract to “vaccine injury,” and they often take to the Internet to discuss their experiences and warn other parents. Indeed, a substantial part of the vaccine discussion takes place on anti-vaccine website discussion boards such as Age of Autism, Say No to Vaccines, and Naturalnews.com. Even on mainstream social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, anti-vaccine discussions are flourishing as these groups have closed their forums to anyone who describes themselves as “pro-vaccine.” According to Shelby and Ernst, these parents and other anti-vaccine activists “have relied on the profound power of storytelling to infect an entire generation of parents with fear and doubt”.

Perhaps the most common trope told by this group is the “overnight autism” narrative, in which a parent takes their child in to get the MMR vaccine only to watch them digress cognitively almost immediately after.

The parallels with the celebrity- and social media-driven scaremongering about trans kids are considerable.

Here’s Jack Turban writing in Psychology Today about the supposedly scientific paper shared by everybody’s favourite author.

For “overnight autism”, here’s “rapid onset gender dysphoria”:

This term comes from a paper published in the journal PLoS One, in which the author anonymously surveyed parents recruited from websites that focus on the theory that trans youth identify as transgender due to “social contagion” and online influences. Unfortunately, the paper did not survey any of the youth themselves or their clinicians. The only thing the paper established is that some people online believe that youth rapidly become transgender as a result of watching trans-related content on Youtube and Reddit… [it claims] that “a substantial proportion” of referrals to gender clinics are for youth with this “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” It provides no citation for this claim. There are no data showing that this is true.

Then there’s simply ignoring evidence that says your theory is wrong:

The paper contains a section entitled “research” in which the author quotes a number of people regarding their thoughts on medical interventions for transgender youth. However, it fails to cite any of the many papers that show medical interventions for transgender youth result in favorable mental health outcomes.

There’s ignorance about what current procedures actually are:

The watchful waiting approach is irrelevant to the discussion of medical interventions for transgender youth. Under existing guidelines, these interventions are never offered before the onset of puberty.

And there are false assertions presented as fact.

The paper claims that gender affirmative models do not allow providers to explore with patients their “underlying belief systems and motivations,” or else they will be accused of conversion therapy. This is not true. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s policy statement on conversion therapy clearly states providers should engage in open exploration of identity with youth. An approach is only conversion therapy if it has the pre-defined goal of a specific gender identity.

Back to the anti-vaccination paper.

In addition, it was determined that “93% of tweets about vaccines are generated by accounts whose provenance can be verified as neither bots nor human users yet who exhibit malicious behaviors.” This amplifies the misinformation that parents are exposed to, and it fuels the belief that the science behind vaccine efficacy and safety is still debatable.

Exactly the same thing is happening with discussion about trans people and trans kids in particular. The conversation is dominated by multiple “sock puppet” accounts, trolls and bots.

ideas about neoliberalism and skewed perceptions of feminist concepts of bodily autonomy and parental decision-making trumps medical expertise. Reich’s data and findings suggest that upper-class women may adopt anti-vaxx sentiments as a means for expressing independence—while tragically undermining the value and science behind herd immunity.

As with anti-vaccination, people are trying to undermine health provision that is proven to be safe, proven to have positive health outcomes and that follows internationally agreed standards – provision that is already desperately underfunded and overstretched.

In England, there is only one clinic for trans youth; the waiting list for a first appointment there is currently 27 months and there are serious concerns about the quality of care and support being offered. And adult services are in crisis. I was talking to a trans woman yesterday who wanted to know the procedure and time frame for hormone therapy on the NHS; in England you can realistically expect to wait around four years, possibly longer. In Northern Ireland you can’t even join a waiting list.

While people, trolls and bots rail against things that are not happening, the current system is failing people in need.