Knowledge dissemination and public health communication nowadays have been deeply affected, not only by the advent of new communication technologies, the Internet, and social media, but also by the paradigm shift that seems to have occurred in Western culture, from a high value attached to authority and expertise to an even higher value attached to narration and emotions. Some argue that this shift has been detrimental to the scientific community, causing the spreading of misinformation and a growing public distrust in scientists and experts, with dire consequences on public health policies. An example of a public health, scientific controversy that is frequently linked to discourses around fake news, alternative facts, and the post-truth era is that of immunization, and especially the alleged link between the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The link between the MMR vaccine and autism was first suggested in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues in a paper published in The Lancet. The paper was later exposed as fraudulent and consequently retracted, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license; today the controversy is largely considered resolved among the medical community, where there is overwhelming consensus on the safety of vaccines. However, it is still present and pervasive in the public arena, with anti-vaccine advocates and politicians around the world still making vocal claims about the safety of immunization and the reliability of governments and of the medical and scientific communities. Vaccine controversies are not actually a new phenomenon: immunization has been opposed since its very invention, Jenner’s inoculations against smallpox in the 18th century, and studies have traced the history and the characteristics of these controversies across the centuries (Durbach, 2004). However, in reflecting on the similarities and differences between past and present vaccine refusals, Offit (2011) and Zimmerman et al. (2005) suggest that the differences are principally a matter of degree, of the quantity of information available, and of the size of the audience reached, all of which are strictly linked to the rise and spread of modern resources for dissemination of health information such as television, radio, and the internet. Offit also suggests that, while anti-vaccine advocates in the 18th and 19th century were mainly poor and uneducated, today they are better-off and educated, they have access to information on the Internet, and therefore they believe they can find the truth about vaccines by researching it themselves. In contrast, public health communication experts who study the impact of new technologies on science communication often underline the potential strengths and benefits of using social media to spread public health messages. In particular, they identify them as a unique opportunity to disseminate and increase the impact of academic research and to engage the public in actual science, by means of their openness and transparency, thanks to their dialogic and comment functions that enable researchers and the public to come into contact and actively interact (Myers, 2010; Andersen and Söderqvist, 2012). Weblogs in particular (defined as Internet sites consisting of posts displayed in reverse chronological order, combining texts, links and images to other webpages, often themed on a single subject on which readers are allowed to comment) are a text genre that has been, and is being, studied in this direction (Blanchard, 2011; Luzón, 2013). Therefore, the aim of the present paper is to study how the MMR-autism controversy has developed in weblogs, from a (socio)linguistic point of view. In order to do so, a corpus of texts will be collected, comprising scientific weblogs retrieved from platforms and aggregators such as scienceblogs.com and researchblogging.com, containing the keywords “MMR vaccine” and “autism”. When possible, these texts will be compared with texts in weblogs with a more general scope, such as those belonging to newspapers websites. These texts will be linguistically analysed using the methods and frameworks of corpus linguistics (Baker, 2006) and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1995, 2003; Calsamiglia and Van Dijk, 2004; Hyland 2010). The analysis will focus mainly on those features of language that pertain to the popularization of scientific discourse, to describe what form this takes in science weblogs; moreover, attention will be paid to all those features that convey ideas of authority and expertise, in order to delineate the main actors at play in such discourses. Indeed, blogs allow both writers (producers) and readers (consumers) to interact and personally shape the discourse (prosumers; Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010), thus being an ideal platform for exploring that paradigm shift from a more objective, detached idea of authority to a more emotional, narrative, and personal display of expertise that could be key to understanding contemporary forms of mass communication and counteracting misinformation and false claims, especially in the scientific and public health domain.

The vaccine - autism controversy in weblogs : public health communication, authority, and expertise in contemporary social media / C. Fiammenghi. ((Intervento presentato al convegno Post Truth : Perspectives, Strategies, Prospects tenutosi a Leuwen nel 2020.

The vaccine - autism controversy in weblogs : public health communication, authority, and expertise in contemporary social media

C. Fiammenghi
2020

Abstract

Knowledge dissemination and public health communication nowadays have been deeply affected, not only by the advent of new communication technologies, the Internet, and social media, but also by the paradigm shift that seems to have occurred in Western culture, from a high value attached to authority and expertise to an even higher value attached to narration and emotions. Some argue that this shift has been detrimental to the scientific community, causing the spreading of misinformation and a growing public distrust in scientists and experts, with dire consequences on public health policies. An example of a public health, scientific controversy that is frequently linked to discourses around fake news, alternative facts, and the post-truth era is that of immunization, and especially the alleged link between the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The link between the MMR vaccine and autism was first suggested in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues in a paper published in The Lancet. The paper was later exposed as fraudulent and consequently retracted, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license; today the controversy is largely considered resolved among the medical community, where there is overwhelming consensus on the safety of vaccines. However, it is still present and pervasive in the public arena, with anti-vaccine advocates and politicians around the world still making vocal claims about the safety of immunization and the reliability of governments and of the medical and scientific communities. Vaccine controversies are not actually a new phenomenon: immunization has been opposed since its very invention, Jenner’s inoculations against smallpox in the 18th century, and studies have traced the history and the characteristics of these controversies across the centuries (Durbach, 2004). However, in reflecting on the similarities and differences between past and present vaccine refusals, Offit (2011) and Zimmerman et al. (2005) suggest that the differences are principally a matter of degree, of the quantity of information available, and of the size of the audience reached, all of which are strictly linked to the rise and spread of modern resources for dissemination of health information such as television, radio, and the internet. Offit also suggests that, while anti-vaccine advocates in the 18th and 19th century were mainly poor and uneducated, today they are better-off and educated, they have access to information on the Internet, and therefore they believe they can find the truth about vaccines by researching it themselves. In contrast, public health communication experts who study the impact of new technologies on science communication often underline the potential strengths and benefits of using social media to spread public health messages. In particular, they identify them as a unique opportunity to disseminate and increase the impact of academic research and to engage the public in actual science, by means of their openness and transparency, thanks to their dialogic and comment functions that enable researchers and the public to come into contact and actively interact (Myers, 2010; Andersen and Söderqvist, 2012). Weblogs in particular (defined as Internet sites consisting of posts displayed in reverse chronological order, combining texts, links and images to other webpages, often themed on a single subject on which readers are allowed to comment) are a text genre that has been, and is being, studied in this direction (Blanchard, 2011; Luzón, 2013). Therefore, the aim of the present paper is to study how the MMR-autism controversy has developed in weblogs, from a (socio)linguistic point of view. In order to do so, a corpus of texts will be collected, comprising scientific weblogs retrieved from platforms and aggregators such as scienceblogs.com and researchblogging.com, containing the keywords “MMR vaccine” and “autism”. When possible, these texts will be compared with texts in weblogs with a more general scope, such as those belonging to newspapers websites. These texts will be linguistically analysed using the methods and frameworks of corpus linguistics (Baker, 2006) and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1995, 2003; Calsamiglia and Van Dijk, 2004; Hyland 2010). The analysis will focus mainly on those features of language that pertain to the popularization of scientific discourse, to describe what form this takes in science weblogs; moreover, attention will be paid to all those features that convey ideas of authority and expertise, in order to delineate the main actors at play in such discourses. Indeed, blogs allow both writers (producers) and readers (consumers) to interact and personally shape the discourse (prosumers; Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010), thus being an ideal platform for exploring that paradigm shift from a more objective, detached idea of authority to a more emotional, narrative, and personal display of expertise that could be key to understanding contemporary forms of mass communication and counteracting misinformation and false claims, especially in the scientific and public health domain.
MMR vaccine; autism; post-truth; weblogs; critical discourse analysis; corpus linguistics
Settore L-LIN/12 - Lingua e Traduzione - Lingua Inglese
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
The vaccine - autism controversy in weblogs : public health communication, authority, and expertise in contemporary social media / C. Fiammenghi. ((Intervento presentato al convegno Post Truth : Perspectives, Strategies, Prospects tenutosi a Leuwen nel 2020.
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