Using Facebook’s powers for good

Last week I saw some people in my Facebook feed updating their statuses (and others commenting on them) with things like “I’m not getting the H1N1 vaccine because it’s untested!!!” or “I don’t know if I should take my kids into get the H1N1 vaccine” or “the last flu shot made me sick, so I’m not getting this one”, etc.

These aren’t anti-vaccination proponents, these are everyday scared and confused people who are hearing mixed messages about vaccines and honestly don’t know what to do. And when it comes to our kids, our parental-induced paranoia about their safety sometimes — unfortunately — trumps good decision-making because with all the fear-based “news” out there, we don’t know what the best decision is. People also don’t seem to understand the nature of post-vaccine reactions.

So I started to intervene a little bit. I provided corrections to myths such as “the vaccine made me sick” (it can’t) and more information about the greater impact of an outbreak, such as longer hospital wait times for people with other ailments because unvaccinated people (or susceptible people made ill by unvaccinated people) had to be hospitalized with a preventable illness.

While my family and friends appreciated the information, I was just yet another voice in the sea of voices giving them mixed messages. So I thought, how could I make this bigger? How could I get more information out there in a more efficient way that people could consult for a summary of the H1N1 vaccine? My goal was that if people would read it they would at least (hopefully) be making decisions based on accurate facts, whatever that decision may turn out to be.

So I wrote this note, in which I provided two kinds of resources: some links from official sources like the government that tend to be a little more complicated and technical, and some from news reports and popular magazines that tend to give more of a general overview and are more accessible. All of the sources we aimed at correcting common myths and demonstrating the consequences of not vaccinating with a safe vaccine against a preventable illness.

I notified my Canadian skeptical peeps (and tweeps I guess) via Facebook and Twitter to see if we could spread the word. Facebook and Twitter can be harbingers of terrible information (read: completely wrong, unsourced, unresearched, “common sense” folk information). I thought: let’s use that power for good for a change. Let’s try to dispel some of these misconceptions. My exact words were: “I know this sounds lame and overstated, but we could save some lives – or at least save from some major discomfort and illness.” And that truly is my motivation.

Within minutes the note was helpfully reposted (for example) and linked by several people to help spread the word.

Later, a search on Facebook for “H1N1 vaccine” turned up groups like this (not exhaustive): “NOT getting H1N1 vaccine”, “Against the H1N1 vaccine”, “Ban the H1N1 vaccine”, “Don’t get the H1N1 vaccine”, etc. There were also groups like “Facts about the H1N1 vaccine” that were promoting misleading and false information about the H1N1 vaccine, as opposed to real “facts”. No wonder people are confused.

So upon the suggestion of a fellow blogger here, Scott, yesterday I created the group “H1N1 vaccine – get the facts“. As of me writing this, there are 42 members. The tone of the group is informational. Although it would be best if as many as people as possible were vaccinated, we can’t tell anyone what to do. Rather this group is an opportunity to access good information before making a decision. Hopefully the non-confrontational tone and honest manner of presentation will be more palatable than the panicky “we’re all being poisoned!!11!” groups.


For the record: I am getting vaccinated against H1N1. The slight immune reaction I may have afterward is nothing compared being ill for a long time or even dying. It’s also nothing compared to the guilt associated with risking the life of someone else who couldn’t fight off the disease, because I made an uninformed decision. Not to mention the stress of “infection paranoia” while walking around unvaccinated.

The point of me telling this story is threefold:

  1. I want to promote the group because this is an important public health issue and I want to help people get the best information they can about the H1N1 vaccine.
  2. I want to undo some of the damage caused by the false and confusing information already pervasive on Facebook.
  3. I want to illustrate that even a simple gesture such as a Facebook group or a note can be the starting point to promoting critical thinking and skepticism. We have the tools necessary to help reduce popular hysteria and we should be using them more often. We can complain about misinformation all we want, but it won’t go away unless we are proactive.

Please pass along word of this group to help ensure that more people have access to the unbiased information on H1N1 (and yes, the sources listed on the website also discuss the minor caveats to the vaccine — non-biased means non-biased — but in a reasonable, facts-based manner). Don’t just invite skeptical friends to join, invite all family and friends — we are all affected by this information. You can also help by posting links to news or informational articles about H1N1 that you were planning on putting in your feed to the group itself.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.