Insight: Italians decided to fight the anti-vaccine conspiracy theory

Opinion | Italians decided to fight a conspiracy theory. Here’s what happened next.

Alongside the flat-earthers, 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers, the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists have always had a special distinction: They can do immediate and specific damage in a way that the others can’t. Birtherism surely increased Americans’ distrust of politics, though in ways that are hard to pin down.

Burioni, a distinguished virologist and university professor, declared an online war on the anti-vax movement: “If they can write on social media, then I can do it too.” He posted stories of people maimed and disfigured by the complications of infectious diseases. He deconstructed anti-vax arguments. He also argued individually with anti-vaxxers, ridiculing them as uninformed: “I tried to show how stupid they are. How fake and nonsensical are the things they are saying.”

Burioni gained a huge following, which he followed up with a prize-winning book, “Vaccines Are Not an Opinion.” He became part of a pro-vaccination, and pro-science, counter-movement that led the previous Italian government to require all children to be vaccinated before attending preschool, on pain of exclusion. Although the Five Star Movement is now in government — and a Five Star politician is the health minister — the backlash is so strong that although they have discussed removing this requirement, they haven’t done it yet.

“I believe that you cannot get anyone’s attention insulting them.” Says Roberta Villa, a science journalist and writer. Instead, noting that there is sometimes a grain of truth at the root of conspiracy theories — that, for example, some vaccines have historically had some side effects — she tries to address their fears as legitimate, and then bring them gently around.

What if Burioni’s more brutal, “here are the facts” method and Villa’s gentler tactics simply work on different kinds of people? There are Italians who will be moved by forceful communications from a genuine expert, there are Italians who will be moved by gentle persuasion from someone who seems simpatico, and there are Italians who will be moved by government policy. And that has further implications: It means that any counter-disinformation campaign might require more than one tactic, more than one message and more than one kind of messenger if it is to succeed.

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