Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: CONTROVERSY.

NO DOUBT about it. We live in a disputative society. People argue. People are vexatious. I already knew this and it was confirmed for me again just last week.

That happened when I posted a link to a story in the Gold Coast Bulletin, a newspaper. It happened again when I posted the link to an article on the same theme about the same place in The Ballina Shire Advocate, a newspaper serving the Northern Rivers region of northern NSW, the area that includes the towns of Mullumbimby and Byron Bay.

An issue vexed and vaxatious

The gist of the Gold Coast Bulletin story was that the anti-vaccination movement (aka ‘anti-vaxxers’) in the Mullumbimby-Byron Bay region is making the region a vector for the transmission of preventable diseases for which vaccination provides immunity.

The region has one of the lowest childhood vaccination rates in Australia, the rate in Mullumbimby reported at around 50 percent. The Gold Coast Bulletin story reported mothers of young children being confused and pressured by anti-vaccination advocates. In March this year the local controversy was further fanned by the appearance of anti-vaccination advocate David Wolfe at a reportedly sold-out talk in Mullumbimby. Wolfe is reported on Wikipedia as being or having been linked to raw and vegan food businesses, to making sprurious health claims, believing vaccination does not work and is dengerous, to promoting ‘superfoods’ (a marketing term with no agreed scientific meaning) and to believing that the Earth is flat (yes, that’s what the article says).

Just a few days after the Gold Coast Bulletin article, an article in NSW North Coast newspapers, The Ballina Shire Advocate and The Coffs Coast Advocate reported a seven year old, unimmunised child in so critical a condition with tetanus that she had to be moved to a Brisbane hospital for treatment. Tetanus is not a communicable disease, however the paper linked the incident to the high number of unvaccinated children in the region. The story was reported as far away an Aotearoa-New Zealand. In December last year, The New Zealand Herald had reported a similar tetanus infection and linked that to a child not being vaccinated.

Outbreaks of communicable diseases among unvaccinated children such as measles, whooping cough and meningococcal disease in the region (some cases of the latter were a form for which no vaccination exists) were reported in the Communicable Diseases Report, NSW, July and August 2010. The report says: “The proportion of children who are reported to be fully vaccinated at 5 years of age in some North Coast communities is lower (61–93%) than in other parts of NSW (89–93%).”

Vaccination is a hot topic and getting hotter. The federal government recently raised the possibility of ineligibility of some benefits for families with unvaccinated children. There have been reports that childcare centres may refuse to accept those children. The government’s statement has not been helpful. It merely added fuel to fire by introducing to the vaccination issue the rights of parents to choose what they think best for their children.

I mention these reports as evidence of vaccination being a controversial issue in the region.

Having worked in journalism I am well aware that no matter what you write about controversial topics, there are people who will not only try to refute what you write or the argument of those you report, but will verbally attack you. Trying to discredit the writer is a tactic of individual advocates and groups both in the US and Australia.

I’m not going to argue vaccination here, though. My interest is more in the social dynamics around controversial issues like that rather than the medical science, and how they are argued in the media, particularly social media.

Hippies to blame?

I posted the link to the Gold Coast Bulletin article, then to The Ballina Shire Advocate story when that came out, on several facebooks where I thought people would be interested. My rationale for doing that was because health related items had been previously posted there. I also suggested that anti-vaccination advocates had commonality with the earlier New Age culture that inhabited Mullumbimby and Byron Bay and nearby regions, vestiges of which remain, and that the advocates shared to some degree the company of Australian right-wing politician, Pauline Hanson and US president Trump, both of whom had made tentative statements that had been regarded as supporting anti-vaccination. This was later strenuously denied.

I have lived in Byron Bay and I had observed how New Age ideas had captured the imagination of many there, and how people were willing to pay good money to do workshops in sometimes esoteric-sounding practices. I’m not saying all of those offering those workshops were dodgy. The subculture that developed around New Age beliefs came to constitute something of a small industry in the region, whose legacy remains.

One social media commentator said that anti-vaxxers were hippies. I responded that was unlikely as authentic hippies had probably long ago disappeared from the region. Any who call themselves by that name now are latter-day descendants whose link with that earlier social milieu is likely to now be quite tenuous. Hippie culture, though, embodied skepticism about straight society so it should not come as a surprise that any identifying as hippies today are also anti-vaccination.

Social is vexatious media

The reponses to my social media postings followed those typically found in reporting controversial issues. They included the following:

Shoot-the-messenger attacks on commentators and journalists who are criticised for reporting the story. Some advocacy groups use this bullying tactic to try to silence discussion.

Comment posts from those who disagree, anti-vaccination people in this case, with long lists of weblinks to sources supporting their argument. These were immediate responses, suggesting that anti-vaxxers maintain such lists ready for immediate deployment.

Using the NSW North Coast issue as an example again, ignoring posts such as those made by people with medical and scientific backgrounds that support vaccination. One such post citing numbers saved by vaccination went unresponded by anti-vaxxers. Choosing not to respond to stories that contradict their point of view is a tactic not only of anti-vaxxers but of others advocating some controversial line.

Citing discredited science such as the article in Nature (the journal withdrew the article) alleging vaccination with commonly-used vaccines caused autism.

Ignoring the preponderance of scientific consenses by posting links only to a smaller number of scientists and doctors critical of vaccination. As in global warming, it is the preponderance of scientific opinion that counts and not the dissenting opinion by a small number. It is assumed that the scientific method will disclose if dissenting views are valid and that consensus will then incorporate them. That has not happened with vaccination.

I learned long ago that in the media the most comments you receive come from people unhappy with what you write or report, and the social media postings confirmed this even though there were comments made in support of vaccination, including those by people with medical and scientific experience. Just as in climate science denial, the expertise of those in the field is ignored when it is not challenged, positioning the critics as somehow more knowledgeable than people with years of study and experience. During the north coast vaccination issue there were also socaia media ‘likes’ for people expressing sympathy with the children affected by the diseases.

Interestingly, some of the most vociferous comments came from people on permaculture facebooks, although many others supported the gist of the stories. Permaculture is a system of design for resilient communities in which emphasis is put on design thinking, however some of the comments show that the design system still has far to go when it comes to that.

One of the commentators critical of anti-vaxxers wrote that their attitude demonstrated confirmation bias, where the only information afforded credibility and reported is that which supports their argument. Contrary or challenging information is disregarded or an attempt is made to discredit those making it. This, he wrote, makes anti-vaxxers like climate change deniers.

A colleague tried to restore a measure of civility to the discussion. What he said is something I had noticed when I attempted to do the same thing on a US facebook. It is this: it is near impossible to have a respectful, rational or civil conversation on social media.



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