AAPS sues for its “right” to promote antivaccine misinformation

I haven’t written about the crank medical group disguised as a “professional association,” the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), in a while. When last I wrote about the AAPS, I was noting that Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, was a member and that in the very issue that came out around the time that Price was nominated to head HHS the AAPS was laying down some seriously bizarre antivaccine misinformation. It’s an organization that I’ve been decrying for a very, very long time, dating back at least since 2006, when I first described the official journal of the AAPS, the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (JPANDS) as “medical ‘science’ as dubious as it gets.” That’s actually a kind assessment, given that recently JPANDS published an article by arguably the most famous living antivaccine activist, Andrew Wakefield, the man whose crappy 1998 Lancet case series launched not only the modern antivaccine movement but also a thousand quack autism treatments (at least). In it, Wakefield predicted a mass extinction due to vaccines. I kid you not. That’s just how antivaccine AAPS is.

If you read JPANDS for a few issues, you’ll rapidly find that AAPS views doctors as special and “outside of the herd” to the point that it not only tolerates quackery and antivaccine pseudoscience within its ranks, but embraces many forms of pseudoscience.. Indeed, I have found many forms of quackery and medical pseudoscience published in JPANDS over the years, including antivaccine pseudoscience blaming vaccines for autism, including a view that is extreme even among antivaccine activists, namely that the “shaken baby syndrome” is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury; its HIV/AIDS denialism; blaming immigrants for crime and disease; promotion of the pseudoscience claiming that abortion causes breast cancer using some of the most execrable “science” ever; rejection of evidence-based guidelines as an unacceptable affront on the godlike autonomy of physicians; or the way the AAPS rejects even the concept of a scientific consensus about anything. Let’s just put it this way. The AAPS has featured publications by antivaccine mercury militia “scientists” Mark and David Geier and many others. No form of quackery and pseudoscience is too ridiculous for JPANDS—or ever has been.

What prompted me to write about the AAPS again is yet another demonstration of how antivaccine the group is. Specifically, I’m referring to a lawsuit that the AAPS has filed against Adam Schiff over…well, let’s just look at the AAPS press release:

The internet is supposed to provide open access to information to people of different opinions, and algorithms for search engines such as Google were originally designed to rank entries on the basis of traffic to a site. It was democratic in the sense that people voted with their mouse clicks.

Freedom of communication is a threat to oppressors. Communist China has erected the Great Firewall (tinyurl.com/y7allgtb). Google’s secret Project Dragonfly would collect data about people’s searches that could be used for facilitating human-rights abuses, and would purge links to websites prohibited in China (https://tinyurl.com/y9ujjy3g). Because of political pressure, it has reportedly been terminated—for now (tinyurl.com/yatvngmo)—although a shareholder resolution to stop it failed (https://tinyurl.com/y5jz6j8u).

In the U.S., online service providers have broad protections from legal liability for content created by the users of their services, under the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which added Section 230 to the Communications Act of 1934. This permits entities like Facebook, Twitter, and Google to publish others’ content without reviewing it for criminality or other potential legal issues. There are concerns that it protects pornography and sex-trafficking.

On Jun 13, 2019, the House Intelligence Committee chaired by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) held a hearing on technology that allows the creation of “fake” videos. At the outset, Schiff challenged the CDA immunity enjoyed by interactive computer services, apparently intending to pressure services such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter to comply with his position on access to information he deems inappropriate for public access.

In early 2019, Schiff contacted leading interactive computer services, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon, to encourage them to de-platform or discredit what Schiff asserted to be inaccurate information on vaccines. He then posted the letters and press release on the House.gov website.

I’ve been writing about this for a while. The rise of social media has facilitated the spread of fake news, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience, with antivaccine pseudoscience and conspiracy theories being among the most dangerous forms of misinformation and disinformation spread on social media. It’s not a new problem, of course. Back when I started blogging 15 years ago, I not infrequently pointed out that the World Wide Web and blogs had made it possible for anyone to reach a worldwide audience. Little did I know at the time that Google and YouTube search algorithms actually made the problem worse. Google, for instance, did indeed do exactly what AAPS describes in the passage above, ranking how high web pages showed up in its search results mostly—but by no means only—based on popularity, specifically the number of incoming links to that page and the rating of the sources of the incoming links primarily (but, again, by no means only) based on—you guessed it!—the number of incoming links to those sources. Of course, when it comes to accurate scientific information, “democratic” ranking of websites was a failure, which is one reason why Google has recently taken steps to adjust its algorithm to deprioritize low quality information, such as antivaccine pseudoscience, enraging quacks everywhere. (I was particularly amused at how Sayer Ji became so upset that Google now quite appropriately views antivaccine misinformation as akin to Pizzagate conspiracy theories.) Similarly, Facebook has finally realized that its having become an amplifier of fake news and conspiracy theories might be bad for business and has started to deprioritize antivaccine misinformation and outright ban some antivaccine pages.

It amuses me how AAPS has likened private companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like deciding that becoming tools to amplify antivaccine misinformation is not good for business—or at least not good for their reputations—to the “Great Firewall” of China, which ruthlessly suppresses dissent and prevents its citizens from accessing, for example, Twitter without the use of VPNs. Similarly, the AAPS is outraged by this:

In response to Schiff’s letter, Amazon removed the popular videos Vaxxed and Shoot ’Em Up: the Truth About Vaccines from its platform for streaming videos, depriving members of the public of convenient access.

Under a policy announced in May 2019, Twitter includes a pro-government disclaimer placed above search results for an AAPS article on vaccine mandates: “Know the Facts. To make sure you get the best information on vaccination, resources are available from the US Department of Health and Human Services.” The implication is that if information is not on a government website, then it is somehow less credible. On Facebook, a search for an AAPS article on vaccines, which previously would lead directly to the AAPS article, now produces search results containing links to the World Health Organization (WHO), the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Visits to the AAPS website have declined significantly since March 2019, both in absolute terms and relative to the decline that would result from a story’s losing its recency.

Now we’re seeing why AAPS is upset. These new policies and procedures implemented by social media companies to hinder the spread of antivaccine misinformation have hit AAPS where it lives. Its quack articles are no longer receiving the traffic in the form of clicks that they once were. But it gets better:

On Aug 9, 2019, Amazon suddenly announced the termination of AAPS, after 10 years’ participation, from the Amazon Associates Program, which by its own description is one of the largest affiliate networks in the world to enable website owners to earn commissions based on their traffic.

I knew it! I knew it! AAPS can’t make money any more from its status as an Amazon Associate, and that’s why it’s suing! As I’ve said time and time again, to antivaxxers, it’s always about the vaccines. Always. But to the leaders of the antivaccine movement (and, AAPS, being unfortunately a physicians’ organization, is a leader in the antivaccine movement) it’s also always about the grift. Always.

If you don’t believe me, just look at the complaint itself:

As set forth in Paragraph 27, infra, in February-March of 2019, AAPS published several articles related to vaccinations which generated significant traffic to the AAPS website. These articles accurately discuss important medical, economic, and legal issues about vaccines, but are not “anti-vaccine” as that phrase is used pejoratively by Defendant Schiff to mean “anti- science” and unscientific.

I presume the AAPS means this issue, but there’s only one article on vaccines in it. It’s Brian Hooker’s incompetent “reanalysis” of the data from a CDC study that produced the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory and formed much of the basis of Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree‘s antivaccine propaganda film VAXXED, an article so bad that it was retracted and that (apparently) Hooker couldn’t even get it published in a predatory open access journal, leaving him only the sewer that is JPANDS. Of course, a group that willingly publishes an article by Andrew Wakefield making the ridiculous claim that we’re approaching a global extinction event because the MMR vaccine is selecting for more deadly forms of measles is as antivaccine as can be.

Of course, AAPS, like all antivaccine groups and most antivaxxers, strenuously denies being antivaccine:

AAPS is not “anti-vaccine,” but rather supports informed consent, based on an understanding of the full range of medical, legal, and economic considerations relevant to vaccination and any other medical intervention, which inevitably involves risks as well as benefits. For two decades, AAPS has published informative articles pertaining to vaccination, which continue to draw visitors, even years later.

Schiff creates an arbitrary binary divide, simplistically labeling all speech on vaccinations as either “pro-vaccination” or “anti-vaccination,” with the latter taken to mean “anti-science” or unintelligent and uneducated and thus unworthy of public access.

Ah, yes, the old “I’m not antivaccine; I’m pro-‘informed consent'” trope.

No, no, no, no! AAPS doesn’t support “informed consent.” It supports what I have long referred to as “misinformed consent.” What do I mean by “misinformed consent” (or, as I’ve been calling it more recently, “misinformed refusal“)? Simple. Misinformed refusal is refusal to vaccinate based on misinformation and disinformation. If you believe the misinformation peddled by antivaxxers like those running the AAPS, you’d have a hard time justifying vaccinating your child, because the misinformation they peddle portray vaccines as not only ineffective but dangerous. None of that is true, of course, but if you believe the misinformation the rational response would be to refuse to vaccinate. That’s “misinformed refusal.” In the case of the AAPS, those “informative articles pertaining to vaccination” have been pure antivaccine propaganda. Indeed, if JPANDS has ever published an article showing that vaccines are safe and effective, I’ve yet to find it in its archives.

I’m not a lawyer, but, even so, I strongly suspect that this lawsuit will go nowhere. It is useful, though, in that it provides yet more evidence that AAPS is antivaccine to the core.