Menses, Vaccines, and Slacktivism

Reading about the woman who ran an entire marathon menstruating without a tampon made me think of vaccine advocacy. I recognize it is an odd leap, but advocacy shares commonalities no matter the cause.

In case you missed it, People magazine reported that Kiran Gandhi ran a marathon in London last April while blood soaked her pants:

Gandhi let her blood flow freely to raise awareness about women who have no access to feminine products and to encourage women to not be embarrassed about their periods.

The value of what might seem like an odd stunt was debated all over social media. Some felt that it highlighted a real issue while others felt that it solved nothing and amounted to slacktivism. Slacktivism is a form of activism that requires very little effort on the part of the activist and often leads to no real involvement in the issue at hand.

Gandhi being accused of slackvitism hit me. Granted, I work day in and day out trying really, really hard to get people to engage their friends, neighbors, and school administrators in order to raise immunization rates in their communities. For all my work, I have found that people are most comfortable with far lesser forms of activism: sharing Jimmy Kimmel videos on Facebook, wearing a pro-vaccine t-shirt, or Tweeting at Jenny McCarthy. Are their efforts (and mine) worthwhile?

To answer that question, I really need to unpack what the cause is. Even though we bill ourselves as the pro-vaccine movement, we are really, at our heart, anti. We could see ourselves as anti-disease or as anti-vaccine hesitancy. In either instance, we are doing battle against things contagious that threaten public health.

If we are simply anti-disease, so-called slacktivism is not actually slacking off. The first course of action against preventable disease, after all, is to get your child (and yourself) vaccinated, since vaccines do battle against the diseases directly. The next step is simply to make vaccinating normal so that others will do it, too. Sharing that Jimmy Kimmel video certainly gives an air of “Normal people vaccinate” and might also remind people to check on their immunization status.

Vaccine hesitancy is a different monster, though. Jimmy Kimmel is not going to make a parent who has concerns about vaccines laugh those concerns away. As I wrote earlier, turning the tides of vaccine hesitancy requires people who care about the hesitant addressing concerns with them and sharing stories about why we vaccinate. This person-to-person, retail advocacy is the exact opposite of slacktivism. It is more akin to building a Habitat for Humanity house, except that no one will ever drive past the house and look at it because you cannot drive past outbreaks that never happened and note their lack of existence.

The pro-vaxxers who have vaccine hesitant friends whom they engage are the ones getting their hands dirty with activism. But they aren’t alone. The Washington Post reviewed a study on slacktivism and how to engage activists more deeply:

[T]hose whose initial act of support is done more privately (for example, writing to a member of Congress) are more likely to engage in deeper, more costly forms of engagement later on. Those whose initial support is public (i.e. through posting to Facebook or Twitter) are less likely to engage more deeply. Moreover, the researchers find that most appeals for token engagement “promote slacktivism among all but those highly connected to the cause.”

In other words, those who are engaging in pro-vaccine advocacy primarily through social media might be the people who appear to be the face of the pro-vaccine movement, but they may not be the ones moving the needle (pun intended) on vaccine advocacy. People who are writing legislators, engaging the media, talking to their school administrators, requesting pro-science books added to library collections, and a hundred other mundane, private tasks are pushing their neighbors to confront fears about vaccines in order to raise immunization rates. Their work is both anti-disease and anti-vaccine hesitancy.

Which is not to say that being pro-vaccine primarily on social media is inferior. Of course, there are ways that social media activism can effect real change concerning vaccine hesitancy and the grip the anti-vaccine movement has on Facebook and Twitter. For example, it was through social media that Chili’s was convinced to drop their support of an anti-vaccine organization. I’ve also used social media to prompt pro-vaxxers into private forms of advocacy, writing letters to congress and asking them to cancel a anti-vaccine hearing, for example.

Thus, being engaged in awareness raising does not preclude a person from making a real difference. However, the leap from sharing a funny pro-vaccine meme on Facebook to writing a company or a policymaker is wide, and often people engaging on social media are not ready to make that leap. My past personal experience has shown that in order for pro-vaxxers to take on get-your-hands-dirty activism, they have to be alerted to an immediate need that requires specific, short-term action (such as writing to have a hearing canceled or posting on Chili’s social media page). Between those actions, then, a little so-called slacktivism or awareness raising is necessary to keep people interested.

If you are waiting for me to rule on Kiran Gandhi, you may have waited in vain. While I don’t consider her cause one of those that drives me, I do donate feminine hygiene products to the local food shelf. And I hope that someone reading today’s post might write a letter to a school administrator and ask how the vaccine rates are and what might be done to raise them.

And why not. Here’s Jimmy Kimmel again.