Washington – An 18-year-old from Ohio who famously inoculated himself, against his mother’s wishes, in December says he attributes his mother’s anti-vaccine ideology to a single source: Facebook.
Ethan Lindenberger, a high school senior, testified Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, underscoring the importance of "credible" information. In contrast, he said, the false and deep-rooted beliefs his mother held — that vaccines were dangerous — were perpetuated by social media. Specifically, he said, she turned to anti-vaccine groups on social media for evidence that supported her point of view.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, Lindenberger said Facebook, or websites that were linked to through Facebook, is really the only source his mother ever relied on for her anti-vaccine information.
Most important, Lindenberger said, was the impact Facebook’s anti-vax communities had on his family.
"I feel like if my mom didn’t interact with that information, and she wasn’t swayed by those arguments and stories, it could’ve potentially changed everything," Lindenberger said. "My entire family could’ve been vaccinated."
Lindenberger said he believed his older siblings, who pre-date Facebook, had been vaccinated. He said his younger siblings have not.
Ethan Linderberger, 18, spoke at a March 5 Senate hearing devoted to examining outbreaks of preventable diseases. Video: Reuters
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explicitly states that there is no link between vaccines and autism. The CDC also warns of incorrect information, easily spread and made available online.
"I didn’t agree with anything he said." Jill Wheeler, Lindenbergers mother, told The Associated Press. "They’ve made him the poster child for the pharmaceutical industry." Wheeler was not available for comment before this story was published.
The Post has previously reported on the ways Facebook has served as a place of refuge for parents who reject facts on immunizations. The platform targeted advertisements and anti-vaccination materials aimed toward women in regions with high numbers of measles reports. This comes after pressure from lawmakers and professionals in the medical field about the spread of misinformation related to vaccines.
"We’ve taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook, but we know we have more to do," Facebook said in a statement to The Washington Post last month. The platform said it was considering reducing the appearance of anti-vaccination material in search results and "Groups you should join."
Facebook came up several times in Lindenberger’s congressional address Tuesday.
"Does your mother get most of her information online?" Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., asked Lindenberger on Tuesday.
"Yes. . . . Mainly Facebook," Lindenberger replied.
"And where do you get most of your information?" Isakson asked.
"Not Facebook," Lindenberger said, laughing. "From CDC, World Health Organization, scientific journals and also cited information from those organizations . . . accredited sources."
His mother had vocalized her anti-vaccination views over the course of his entire life, he testified, and he began to notice that the benefits of vaccinations outweighed the perceived risks. This became apparent when his mother would share videos and people would dispute her claims in the replies.
"It was really frustrating for me," Lindenberger told The Post. "I knew if I were to continue arguing and push my stance, even if it was correct, I wouldn’t get anywhere."
In his testimony, he said he approached his mother repeatedly in an attempt to sway her views. In one instance, he cited the CDC. His mother replied, ‘That’s what they want you to think.’ "
In arguments with his mother, Lindenberger says she would repeatedly make claims and rely on information from Facebook that had no real attribution or backing. Some of the facts are conspiracy theories, including a claim that the CDC is funded by Big Pharma, which pays the federal agency to push vaccines.
"She didn’t trust any sources, he told The Post. "She thought vaccines were a conspiracy by the government to kill children."
Lindberger says his mother is not unique, and many are swayed by information falsely presented on Facebook to be accurate. This baseless data is often supplemented by graphs and charts that make the claims appear to be factual.
The renewed conversation on measles – which was eliminated in the United States in 2000 – comes amid a resurgence of the disease spurred by an increased number of people who travel outside the country and bring the disease back, according to the CDC. The spread of measles is exacerbated by what the CDC describes as "U.S. communities with pockets of unvaccinated people."
A recent Washington state measles outbreak, one of six ongoing outbreaks in the United States, has afflicted 71 people, the Department of Health reports. The epicentre of that outbreak lies in Clark County, an area near Portland that officials have dubbed an anti-vaccination "hotspot" because of the high rate of nonmedical exemption from required vaccines. There have been 206 confirmed cases of measles reported in the U.S., spanning 11 states, the CDC reports.
The Washington Post