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.