Image copyright Aleksandra De Kalis Image caption Glyn Dyer was this year denied a role in the fostering of his daughter’s birth parents’ carer due to anti-vaxxers’ protest
Parents and children who decide not to vaccinate their children are being targeted by “hateful and threatening” people in a new wave of online abuse, researchers say.
Some parents have even been told to “please stay home and live in fear for the rest of your life”.
This year has seen an increase in Anti-vaxxer rhetoric, said the authors, with some commenters saying they will “punish” them.
The study was published in the journal Critical Review Medicine.
See how some ‘anti-vaxxers’ are attempting to harass people and families who say they don’t vaccinate their children in this video.
Prof Miriam Kramer, who led the study, said: “Online anonymity fosters open discourse and anonymity also allows for harassment.”
She added: “We’re seeing anti-vaxxer rhetoric among baby boomers, as well as more impulsive teens expressing anti-vaxxer sentiments.”
Vaccine deniers’ hatred is ‘virulent’
While a tiny minority of people do not vaccinate their children, most experts believe it’s better to prevent diseases before they become more widespread.
Prof Kramer said anti-vaxxer voices have become more common and vocal, with the number of US vaccines-only websites rising from 50 in 2012 to 600 by 2016.
Image copyright Aleksandra De Kalis Image caption Dr Michelle Doane, who says anti-vaxxers are a blight on society, says her Facebook has been hit by trolls in the past
She added: “Vaccine refusal ‘trends’ that have emerged over the past few years persist to this day.
“Additionally, when letters are exchanged between parents and agencies involved in child welfare cases and child custody cases involving vaccine refusal, mainstream media sensationalises these letters.”
The latest study examined US online anti-vaxxer posts from a “pro-vaccine, anti-personal freedom school of thought”.
Prof Kramer wrote: “We evaluated the state of anti-vaxxer rhetoric online, tracking anti-vaxxer posts shared over a two-week period from January 7 to January 14, 2018.”
Co-author Professor Masato Komatsu, said: “We found relatively similar hate speech on both Facebook and Twitter, and posts not driven by ideology.
“The level of vitriol and hate speech against mainstream opponents of vaccination was felt by even one-tenth of the rate we saw against these targets.”
‘Most of the venom comes from the right’
Social media networks are failing to police anti-vaxxer comments, the researchers say.
The study found that Facebook censors “almost all” anti-vaxxer postings, while other sites, such as Twitter, only disable anti-vaxxer posts that contain personal attacks or threats.
Dr Michelle Doane, who has also spoken out about anti-vaxxer behaviour, said: “Facebook’s hate speech algorithm highlights posts with anti-vaxxer messages. It does not recognise the intent behind any posts.
“This means that on Facebook you are either subjected to the anti-vaxxer mentality or to the feelings it arouses.
“This is especially true of those whose views fall within a small, vocal sliver of social movements online.”
Dr Doane said: “What distinguishes the anti-vaxxer trolls from most social media users is that the vitriol comes from the right.
“As such, many anti-vaxxer trolls we have encountered feel little remorse for their harmful speech and attitude.”
She added: “It is deeply unsettling to know that an increasing number of people are adopting such behaviour, in part due to the toxic rhetoric promoting fear and undermining political ideals.
“Online threats and hate messages are only playing to the anti-vaxxer mentality, allowing them to appear bigger than ever before.”
The authors called for more positive measures, saying: “Although some of these anti-vaxxer campaigns are effective, too many are failing.”
This article was amended on 21 November to fix an error that stated the title of the study was ‘A recent increase in anti-vaxxer rhetoric has researchers warning of increasing harassment of parents’.