Attack on Anti-vac – Toronto Public Health vs. Jenny Mcarthy

I wanted to keep quiet on this issue, being the pioneer and former voice of Toronto Public Health’s Twitter for 3 years…but I think in the spirit of reflection – let’s blog on!

Cameron Norman explains the issue really well in his post ‘Public Health and Social Media: Catching Fire from Small Sparks. Here’s another opinion via Jim Garrow on why governments should have an opinion, as junk scientists do. To sum it up, Toronto Public Health tweeted at Jenny McCarthy regarding her anti-vaccine views and requested The View to change their mind about having her as a host.

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My biased opinion.

I love my public health peeps and especially adored the pioneering and willing spirit Toronto Public Health had in the early days of its foray into social media. Like family, bureaucracy and public health practioners come with their own baggage. One large piece of baggage around public health messaging is: we are always here to tell you how and what to do. Fair enough, with access to evidence-based research, why shouldn’t public health units be a trusted source of information?

The problem is – social demands listening, not just shouting. A campaign to remove Jenny McCarthy from the View is shouting. While it garners attention, media pick up (largely negative) and conversation (positive from already pro-vaccine folks) – is it really the best approach to influencing people who are either anti-vaccine or on-the-fence-about-vaccines? Likely not.

The truth vs. what people believe.

I was an ethical vegetarian for 9 years. I fully believed that my plight to consume vegetables (and a ton of tofu and carbs) would be impactful on the terrible factory farming world that we live in. You could feed me info on the nutrients I was missing or how little impact I was making or how because I was eating honey that I was still enslaving bees. I didn’t care, the sources of information that I followed and trusted were powerful and compelling.

Completely anti-vaccine folks exist on the margins of the dialogue with public health folks – in fact margin is probably too close of a description. Folks who question vaccines and hear the buzz of anti-vac advocates like Jenny McCarthy are on the fence. Pro-vaccine people get every vaccine, on schedule and follow all the rules already. They also likely follow @TOPublicHealth already.

Which group do you think public health is most likely to influence – anti-vac, sorta-kinda-vac or already-pro-vac?

Being an influencer.

What social media in public health often lacks is the ability to influence. This is due in part to the glacial speed of bureaucratic process in a speedier-than-light social media world. But, it is also related to attitudes. Attitudes that refuse to be humbling in order to be effective. Having once been at the helm of Toronto Public Health’s Twitter, I don’t miss the lengthy internal conversations regarding responding to negative commentary, but I do miss the debates about how to put ourselves in the shoes of the audience – what is it that they are upset about? What is it that they are looking for? What is it that they believe?

In order to be an influencer, any social media strategist must recognize the need to understand how to cut through the clutter with apt usefulness, real-time information and yes, sometimes a wee bit of humility. You know your research is evidence-based – does it help to keep shouting that at audiences that are googling ‘do vaccines cause autism’?

What does influence look like?

Looking like the other side of the anti-vaccine coin really isn’t influential (see above, re: shouting). Correcting misinformation – absolutely public health’s job. Providing evidence-based info to the public – hell yeah! Arguing with celebs – not so sure.

Curating content that is helpful, relevant and real-time – not only builds trust and relationships – but also is something people will actually use and connect with, versus the fact sheet to tweet style of public health social media efforts. There are other ways to get people’s attention and be influential.

Here’s what influence looks like:

Provide authentic info that isn’t patronizing.

Addressing negative or incorrect information is critical to being a trusted source – as is acknowledging and re-contextualizing people’s fears and concerns. Telling me vegetarianism is bad for me – meh. Telling me that you understand my ethical commitment to animals, but have I also learned about how soy is deforesting rain forests in Brazil – I’m more interested.

Use visuals – infographics, memes, e-cards, pictures, videos – to convey compelling, engaging and listening-informed content that is also shareable. Check out our post on why I kept condoms and lego at my desk!

Here’s a video from Penn and Teller that takes Jenny McCarthy’s autism claims and breaks it down for those of us that are listening to her (in other words, googling) and have some trust in public health.

Build relationships across sectors.

Reach out to allies who already have the ears of your target audience. Reach out to allies who are doing social media better than you (think health, dad and mom bloggers). Reach out to allies that have the same interest in combatting false information (i.e. other public health units). Why go at it alone?

Take real-time action.

Seize the moments when issues that matter to your audience are happening. Not just vaccination moments – but child/mom/family/health moments. Use these moments to figure out how to provide info that is useful – for example, kids in Toronto can face suspension if their immunization records are not up to date. How about an app to track vaccinations?

How about when it’s hot out, providing text alerts for heat alerts and smog warnings?

How about an app that turns this amazing fish guide into a resource that’s continually updated and useful while shopping?

How about massive social-listening – what does Google trends tell us about what health topics are most searched and which are rising?

We can assume the best intentions were present in trying to sway or silence voices of incorrect info on vaccinations. However, we know that impact trumps intention when it comes to many things in life. Choose a circus or a strategic approach to social media – in the end the impact will be the measurable worth of your efforts.

What do you think? Circus or strategic approach to social media? What did this achieve? What worked for you in this campaign/what didn’t? 


21 responses to “Attack on Anti-vac – Toronto Public Health vs. Jenny Mcarthy

  1. What a terrific, brave and frank post on the way social media works, can work, and doesn’t work in getting messages across and the importance of taking risks and engaging in conversation. It’s hard for organizations to step outside the bounds of tradition, expectation and the fear they have of being not right or experts on all things. This really puts some perspective on the thinking and hard (but rewarding) work that building a relationship with an audience involves. Understanding them and seeing the world from their perspective is so important and social media works best when we stop speaking to ourselves and start speaking with those we want to influence. This is, as you say, as much about what we say and maybe more about what we hear. Terrific post.

    • Right on Cameron – was definitely inspired to post after reading your bright insights on the issue. Agree that taking risks is on the money with strategy, something that’s hard for bureaucracies to do. Definitely champion the minds behind this campaign for doing something different! I’m hand in hand with you about the importance of listening and relationship building, rather than showing up to a BBQ and demanding someone hear about my vegetarian-ways 😉 Many thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Reblogged this on Censemaking and commented:
    Yesterday I posted on the story of Toronto Public Health tweeting a call for its followers to voice concerns to the TV show “The View” about the recent hiring of Jenny McCarthy, a prominent anti-vaccination advocate, as its new co-host. Today, Nicole Ghanie-Opondo reflects more deeply on what kind of impact such tweeting really has and the role of public health in voicing its concerns from that of an insider. What should we expect from these Tweets? What really drives change? Why is there resistance to engaging the public and how can we professionally do so in the complicated, messy work that comes with social media engagement? Huge questions to ask and the fact that people like Nicole and her blog collaborator Corey are doing it speaks to how much change potential we can expect. One of the best blog reads you’ll find on this topic.

  3. Many talk about how physicians and other evidence-based providers can bring more credibility to discussions online by providing accurate information on issues such as immunization – where the online and social media communities are rife with more questionable viewpoints.
    This blog provides a very thoughtful perspective on that approach, noting how, when it comes to public health, that viewpoint is not the simple ‘slam dunk’ we may think it is.
    The vitriolic responses by some in the Toronto media to the campaign by the Toronto Public Health Department must give pause to those who automatically assume that doing the right thing will have the right outcome

    • Fantastic insight Pat, love your last line – doing good doesn’t inherently = the right outcome. And you aptly note the uniqueness of the social media environment – anyone can say anything they want and questionable viewpoints have a questionable but hungry audience! Appreciate your thoughts.

    • I agree. One of the spaces that professionals might want to consider is to step back and ask themselves what it is that keeps those seemingly immune (no pun intended) to evidence so passionate about their position? If the professional stopped trying to be right all the time we might get closer to that. I think a lot of the evidence-based perspectives put forward come across as very condescending and talk down to people that probably already feel alienated somehow from that point of view. Talking at them doesn’t help. It’s like the stereotypical approach to dealing with people who speak another language by talking slower and louder as if they are deaf and stupid rather than speaking another language. Throwing in the Penn and Teller video is a good example of an approach that can disrupt the standard way of doing things (it won’t work for all, but for some I’ll bet it changed minds). That spoke to a language of irony and humour and visual thinking. There are other ‘languages’ we can use and this post was a great call to action to start learning and speaking them. And Pat, your comments are right on, too.

      • Great analogy of speaking louder to people who have english as a secind language. Assumes a position of dominance not leadership in expertise when we dont value the opposition just because they are opposed. Glad you liked Penn and Teller, such an effective example of how integrating and understanding anti-vac does not weaken your position or efficacy. You pose the perfect question at the beginning: what keeps anti-vac propents immune to oublic health’s messages? (I appreciate puns!!)

  4. It is hard to disagree with such a rational, well-reasoned and well developed thesis…so I won’t 🙂

    But the problem as I see it is trying to combat misinformation coming from those who have a pulpit and a platform that is far more immense than anything the rest of us can hope to achieve by this reasoned approach. Despite the fact that I have been among those railing on social media against Ms McCarthy’s upcoming (I hope very short-lived) stint on The View, I realize, much as you have said, that it is likely to be non-productive. That is because all of the positive, inspired and thoughtful messaging will be vanquished in the blink of an eye when and if Ms McCarthy opens her mouth on the subject, since she can mobilize public thought in a way I could never hope to.

    For example, I have written in my own blog about Dr Oz and how he has become a quack in his own right ( but I have no illusions of ever being able to replace the crap that he espouses no matter how strategic I may ever get in trying to get opposite, evidence-based messages out there.

    As long as we as a society hold these celebrities up on unreasonable pedestals there will be no combating the harm they can do. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and it certainly does not diminish from the messages you are bringing us, but a reality check says we are pissing into the wind if we think we can take these folks down with ration and reason. If everyone was rational and reasonable we wouldn’t be listening to all these airhead celebrities in the first place.

    • Many thanks for your thoughts Michael! You’re right, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to combat the harm of the misinformed or junk scientists. I think the Penn and Teller video highlighted in the post is a great example of how to do that – they broke down her argument in a visual, clear and simple way. By breaking it down, they acknowledge the threads in her argument that are resonating with people and then combat them with evidence-based science. So this may not help with people who treat Ms. McCarthy’s word as the gospel, but it does have the power to influence folks who are on the fence about certain vaccines, or who get their kids vaccinated by question the safety or who have only heard about McCarthy’s buzz on autism but don’t know the facts. It is a challenge, as you point out, to compete with celebs. I have to confess, I’m a Dr. Oz-ite 😉

  5. Michael, I think you raise a good point about being clear about what we are up against. The reason the Toronto Public Health tweet storm is so notable is because we (public health) are so rarely part of the dialogue of everyday people on these things. We do our best to promote wellbeing and such here and there, but we’re nice and polite. Our eggheaded scientists (of which I partly fit in the ranks) speak in languages that are only intelligible to each other and barely to the clinicians and public health professionals they hope to eventually impact and certainly not in policy speak — nevermind getting on the radar of mainstream professionals. We might need to fight these kinds of battles of mindspace using the same media that those who seek to flood misinformation do. The group that does this better than anyone is journalists. There are a lot of marginal ones out there, but if you look at what people like Andre Picard (Globe and Mail) and Julia Belluz (Macleans) have done with celebrities it’s hopeful. Julia — who is a close friend of mine and collaborator I say with disclosure — took Dr. Oz to task as well along with Gwenyth Paltrow . Journalists seem to get the way to communicate and capture interest and it seems to me that we would do better to listen to our public health communications staff and journalists and enlist them as partners in our efforts. That you blog and speak up too is commendable and adds to the discourse. More of us pros need to do this if we wish to occupy some of space where these fiction spreaders like Jenny McCarthy occupy.

    • Thanks for weighing in Cameron, and for using the term ‘eggheads’ 🙂 Great comparison to journalists who fight the battles of mindspace well.

    • Cameron,

      Thanks for the input. I agree completely with your assessment that communication about science is a skilled art and many just do not have it. The conundrum is that many of the journalists have no science background or appreciation and many of the top scientists are terrible communicators. I have long been told (and prided myself I must admit) on the ability to take complex matters and relate them to lay audiences in terms that anyone can understand. But many if not most of my colleagues could not. They may have been able to run rings around me in the lab, but put me in front of a lay audience and a very different skill set shows up.

      That is exactly why, after I retired last year, I started my own blog and Facebook page, both about cancer research for non-scientists.

      I agree that André and Julia are among the best at what they do and I keep very close watch on all their work.

  6. Via @naturaltotdoc: “I like this blog very much. I’m generally bothered by the fact that people assume that anti-vax = blind refusal to vaccinate. So I try to tune out vaccine discussion in the media because it feels like there’s no room for discussion…”

  7. Nicole,

    If by “Oz-ite” you mean, as I suspect you do, that you are a fan, I would ask you to defend how and why.

    As I indicated in my blog post of a year ago (linked in my original post) Dr. Oz deserves huge kudos for his abilities to relate to the average person and, as someone myself who is involved in public education about science, he is a GREAT communicator of science and medicine.

    But, and this is a big but, if you are going to do that, and if you have the immense following he has, then you have an obligation to get it right. More often than not he cuts corners, endorses snake oil, and practices out and out quackery. He may be an accomplished cardiac surgeon, but I think that the stresses and pressures of staying topical and interesting for hours per week in prime time have created a monster. Now he is more of a celebrity (run amok, as I say) than a doctor/educator and it shows.

    I will never again watch his show. He has crossed over to the dark side of quackery far too often so now I trust nothing he says.

    • You hit the nail on the heqd Michael, am a fan of his communication style and in engaging people in health info to break down barriers to health literacy, but agree that content needs to be solid. Your post is a great read!

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  9. While I enjoyed your article please don’t resort to easy jabs at people campaigning against farm animal abuse, with a subtle condescending tone to boot. There is no similarity in these two issues. “Ethical vegetarians” are not mislead by celebrities or false information (unless you’re convinced undercover video footage was all false and staged) and I hope you’ll join the people who stand at Toronto’s Lakeshore watching the idling trucks en route to Quality Meat Packers. I’m sad your “ethical reasons” didn’t last. But here we are, straying off topic…please just stick to the topic of vaccines, yes?

    • Thanks for your comment Sally, I’m sorry my statement was misinterpreted – I by no means am belittling ethical vegetarians. My point was about divided issues and communications, and how I’ve dealt with the scenario on both ends – in a personal capacity and in a professional capacity. My tone wasn’t intended to be condescending. Regardless of the platform or issue, it’s important to get valuable and credible information.

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