Wednesday, December 1 is World AIDS Day 2021. Over the course of that entire week there will be multiple activities memorializing the 40th anniversary of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As you know, the Emory Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) provides crucial support for the VDC so we have moved the December VDC meeting away from the first Wednesday (12/1) this month in order to avoid distracting from and conflicting with World AIDS Day week activities sponsored and/or promoted by the CFAR.

Virtual VDC
December 7, 2021

Social media

Weaponized Health Communication:
Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate


David A. Broniatowski, Ph.D., FPsyS

Associate Director,
Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics
The George Washington University

Clubhouse Location:
A Zoom screen near you
Agenda: (all times Eastern time zone)
6:25pm — Grab a beer, a glass of wine, or a soda from the fridge and get online
6:30pm — Meeting called to order in the usual way (ear muffs optional)
6:40pm — This is the part where some really excellent science is presented
7:30pm — Q & A
7:45pm — Adjourn, already dreaming of next month's program

Dear Vacciners,
Imagine that you want to set up an account on the web or via social media that will push disinformation about vaccines. You'd want the account to look as slick and high end as possible, right? -- so that it would instill trust in your message.

Fortunately (?) for you this would not be all that hard because with just a couple of clicks and a credit card you too can buy slickly produced vaccine disinformation graphics from a mainstream iStock images organization. Check it out.


Using images to communicate information about vaccines is a practice as old as vaccines themselves.

My personal favorite comes from the 17th century and depicts Edward Jenner using cowpox to vaccinate a room full of people against smallpox, each of whom promptly starts sprouting actual cows all over their body.

But this one from the early 1900s is pretty good too – it depicts a "Vaccine Upas Tree" growing in a cemetery bearing the poisoned "fruits of vaccination" and warning that "the root that poisons the young life blood of the nation; it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder."

BTW: using an Upas tree as the icon in that picture was a particularly inspired touch because, at that time, it was believed that upas trees exuded a poisonous miasma that would kill anyone who breathed it in. That may be the result of a confusion over names (see this Scientific American article from 1858) but the Upas tree is still a pretty lethal bit of herbage -- the crossword addicted among us know that the seeds of Antiaris toxicaria are used to make strychnine and that poison darts are tipped with its sap.

The Pro-vaccine camp liked to seed the debate with imagery too. In one example from the mid 1900s that feels EXTREMELY timely right now, postcards were disseminated showing little girls using a skipping rhyme to remember how important it is to get a flu shot.

And not to be outdone, the National Child Welfare Association of New York published a poster depicting a young David slaying the Goliath of Tuberculosis simply by standing up straight.

So we've been social-communicating about this stuff for quite a while. It hasn't always gone well.

Just ask the famous Puritan theologian Cotton Mather. In 1721 (75 years before Jenner threatened to make cows sprout from people's foreheads and 30 years after Mather almost singlehandedly sparked the Salem Witch Trials), Rev. Mather publicly urged the people of Boston to be variolated in an effort to halt a smallpox epidemic that was then raging through the city. Later that day a social media proto-troll tossed a homemade bomb into Rev. Mather's house, in an apparent effort to start a figurative, not to mention literal, flame war. The note attached to it said: "COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You. I'll inoculate you with this, with a POX to you."

Sometimes it feels like things have only gone downhill since then.

Because where we used to have to rely on posters, postcards and homemade IEDs to fight our vaccine wars, we now have social media, the internet, twitter bots, and Russian trolls.

Want to hear more about how vaccine disinformation has gotten weaponized in the 21st century? Of course you do!! So come to the Virtual Vaccine Dinner Club on Tuesday, December 7th.

Hope to see you in the Zoom-sphere in two weeks!
Kimbi Hagen
(aka your friendly neighborhood VDC Director/Goddess)