If social media has achieved anything for 21st century humanity, it's proven brilliant at two very different things. It is a place to instantly share the most mundane family photographs with the rest of the planet and, alternatively, to broadcast the most ill-informed and outrageous disinformation that a multitude will nonetheless believe true. The Internet took notice over the weekend when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used the one purpose to thwart the other.
It started with what most rational American parents regard as a loving chore. On Friday, Mr. Zuckerberg posted a photograph of himself with his daughter Maxima in his lap at what is presumably the family pediatrician's office in Palo Alto. The caption was, "Doctor's visit — time for vaccines!" The message was simple, honest, obviously affectionate — and immediately pounced upon by those who believe vaccines are a public menace.
Given the ferocity of the anti-vaccine crowd, this should not have come as a surprise, but several fairly subtle elements are involved here. First, it was a brilliant way for the author to get a pro-vaccine message across without preaching or even suggesting there is a reasonable debate going on regarding the efficacy or safety of childhood vaccinations, which, of course, there isn't. Think the public doesn't care what billionaires think? The candidacy of Donald Trump strongly suggests otherwise, even when the real estate mogul strays into some pretty "out there" territory like religion tests for immigration and Ted Cruz's citizenship.
On Facebook, a photograph is worth at least 1,000 characters of conspiracy theory diatribe. And it's refreshing to note that over the last several days, Mr. Zuckerberg's posting garnered millions of likes, and tens of thousands of shares and that the majority of the thousands of comments posted were supportive. A leading scientist could spend years lecturing on the necessity of the Diphtheria and Tetanus vaccination without having that kind of impact — unless he had 48 million Facebook followers and a really cute baby, that is.
The vaccination "debate" has been one of the more dispiriting and rancorous deliberations of the digital era. That the pro-vaccine case presented by leading scientists, government regulators, medical societies and researchers can be drowned out by the flamethrowers who spin anecdotal evidence and a distrust of doctors and government into a paranoia-fueled apocalyptic vision of vaccines as babykillers is a tribute to the power of shared delusion. Even when theories like autism being linked to the vaccine used to prevent mumps, measles and rubella are shot down by experts, the disbelievers continue to disbelieve — with celebrities like the odious Jenny McCarthy climbing on board that runaway train.
Make no mistake, Facebook plays a role in this. With the press of the "share" button, users can spread the nuttiest of theories far and wide in a flash without fear of editing. This is yet another reality of the electronic age that has not been lost on Mr. Trump: If a lie could get "halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on" when Winston Churchill was around, today's reality is more like the lie wrapping around the world a thousand times and fueling a wave of panic before the truth is even thinking about pants. Unfortunately, this particular lie has consequences. Parents do more than put their own children at risk when they refuse vaccines, they put the health of everyone in the broader community in danger as well.