On May 6, 2019, a drone dropped flyers outside of an Ariana Grande concert in Sacramento. The flyers read, “the press is the enemy”, “mob organized crime”, “police state/fascism”, and featured images of a swastika. It’s safe to say, “Fake News” has taken the West by storm. While not all examples are so brazen, there is an abundance of false information being shared, as well as a decrease in public confidence in traditional media.
This distrust of the politicians and the media has sowed a further distrust in both American and global society. Populist rhetoric that criticizes political elites and claims a moral superiority  has also made room to criticize other “elites” and claim moral authority realms beyond the traditional political sphere. For a growing population, “corrupt elites” now includes health officials, and “moral authority” lies in the decision to not vaccinate children.
Growing vaccine hesitancy across the globe has led to outbreaks
of diseases that were previously thought to have been eliminated. Measles,
which were declared
eliminated from the United States in 2000, have experienced a renaissance,
with outbreaks occurring across the United States and Europe. In
Greece, measles cases doubled from 2017 to 2018. In France, they grew almost
six-fold. So far in 2019, there have been 764 cases of measles in the
United States – the
largest outbreak in 25 years. The World Health Organization lists vaccine
hesitancy as one of the top ten global threats to health.
Also on the rise in the United States and Europe? Populist rhetoric. The rise of the anti-vaccination movement is correlated with the rise of populist rhetoric in the United States and in Europe. Votes for populist parties and doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines were also found to be strongly correlated. Many of the underlying myths that fuel vaccine hesitancy find backing in populist ideology – anti-vaxxers often believe that vaccines don’t actually work, that the diseases that they claim to prevent are not actually a threat, that the FDA does not actually rigorously test vaccines before approving them, that doctors don’t know anything about vaccines, that the media exaggerates the threat preventable diseases like measles cause – the list goes on. All of these notions that lead individuals to not vaccinate their children find their roots in the idea that the system that tells them vaccines are necessary is corrupt and can’t be trusted. The media, the FDA, the doctors – all of these are viewed to be somehow corrupted.
Also at play is a populist notion of moral superiority, particularly in one of the most pervasive notions among anti-vaxxers – that childhood vaccines are “too much, too soon”. This notion instills an idea of a ‘correct’ number and timing of vaccines, known by the anti-vaxxers and ignored by the masses. There’s an insinuation that those who fully vaccinate their children are worse parents for doing so – that being anti-vaccines makes you a better, more informed parent, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Beyond populism, the rise of fake news has also contributed to the growing anti-vaccination movement. Fake news about vaccines runs rampant online – anti-vax individuals claim vaccines cause autism, or that vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue, or that vaccines contain more mercury now than ever. All of these statements are false, and have been debunked on numerous occasions, but continue to make their way online as individuals fail to fully fact-check the information they consume. The media and health institutions’ work debunking these claims may have also inadvertently drawn more attention to the “debate” around the safety of vaccines .
As populism and fake news continue to spread, they infect more and more our democratic institutions. Fake news and populist rhetoric are dangerous, not only to our democracy, but to our health. Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? Penguin Random House, 2017  Barrera, Oscar & Guriev, Sergei & Henry, Emeric & Zhuravskaya, Ekaterina, “Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics,” 2017.
To summarize your blog post, you took your time to explain the correlation between anti-vaxxers, pro-populist parties, and fake news. Your main point is focused on the reasons people choose to anti-vax: populist ideology, fake news, and the idea that not vaccinating makes a “better and more informed” parent. You give excellent data proving the contrary. Since there have been less vaccinations being performed, there have now been several outbreaks of measles in the United States and Europe. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the U.S., but it seems we can thank anti-vaxxers for the 764 cases you reported from the first five months of 2019. Overall, I wish this blog post could be shared to a larger audience to perhaps persuade anti-vaxxers to, at least, vaccinate their children for measles in an effort to eliminate it once more from the United States. It would also be interesting to find out how many measles’ cases are totaled by the END of 2019.
“Fake news” is a relatively new term with an almost immeasurable impact. Reports from an MIT study found that a fake story can reach a group of 1,500 people six times faster than a factual story. This is not just the case in political news, although that is where it is best exemplified. The same study found that this rapid spread of fake information is found in news of almost every subject. This means that the falsification of information can extend far beyond negative implications within the political sphere, but in society in general.
Your blog post does well at discussing connections between the rise in populism and fake news and how that can contribute to dangerous movements such as the anti-vax movement. This post shows how the theory of the dangers of populism can have dangerous effects in reality. You present an insightful correlation between the rise in the occurrence of deadly diseases like measles and the spread of fake news.
I agree with your article in that fake news is not only a tool used by populist leaders, but that it is also a threat to democracy and society, inevitably leading to democratic erosion. One of the main attacks used by populist leaders is delegitimizing opposition and that is exactly what the term “fake news” does. By leaders claiming that the media is spreading false information, they group themselves with the people and make those in the media the “elite” or “nonperson” group that populist leaders condemn. According to Mueller, this close alignment with “the people” and delegitimizing of opposition are two key characteristics of populism that help leaders gain their power over large groups of people. Along with these characteristics, your article also mentions that moral superiority is often felt by those who follow populist leaders, that in this case would be those believing in the anti-vax movement. As your post describes, the “elite” are whoever the fake news chooses to attack and those under its influence find moral authority in opposing that elite group.
Continuing to expand upon the themes of your post, populist ideals are also present with anti-vaxxers who can align themself with the so-called “silent majority” of populist theory in order to gain traction in their movement. Perpetrators of fake news use the claim of a “silent majority” to make supporters believe that their cause is representative of all people. This can make supporters more impassioned to spread awareness of a message that is simply not true. You are right in highlighting how this can be a danger in populist movements and ones such as the anti-vax one where lives are at stake.
Another aspect of this issue that I think your post fails to mention is how fake news is also a factor contributing to the intense party polarization that erodes democracy. The concept of fake news makes it easy to spread untruthful information about opposing parties or claim that negative publicity is simply not true. An article by Persily about democracy surviving the internet details how fake news can come in from a variety of sources from the party organization, to interest groups, or even general news websites. Bots that create fake hype around these articles build intense feelings around particular issues and candidates. This makes fake news very important in terms of how younger generations feel about what they can be told are “corrupt” political institutions, parties, or elites. What begins as an influence over elections and movements like the anti-vax one can turn into bigger attacks on democracy as a whole. As Foa and Mounk write in their article about democratic deconsolidation, one of the first signs of a democracy that is in danger of failing is public skepticism. Foa and Mounk show a correlation with distrust in the system and the youth being the most dangerous for democracy. In terms of fake news, youth are the most impressionable when it comes to ideas about democracy and also the most likely to obtain fake news through the media. This can create a disaffection with political parties and institutions can stem from fake news. Distrust is the current political establishment is another tactic used by populist leaders to help them align themselves with the people which can lead to democratic erosion. Fake news creates anti-establishment feelings and distrust with whoever is being attacked in the news, whether it is candidates or vaccinations.
Another way that I suggest of viewing how fake news can incite democratic erosion is through Levistky’s views of the political norms that keep democracy in check. Norms according to Levitsky are ideas such as mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Fake news is outside of both of these norms and impacts thus far are unprecedented. It can fight mutual tolerance as parties or candidates attack each other and it destroys institutional forbearance by swaying public belief and faith in the system. Straying from norms creates danger for authenticity in democracy and in other fields such as medicine.
Altogether, this article did well in giving a specific example of how fake news can be utilized by populists particularly in terms of the anti-vax movement. I felt that this post was valid in how it explained the separation between elites and outsiders and how that can be a danger to a struggling political sphere and authority of scientists. It was important to me to explain how fake news contributes to democratic erosion beyond just anti-vaxxers to party polarization and overall distrust in establishment. If fake news continues to spread how it does, the outbreak of virus will be a small worry compared to the fall of entire political systems.
Meyer, R. (2018) The Grim Conclusions of the Largest-Ever Study of Fake News. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/03/largest-study-ever-fake-news-mit-twitter/555104/
Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? Penguin Random House, 2017
Persily, N. (2017). The 2016 U.S. Election: Can Democracy Survive the Internet?. The Journal of Democracy, 28(2)
Foa, R. S., & Mounk, Y. (2016). The Democratic Disconnect. The Journal of Democracy, 7(23).
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.