On Monday, Slate ran an article from Future Tense by Evgeny Morozov called Warning: This Site Contains Conspiracy Theories – Anti-vaccine activists, 9/11 deniers and Google’s social search. The article is based on a recent study in Vaccine that examined the strategies, tactics and content of several anti-vaccination websites. I would highly recommend reading the study if you have an interest in online science-based communication.
The study’s author, Anna Kata of the department of anthropology at McMaster University, outlines how anti-vaccination websites increase their own relevancy in Google search results through a myriad of what is essentially SEO, one-way and three-way link exchanges.
While Kata briefly notes possible solutions to the SEO issue, Morozov goes a step further by recommending two possible solutions: 1. A browser extension that would ‘red flag’ websites that use anti-science keywords and 2. For Google to “exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results.”
I take issue with both of these proposed solutions. Before I go forward, in order to ward off starting any conspiracy theories of my own, I would like to state explicitly that to the best of my knowledge Google isn’t investigating or implementing either of the options suggested by Morozov.
Why Censoring Anti-Science Won’t Help
As Morozov notes, the brilliance of a conspiracy theory is that any evidence to the contrary and any attempt to “move the conversation forward” only serves to further support the existence of the conspiracy. This is true of any conspiracy, not just those in public health. An attempt to end the conversation about a conspiracy theory only serves to prove to believers that you are trying to suppress something. This, in turn, feeds into the conspiracy itself.
In the case of vaccines, it has been almost 15 years since Andrew Wakefield’s now retracted study in the Lancet. No study has been able to replicate his results, literally hundreds of studies have disproven his original and subsequent theories, yet the conspiracy theories linger.
As Kata noted in an earlier study conspiracy theories in the anti-vaccine movement center on beliefs of a “cover up,” pointing to the Lancet’s retraction of Wakefield’s original article, the General Medical Council hearings into his professional conduct in researching the original article and his removal from the United Kingdom’s medical register, as evidence of the vast, far-reaching cover up.
For Google to remove anti-vaccine websites from their index or to flag them as containing questionable content would only serve to further fuel and provide “evidence” for the suppression/cover-up conspiracy theories.
Why This Isn’t Google’s Problem
This is firmly an issue for the science-based health communication community, not for Google. For years the community has struggled to build links, engage audiences online and turn up relevant links. If science-based health websites aren’t showing up highly ranked in Google search results, that’s our fault, not Google’s. Claiming that Google needs to take responsibility for the content of the sites it indexes is akin to claiming the bookstore that sold Mark David Chapman “Catcher in the Rye” is responsible for John Lennon’s death.
Deciding what is fact and what isn’t is not Google’s responsibility, nor should it be. Morozov accurately notes that in some ways Google is directing people to anti-vaccine sites because they are so highly ranked. Yet, they are highly ranked, as Kata notes due to how they game Google’s algorithm. They aren’t highly ranked because someone at Google has decided they are better or more accurate than others.
So How Do We Fix This?
What the anti-vaccine movement is doing, and has done very well, isn’t immoral or wrong, what they’re doing is good search engine optimization (SEO). The science-based medicine community has struggled to master the basic building blocks of social media.
This isn’t because the science-based community is lazy or uninformed; it’s because science is what scientists do best. Scientists, for the most part, aren’t so great at communicating. The logic is simple: You don’t need to index their sites, build one-way in-bound links, add video, ensure keyword density throughout the site, normalize URLs or build partnerships with other sites, because the science is good.
Good science doesn’t speak for itself on the internet, it needs someone to draw attention to it and let people know that it’s there. There are some great science-based vaccine information websites, but right now, but most seem to be operating in isolation. Sites and organizations like CDC, NIH, American Academy of Pediatrics, FDA,VaccineNews.net, Moms Who Vax, Vaccine Ethics, Vaccinate Indiana, Virtual Vaccine Communication Network,Immunize.org, Why I Choose, Meningitis Angels, Families Fighting Flu need to be a better job of communicating with one and other, linking, sharing information and making sure their sites are search engine optimized.
This is something, as a community we can do.