What ex-antivaxer Kelley Watson-Snyder can teach us

This is a story about Kelley Watson-Snyder, a former antivaxer. I’m writing about her because her story illustrates several things I’ve been blogging about since almost as long as I’ve been blogging. I’ve written many times about the difference between hard core antivaxers and the vaccine-averse. The difference can generally be summed up thusly. Hard core antivaxers have internalized their antivaccine beliefs to the point that they are part of their identity, every bit as much as their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, and their general worldview. It’s more than that though. Antivaxers have often bought into a conspiracy theory mindset that makes all their beliefs about big pharma supposedly hiding horrific side effects from vaccines plausible, at least to them. These conspiracy theories also make it possible for them to believe all manner of misinformation and pseudoscience about vaccines. The merely vaccine-hesitant, however, have not gone so far down the rabbit hole that antivaccine beliefs have been internalized and become part of their identity. Usually, they are parents who have been exposed to the fear mongering of hard core antivaxers through social media and don’t know enough to be able to dismiss it for what it is. Quite naturally, it alarms and frightens them. They want to do what’s best for their children, but the virus of misinformation from antivaccine websites and social media infects their mind, and they are no longer sure that vaccines are best for their children. Some of them come to doubt vaccines sufficiently that they start refusing to have their children vaccinated with one or more vaccines—or even all vaccines.

The key difference between hard core antivaxers and the vaccine-hesitant, however, is that the vaccine-hesitant can be reached. Information, stories, empathy, all can be used to persuade them that vaccines are safe and effective and that by vaccinating they are not harming their children by making them autistic, putting them at risk for sudden infant death syndrome, giving them diabetes, or any of the other myriad conditions and diseases attributed to vaccines by antivaxers. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of work and empathy, but it is achievable. It can be done. Hard core antivaxers, on the other hand, are nearly beyond reach. Masters of motivated reasoning, their identities fully entwined with the world of antivaccine beliefs, they exist in an impenetrable shell of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, often kept safe within a social media bubble of like-minded people. While it’s not impossible to reach them, it’s damned close. These are the people who become leaders and thought leaders of the antivaccine movement. It’s rare for one of them to turn, and, when one does, it’s almost never because of anything those of us advocating science and reason say. It’s usually from within, either in a “Paul on the road to Damascus”-style moment or, more commonly, through a graduate accumulation of niggling doubts that grow and grow and grow.

Which brings us back to the story of Kelley Watson-Snyder:

Amid the contentious dispute over immunization requirements for children, Kelley Watson Snyder stands out: She has been both a recalcitrant skeptic and an ardent proponent of childhood vaccines. Snyder, a Monterey, Calif., mother of two, was a so-called anti-vaxxer for many years, adding her voice to those that rejected mandatory vaccinations for school-age children. She later realized she was wrong and in 2014 founded a pro-vaccination Facebook group called “Crunchy Front Range Pro-Vaxxers,” which she administers. It is an invitation-only site on which approximately 1,100 members exchange views and information. Snyder, 38, is also an advocate for pending California legislation, SB 276, which targets bogus medical exemptions that allow unvaccinated children to attend school. The number of medical exemptions issued by physicians has risen sharply in recent years. The Medical Board of California is investigating at least four doctors for issuing questionable exemptions for children.

Watson-Snyder explains what she believed and what it was like to be antivax:

Anti-vaxxers have been around for a long time, but social media makes it easier to get into a loop. And once you’re there, it’s hard to see outside of it. Algorithms just show you more of what you’re already looking for. If you start searching anti-vaccination stories, that’s what starts popping up on your tagline. You start to think, “Oh, my God, there’s all these people and there’s so much of this going on.” But if you have a chance to peel back from that, you see that it’s actually a very small portion of the population who are really, really loud. The fear makes you angry and it makes you lash out. Once you get into that state, it’s easy to stay there.

This is very telling, and a very succinct description of how antivaxers are made and maintained as antivaxers, thanks to modern social media. Facebook and other social media companies didn’t set out to create incubators of antivaccine misinformation and radicalization of antivaxers, but that’s just what they inadvertently did with their algorithms. Yes, Facebook, Google, and other tech and social media companies are trying to prevent the viral spread of antivaccine misinformation that created antivaxers like Watson-Snyder.

Here’s what she means:

When my daughter was born, I refused the Vitamin K shot. I remember lying there with my daughter in my arms, and the nurses said, “Hey, we’re going to give her the vitamin K,” and I said, “No, we’re not doing that.” They made me sign a form that said I was going against the recommended medical care. At the time, the anti-vaxxer voices in my head said they were trying to coerce me into doing something dangerous for my child. They told me I was going to have to stay in the hospital longer for observation. I saw that as trying to force me to inject my child with this poison.

This is how antivaxers think. Suspicion and fear are what drive them. Fear of contamination. Fear of poison. Fear that “they” are trying to hurt their children. Distrust of the medical community and government. They think they’re protecting their children from harm, but in reality, by refusing to vaccinate them, they’re putting them at more risk than they imagine vaccination to be putting them at. As Watson-Snyder relays, she was deeply involved in antivaccine proselytizing, calling pro-vaccine mothers “sheeple,” and promoting an antivaccine mindset.

So what changed her mind? There’s the interesting thing:

In the summer of 2014, I was in one particular anti-vaxxer Facebook group, and there was a debate going on about vaccines, and I started to notice that every time someone disagreed with them, the core members got belligerent, going straight to personal attacks. I also noticed that every single point they brought up had this immense conspiracy to go along with it. By that point, I’d started to think, “Do I really believe in all these conspiracies? Am I really that afraid or can I go back and look at the evidence again?” By then, my daughter was 8 months old, and I just got over the fear I had as a first-time mom. I realized that my daughter was going to be OK.

This is what I mean by “niggling doubts.” If you’ll forgive me for the comparison, I will point out that I can’t help but think about how I “converted” (if you will) from being very conservative. The comparison, I argue, is appropriate because to hard core antivaxers, their antivaccine beliefs are every bit as important a part of their identity as political orientation or even religion is to the average person. This is not to pass judgment on anyone’s politics, at least not now, but rather to illustrate how changing one’s antivaccine beliefs can be just as hard as changing one’s religion or political orientation.

Believe it or not, I was once very conservative in my politics. From the time I graduated from high school until around 2003, I was quite conservative and always voted for Republicans. I used to joke about the one exception to my support of Republicans, namely the time I voted for John Glenn for Ohio Senate in 1992 (I was living in Cleveland then), which, I frequently joke, was basically voting Republican anyway. In any event, beginning in the 1990s, I started to get uncomfortable with what I was seeing in Republican politics, just as Watson-Snyder was becoming uncomfortable with what she saw in her antivaccine bubble. That discomfort grew in me as I observed increasing antiscience attitudes in the Republican Party and among conservatives, such as the embrace of creationism and denial of human-induced climate change.

My deconversion was a decade-long process that spanned the time period from not long after President Clinton’s inauguration to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but eventually, I couldn’t stomach the increasing rejection of science and evidence by the Republican Party, as well as what I saw to be the increasing tolerance of racism. (OK, I admit I was blind to that last one, given that that had been there all along. I just started to notice it more.) As an aside, interestingly, my political reorientation appears to have correlated with the rise of right wing media and Fox News. It’s almost as though, instead of drawing me in, right wing media helped push me away.

My story aside, unfortunately the article doesn’t say how long Watson-Snyder’s deconversion process took, but it appears to have taken a lot less time than mine, less than a summer. Of course, perhaps she had been experiencing the sort of niggling doubts that I had experienced long before that summer. Maybe that summer, her notice of the personal attacks just became more acute and became, in essence, the final straw.

Watson-Snyder now works to try to persuade vaccine-hesitant parents and has some good advice:

I tell people that I understand their fears. I understand that parenting is very difficult, and all of us truly want the best for our children. I also know that the evidence is out there when people are willing to let their guards down. And I’m always happy to share real solid scientific evidence with people who want to do their critical thinking for themselves. I’m hoping people come around. I did. But we can’t force anybody. We just want to protect everyone else.

If there’s one thing that has unfortunately become quite apparent, it’s that information and science alone do not persuade and can at times even cause people to double down in their conspiratorial and pseudoscientific beliefs. Stories matter. Personalization matters. People do, however, respond to stories and empathy, particularly from members of what they view as their “tribe,” far more than they do to dry facts. It’s also important to realize who is reachable and who is not. Hard core antivaxers are not going to listen or change unless it’s a process that comes from within, as it was for Watson-Snyder. That’s why it’s important to try to keep their misinformation from infecting others and to work to recover from those in the early stages of becoming antivax, while they are still reachable.