Josh Rushing pwns antivaxer Del Bigtree

I complain a lot about bad reporting, more specifically false balance, in reporting about vaccines. Indeed, deconstructing such reporting on vaccines has been a recurring theme of this blog at least since 2005. Back in those days, I used to point out how pretty much every story about vaccines seemed to feature an interview with at least one antivaxer, and every story about autism seemed to feature an interview with at least—you guessed it—one antivaxer. Sadly, I had the opportunity to discuss this phenomenon in detail twice in the last month or so. Back in those days, it was Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, J.B. Handley, and the like who were the featured antivaxers in these stories. These days, it’s often Del Bigtree, producer of the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary known as VAXXED. Usually, he’s portrayed as charismatic, complete with references to his flowing long gray hair; so it’s nice to see a report from Fault Lines by Aljazeera in which, to put it kindly, Bigtree does not come off appearing nearly as good. In fact, he kind of gets pwned, and, although the reporting isn’t perfect and the correspondent Josh Rushing makes some choices that annoyed me, the story represents better and more accurate reporting on the nature of the antivaccine movement than average. It’s just incomplete.

Let’s take a look. The Fault Lines story is entitled The Viral Threat: Measles and Misinformation:

It’s about 25 minutes long and definitely worth watching. Before I go on, I won’t let this report’s one screwup pass:

Vaccine sceptics represent only a tiny minority of the population, but their digital advocacy has evolved into the “anti-vaccine” movement – a well-organised online network with significant offline implications for public health and politics. These groups promote medically inaccurate information about vaccines and their viral content has dominated US’s most powerful online platforms, including Facebook, Google, Amazon and YouTube.

No, no, no, no, no! These are not “vaccine skeptics.” They just aren’t. They are vaccine science deniers, just as creationists are deniers of evolutionary science, not “skeptics” of evolution, and climate science deniers are not “climate skeptics.” These are people who explicitly deny the science of vaccines, and it’s not frontier science, but mature science, so much so that it is not controversial to say that there is no credible evidence that vaccines cause autism as these (and most other) antivaxers believe.

Rushing does better elsewhere:

Ill-equipped to respond to the social media savvy anti-vax movement, the US medical community must now confront both the contagion of online misinformation and the real-world viral spread of vaccine-preventable diseases. In this episode, Fault Lines travelled to Washington state, as it was in the midst of containing an outbreak, to speak with public health officials and community members battling on the front lines of the measles crises while waging online “info-wars” against the anti-vaccine movement’s misinformation.

It’s true, too. The US medical community is ill-equipped to respond to the social media onslaught of the antivaccine movement. They’ve gone from being risibily inept on Twitter to being, unfortunately, pretty savvy, allowing Twitter to become an amplifier of their message. Ditto Facebook. Antivaxers have also become quite adept at gaming social media abuse reporting algorithms to weaponize them against pro-science advocates seeking to counter them.

Overall, the report does a good job of showing the passion of the antivaccine movement, along with the pseudoscience. Along the way, we meet some familiar figures, such as Jackie Schlegel, founder of Texans for Vaccine Choice, and Jinny Suh, founder of Immunize Texas. I’ve discussed both before in the context of my multiple discussions of how school vaccine mandates are becoming hopelessly politicized, with antivaxers like Schlegel successfully co-opting political messenging that conflates school vaccine mandates with big government overreach and philosophical exemptions to those mandates with “freedom” and “parental rights.” It’s this successful messaging that’s sucked in significant swaths of the Republican base. This success has led me to conclude that the Republican Party has become the party of antivaxers, so much so that in Oregon Republican legislators held the state senate hostage by refusing to come to work until Democrats dropped a bill that would have eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Unfortunately, the Democrats ultimately caved.

The key strength of this report, what it does that leads me to forgive most of its other shortcomings, is how in an interview Josh Rushing so expertly pwns Del Bigtree, who makes his appearance around the 14 minute mark, Rushing starts off asking Bigtree point blank, “Do you still believe that autism can be caused by the MMR shot?” Unsurprisingly, Bigtree answers, “Yes, I do.”

Now here’s where Rushing shines. He’s one of the rare reporters whom I’ve ever seen doing a story on the antivaccine movement that tackles someone like Bigtree head-on for his misuse of the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database. Regular readers, of course, are very familiar with VAERS. I’ve written about how antivaxers misuse VAERS more times than I can remember, going all the way back to 2005. I’ve noted how lawyers seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers encourage parents to file reports in VAERS for their child’s autism and for any other condition they attribute to vaccines, thus hopelessly distorting the database. Regular readers will also remember that a key issue with VAERS is that it is a passive reporting system to which anyone can report an adverse reaction to a vaccine. Also, there are better systems, systems that are active surveillance systems, out there. Antivaxers love VAERS, though, and misuse it all the time. Basically, VAERS functions as a “canary in the coalmine,” where increases in reports are hypothesis-generating, not hypothesis confirming. It is utterly useless for tracking prevalence of adverse events related to vaccines.

And that’s where Bigtree is deconstructed by Rushing. I will pick a nit with Rushing, here, though. He shows Bigtree ranting about VAERS, and as part of that rant Bigtree claims that VAERS is the only system we have to monitor vaccine safety in the US. As I just mentioned above, that is, of course, inaccurate (if you’re feeling generous) or a lie (if you are not, as I am not). Rushing didn’t mention that. It gets better, though. Bigtree is shown ranting about how VAERS had 58,000 entries in 2018, including 412 deaths. Sounds horrible, right? Well, not quite. For one thing, given the tens of millions of doses of vaccines administered every year, 58,000 is not that huge a number. Second—and here’s where Rushing gets it right—anyone can report these adverse events or deaths, and there is no evidence of causation.

The look on Bigtree’s face is priceless when Rushing confronts him, pointing out that the government explicitly warns against using VAERS data in such a fashion. So is Bigtree’s dancing around Rushing’s statement and challenge. Particularly hilarious is how Bigtree tries to deflect by saying, “I said there were 412 reported deaths; I never said there were 412 confirmed deaths.” Priceless. Rushing then can’t resist twisting the knife a bit by listing some of the causes of death in the reports on VAERS, which include drowning, co-sleeping, a preexisting heart condition, and others. He then reiterates how the CDC warns explicitly against using the database to infer causation, after which he points out that it sure sounded in his episode of Highwire as though Bigtree was claiming that vaccines caused over 400 deaths in 2018.

Yes, basically, Bigtree straight up admitted on camera that he lies and distorts using VAERS.

More interesting was Rushing’s revelation of just how much money Bigtree rakes in for his advocacy. Rushing notes that Bigtree’s nonprofit (Informed Consent Action Network, or ICAN, an organization whose spreading of misinformation I’ve written about before) took in nearly $1.5 million according to its most recent filings. As an aside, I’ve long wondered where the money comes from to fund the activities of “luminaries” of the antivaccine movement like Del Bigtree. Who pays for people like Del Bigtree, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Andrew Wakefield, and all those other “big name” antivaxers to fly around the country to speak at rallies, lobby legislators, and generally agitate to make measles great again in the US? It can’t be cheap, and I’d be willing to bet that none of these people works for free. There’s definitely a story there if a reporter somewhere wants to try to dig into it.

Even better is where Rushing explains Bigtree’s conflict of interest. Rushing very pointedly challenges Bigtree’s characterization of himself as a journalist by pointing out that Bigtree is the CEO of an advocacy organization ICAN) that has exists to promote a specific position on the only issue that Bigtree ever “reports” about and then asks, “Is that a conflict of interest?” Bigtree appeared surprised and flummoxed by the question. His first reaction was a stunned, “What?” After being challenged a second time by Rushing, all Bigtree could muster was to recite the mission of ICAN in response. Rushing was having none of it, though, and continued, “You can do that, or you can do journalism, but you can’t do both.”

Indeed.

Bigtree’s next response? More stunned hesitation, followed by, “I’m simply finding the information as I find it.” Brilliant, Del! Someone should make a T-shirt with that saying emblazoned on it! To twist the knife yet again even more, Rushing next shows footage of Bigtree donning the Yellow Star of David at a recent rally “in solidarity” with Jews who to him were being “targeted” because antivaccine beliefs in their communities had led to huge measles outbreaks. Yes, nothing tells the world you’re “not antivax” like explicitly comparing attempts to increase vaccination rates to what Hitler did to the Jews, as Bigtree does here and as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. did when he compared vaccination to the Holocaust.

Finally, brings us to another aspect of reporting on the antivaccine movement that bothers me. It’s a pet peeve of mine, and unfortunately, this story falls for this trap as well. Rushing clearly (and quite correctly) wants to portray defenders of vaccines as outgunned and outfunded by the antivaccine movement. I have no problem with that, because, today at least, they are both. However, to paint this picture, he focuses only on public health officials. Unfortunately, Prof. Peter Hotez, whom I consider a friend, said on in this report that defending vaccines against antivaxers is left to a “small band of pediatricians and academics.”

Orac nearly blew a circuit seeing that message feature so prominently in this report.

Besides leaving out groups like Jinny Suh’s group of parents (which, to be fair, was featured in the story, complete with an interview with Such) and the grass roots parents groups that helped Senator Arthur Pan to pass SB 277 , the California law that eliminated nonmedical exemptions (which, unfortunately, were not), Dr. Hotez’s assessment is only part of the story. There’s a lot more to countering online antivaccine misinformation than just pediatricians, academics, and public health officials.

If only—if only—there were another group out there defending vaccines. If only—if only—there were a network of online bloggers and social media influencers who spend a lot of their time deconstructing antivaccine misinformation. If only there was a skeptics movement that views part of its mission as combatting antivaccine misinformation. If only there were skeptical bloggers all over the world refuting antivaccine pseudoscience. If only there were groups like Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia out there, guarding vaccine-related Wikipedia pages from sabotage by antivaxers, who are always trying to add antivaccine nonsense to those entries.

If only…oh, wait, there are! You’d never know it, though, from the vast majority of media reports, including this one.

I don’t want to be too hard on Dr. Hotez or Josh Rushing, though. In this story, Rushing and Fault Lines have done significantly better than average, and it has to be conceded that they’re not wrong to report that those who promote vaccination are outmatched in funding and intensity by antivaccine groups on social media and in the old media. (I’d add that we’re also significantly outgunned politically in some states, particularly Texas.) However, there are way more people out there than just a tiny band of pediatricians, academics, and public health officials combatting antivaccine misinformation. It’s an omission that I frequently see, even in otherwise very good reports of this type.

I can forgive Rushing, though, because damn if he didn’t pwn Del Bigtree most satisfyingly. That definitely needed to be done—and badly—given all the semi-sympathetic coverage in the media Bigtree has been garnering lately. That’s why seeing Bigtree reduced to near stuttering at points was glorious to see.