Quick details:

  • 53% of people believed false information presented to them on an anti-vaccination website.
  • It took only five minutes of reading an anti-vaccination website for people to start believing a new misconception.
  • Trust in existing authority, especially government, media, and big business, is rapidly declining.

Most people consider themselves able to distinguish fact from fiction. And nobody likes to be wrong.

But it turns out that the majority of people also tend to overestimate their ability to distinguish between medical facts and propaganda. And never before has this been more obvious than with the recent anti-vaccination movement.

We scanned through several studies published in the National Institutes of Health (NIH.gov) database on anti-vaccination trends, and found interesting numbers about how susceptible most people can be when shown propaganda related to healthcare.

Most poignant, researchers found that 53% of people who were shown an anti-vaccination website left the session with new misconceptions they believed to be true. The scariest part, it only took on average approximately five minutes of time on the site to witness a noticeable shift in their beliefs.

An article published last year by The New York Times found that this shift in where we place our trust is not unique to the anti-vaccination movement. Citing several studies, the Times article draws the conclusion that we as humans tend to trust anything we view as being authoritative. We also tend to believe anyone who speaks the most and the loudest.

With that in mind, we read several anti-vaccination websites, and one thing rang fairly true across all the different messages: each site presented itself as an authority on the topic in some way. People pretending to be experts, countless links sprinkled into each article as citations (despite the citation's dubious credibility), and toned-down messaging to spread their theories in a seemingly less-threatening way.

One example: We found an article that said it was by no means anti-vaccination, but it was about offering information to make it easier for parents to make smart decisions. We all want to make smart decisions for our children, right? Of course the details presented and conclusion all pointed toward why the author felt vaccinations were dangerous, but the way they positioned their message upfront as less threatening made it feel less biased.

Overall, trust in major power structures, whether that be government agencies, large media conglomerates, and big business is on the decline. Fewer people trust existing authority, which leaves a wide open door for smaller sources to gain trust within groups.

And this isn't just among groups who traditionally haven't trusted power. The Atlantic recently published numbers on the informed public, “those aged 25 to 64 who have a college degree, regularly consume news, and are in the top 25 percent of household income for their age group.” It turns out trust in authority has rapidly declined in this group as well, explaining why the anti-vaccination movement has caught on outside of small fringe groups.

Psychologists suggest that the best way to combat this type of thinking is to take a step back from your initial thought and check where you're placing your trust. As with anything on the internet, be sure to assess the sources you are receiving information from. Before allowing your mind to write these newly received facts into your beliefs, take a deeper look at how your thinking has changed.

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