Trolling the antivaccine trolls

There are many ways to combat antivaccine pseudoscience. Personally, I’ve chosen my favored methods, namely blogging, giving talks, and generally combatting pseudoscience on social media wherever I find it. That’s not all I do (for example, I do have a couple of papers in the peer-reviewed medical literature designed to combat the infiltration of pseudoscience into academia), but it is where I put most of my effort. For one thing, I’m good at it. For another thing, it’s fun. Also, it’s something I can work into my busy schedule more easily. It even brings me a bit of notoriety now and then, such as when I had a strange interaction with William Shatner or when various news organizations, for some reason, want to interview and quote me for various stories.

None of this is to say that what I do is the only way to combat pseudoscience. Heck, it’s probably not even the most effective, but it does play to my strengths. Indeed, I very much admire people who can go a more conventional route, forming organizations, lobbying, and doing outreach. I also can’t help but have some respect for people who use more—shall we say?—in your face tactics, people like those who go out and protest showings of antivaccine documentaries like VAXXED. The movie was released well over a year ago, and, unfortunately, the film’s producers and director, Andrew Wakefield, Polly Tommey, and Del Bigtree, are still promoting it for all it’s worth. They’ve even bought an old bus, painted it up with the film’s logo, and gone on tour to promote the movie, rally the antivaccine faithful, and try to influence legislators, both at the federal and state level—even in my state of Michigan. Throughout it all, they’ve tried to make it a memorial to the “vaccine-injured,” with parents writing the names of the “victims” on the bus. It’s all rather ghoulish, actually.

Indeed, the VAXXED crew is so blatant that just last week they were in Minneapolis, the epicenter of a massive measles outbreak among the Somali immigrant community in Hennepin County that Andrew Wakefield himself, with the help of his acolytes, directly caused through their fear mongering about vaccines and autism. Even worse, even after having drawn national attention to their role in endangering the children of Minnesota through promoting antivaccine misinformation, antivaxers aren’t ashamed. They’re proud. They’re doubling down and still promoting their pseudoscience among the vulnerable population they harmed in the first place. The VAXXED bus visit is just part of that. Basically, Wakefield is making another movie, and his crew is filming interviews wherever the VAXXED bus goes.

That’s why I’m glad there’s someone like Craig Egan, who started a GoFundMe page in order to raise money so that he could travel across the country, report on where the VAXXED bus is going and what the VAXXED crew is doing, protest, and raise money for Voices For Vaccines:

The Vaxxed bus is on tour, spreading fear and disinformation about vaccines. I will be following their route, refuting them with facts and evidence and sometimes lulz at every stop. I will also be using this adventure as a fundraiser for a great organization, Voices for Vaccines. One third of all donations will be budgeted to go directly to V4V . Each goal will get me to another stop on the tour and a larger V4V donation.

He’s even made the news as the “Internet’s most prolific troll of anti-vaxxers“:

Online, his approach is textbook trolling, which is defined by the Urban Dictionary as posting a “deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”

That’s exactly what he does, needling staunch, conspiratorial anti-vaccine types to an uncomfortable point of hilarity or harassment, depending on your point of view.

He has a certain skill set, and he’s not shy about using it, employing take-down-style arguments based in science and medicine in a bizarre digital realm that largely seeks to discredit both.

Online, his many foes know him well. He’s routinely referred to as a bully, or worse.

Egan targets those who believe immunizations are responsible for a host of medical conditions, ailments and disabilities, and that there’s a widespread cover-up orchestrated by the government and large pharmaceutical companies to keep the truth hidden.

Specifically, Egan specializes in making online life miserable for the handful of doctors and authors who deal in this junk science.

Yes, there’s Insolence I can approve of. He also follows an approach I try to follow in my blogging, namely ruthless mockery of the hard core antivaxers but a much softer approach with those on the fence. Antivaxers hate him, of course, probably more than they hate me. They portray him (and Karen Ernst of V4V) as “stalkers and “mockers,” which is not entirely inaccurate but doesn’t really truly catch the flavor of what he’s doing. In any case, Egan is very effective, because he’s basically driven the VAXXED bus underground:

Basically, because of Egan, the locations of where the VAXXED bus will be have been kept as secret as possible, and some appearances have been moved to private homes, where Egan can’t go. In particular, I like how Egan turned the tables on the VAXXED crew in Minneapolis by calling the police on them for not having a permit to film a movie in a public park. The same sort of thing happened in Bettendorf, IA and St. Louis: No bus, or the event was moved to a private house:

Here he noted that Suzanne Humphries stopped showing up, as did Polly Tommey. I really have to wonder how fragile the message of VAXXED is if one person (or, sometimes, a handful of people) respectfully protesting, drives the whole crew and bus underground. I can’t help but think of similar behavior that I’ve noticed elsewhere…

Trolling is not all that Egan does, though. As he’s done his tour, he’s interviewed various physicians and vaccine researchers about the importance of vaccines, thus providing a positive message as well.

So how do antivaxers view him? The Age of Autism crew, specifically Nancy Hokkanen, was not happy:

Organizers of the Minneapolis VaxXed stop withheld its Mississippi River stop location publicly because of troublemakers. One was Craig Egan, a miscreant with suspect funding who boasts online about his national stalking of the bus and its grieving visitors. Nonetheless he and a handful of protesters appeared brandishing a few signs (such as the inapplicable “Mutant and Proud”), but left after some sprinkles of rain. Someone even attempted to shut down the VaxXed event by calling park police, though event organizers had a permit.

“I wonder why Craig Egan and the rest of his trolls are trying to intimidate families who have vaccine injured children?” asked Wayne Rohde of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota. “He has no heart or conscience for understanding others who are living and struggling with disabilities.”

Another empathy-challenged intruder was Karen Ernst of the faux consumer group Voices for Vaccines, who showed up to lurk and smirk. Though the VaxXed bus is a travelling monument recognizing health damage and deaths caused by vaccines, photos taken that day indicate she found the gathering amusing. Her disturbingly inappropriate affect is profoundly disrespectful at an event commemorating the sick and dead, their caregivers, and their mourners.

I don’t presume to speak for Craig, but I do have empathy for parents who have to deal with a special needs child. I really do. Back when I was in college, I worked part time at a group home with children with severe mental retardation, two of which had classic severe autism. I can partially (but never completely) imagine what it would be like to take care of such children 24/7/365. However, having a special needs child does not give you a pass if you spread antivaccine misinformation of the sort that resulted in the recent measles outbreak in Minnesota, nor does it give you a pass if you have, in essence, made a career of spreading such misinformation, as Polly Tommey and several of the leaders of the antivaccine movement have done.

That being said, it is a fine line to tread. Antivaxers use their belief that their children were horribly injured by vaccines as a shield against any criticism of their antivaccine beliefs. Basically, if you criticize their antivaccine beliefs, you are risking falling into the trap of being portrayed as “attacking mothers.” The flip side of their use of their pain as their shield is that, at the same time, as they take self-righteous umbrage at any criticism pro-vaccine advocates might level at their antivaccine pseudoscience, they feel they have every right to use all manner of personal attacks, doxxing, trying to get their critics fired (or at least harassing them at work), and even using violent imagery aimed at their perceived enemies.

Fortunately, Craig treads that line well.