The Pufferfish Effect

Anti-vaxxers have two competing narratives about themselves. The first is that they are the little guy, Davids competing against Big Pharma Goliaths in a righteous battle. The other is that they are a mobilized, growing force of many on the verge of changing the world. While they are neither, they really especially are not the second one.

Not that they don’t put incredible amounts of effort into appearing bigger than they are, like a pufferfish who fills himself with water when he feels threatened. In one article, Renee DiResta and Gilad Lotan noted that while an enormous amount of chatter surrounding a bill to eliminate PBEs for vaccine requirements seemed to fill the Twittersphere, in reality the tweets came from only a handful of people.

While anti-vaxxers like to accuse pro-vaccine advocates of being astro-turfers, they appear to be bulking up their ranks with clones of themselves rather than new converts. And you might not even realize that you have fallen for their scheme.

It may seem that hundreds of anti-vaccine organizations loom out on the internet, but really, these are mostly reconfigurations of the same old anti-vaccine people and groups. The Canary Party is the first, most obvious group of activists who brand and re-brand themselves. I am not sure what their first iteration is, but I first found many convening under the guise of the National Health Freedom Coalition and Age of Autism.  Being a coalition of people trying to assert their freedom to spread disease and a pretend for-profit news source intent on spreading the myth that vaccines cause autism wasn’t enough, so they formed the only political party based on a mutual disdain for preventing disease through immunization: The Canary Party. Whether the Canary Party didn’t pan out or they were trying to puff themselves to look more numerous than they are is hard to say, but LBRB Autism‘s Matt Carey found their next iteration:

[I]t’s worth noting that the same team behind the Canary Party has a charity “American Citizens For Health Choice”. They have a site, A while back I discussed them in the comments for a Canary Party article.

Carey goes on to analyze their finances and how one group feeds into the next.

The Canary Health Choice Freedom Coalition of Autism isn’t alone in creating multiple sites and organizations. In fact, lately the pufferfish tactic seems to be a favorite among anti-vaxxers. The spuriously named National Vaccine Information Center is now sending out new newsletters branded “The Vaccine Reaction,” wherein they reblog other anti-vaccine content from across the internet, package it into a newsletter-looking format, and send it off to those wishing to be scared further by unsubstantiated claims about immunization. The newsletter, then, is the ultimate of making more out of nearly nothing. It’s like serving leftovers for the fourth night in a row.

So often, the rebranding of anti-vaccine misinformation works really hard to sound legitimate. Such is the case of a new organization/website owned by chiropractor Renee Tocco Hunter, whose mother and former receptionist roams the country giving speech about how terrible vaccines are. The new Tocco joint is called Foundation for Pediatric Health, even though the people behind it are not pediatricians and the content would do the opposite of promoting health.

Dr. Sherri Tenpenny is a master of packaging and promoting fears about vaccines for her own profit, and her latest website, also in newsletter form, is The Edgy Truth. Guess what it is? Yes, it is reblogged anti-vaccine nonsense. But at least Dr. Tenpenny isn’t charging you to look at it, the way she does with her Vaccine Research Library, a site where she quite literally sells access to studies that other people have written.

Since it seems that all the cool kids are pufferfishing their brand, you can predict who the latest in anti-vaccine rebranding would be. Yes, Dr. Bob Sears has just announced the formation of a non-profit to provide education about vaccines to people who want to be scared out of vaccinating:

Immunity Education Group was formed to shift the public’s perception of the current status of infectious diseases in our nation and our immunization system from one of fear and coercion to knowledge and empowerment. We will achieve this goal through public service announcements, media outreach, speaking events, online campaigns, and by providing support and education to other like-minded groups. We seek to provide the necessary tools to engage friends, colleagues, and family members in thoughtful, respectful, and educated conversation. Together, we will restore our right to medical freedom and informed consent and help insure understanding, acceptance, and peaceful coexistence for all Americans. Join us.

At least he had the decency to announce that he is behind this venture, but a cynical part of me is assuming that this is simply a marketing tool to help him gain new patients and sell more supplements and books. And I have to admit that a part of me is hoping he will finally drop the pretense of not being anti-vaccine. It would be unwise of him to do so, though, since over 95% of parents actually vaccinate their children. That’s a huge potential client base to lose.

Speaking of the 95%, most of us vaccinate their children. The anti-vaxxers can keep packaging and re-packaging their wares, but they will still always be a super minority, and the stones they mean to sling at the rest of us are not at all supported by any evidence and science.

We cannot stop anti-vaxxers from repackaging their internet rumors. But we can be aware that when we run into a new website and social media outlet, we are likely simply running into the same old people trying something new.