Vaxxed, the anti-vaccine documentary made by a team of anti-vaccine activists (but curiously, no vaccine experts) has come and gone and come again. Other people have written extensively about what happened, some with lots of facts and some with raging, paranoid fantasies. As the movie is likely to disappear into relative obscurity soon, let’s take this chance to explore some lessons learned from the last couple of weeks—some for vaccine opponents, and some for mainstream science and health advocates.
Update: The filmmakers have added Q&A sessions at the 5:45 p.m. shows on April 1 and 2, and the 3:30 p.m. show on April 3. So I can reinstate my recommendation! Go see it. Ask critical, but not disruptive, questions. What data was actually deleted? If the movie omits Thompson’s strong support for vaccination, why? (Remember that Thompson, the guy whose phone calls underlie the whole movie, made a point to declare publicly, “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.“) Why rely on a computer scientist instead of an epidemiologist for the science in the movie? Why was Hooker’s study retracted by the journal in which he originally published it, and why did that journal declare that it has “serious concerns about the validity of [Hooker’s] conclusions“?
The people behind Vaxxed made a movie because their claims wither and die when they’re exposed to actual critical discussion. They want to create the appearance of a discussion, without any of the messy facts. Show up. Provide context for their propaganda. Even one person can make a difference, either by asking questions at the discussion panel or by reporting back on what those questions and answers were.
So if you can attend, please also record the discussion panel afterwards. (Not the movie itself, you’ll get kicked out.) The outside world would love to hear how conspiracy theorists feast on a film like this. The first press conference, before the film even aired, already devolved into “GMOs, chemtrails, and fluoride.” We can’t be there, so we’d love to hear your observations and thoughts!
Here’s What Happened
The very short version is that Andy Wakefield, a disgraced gastroenterologist who has become a vicious opponent of childhood immunizations, produced a documentary called “Vaxxed: From Coverup to Catastrophe.” Wakefield premiered this movie at the Conspira-Sea Cruise, where he shared the stage with fellow conspiracy theorists selling all sorts of paranoia. Wakefield seems to be using Vaxxed to kick-start a new career as a filmmaker, his prior efforts having failed catastrophically.
The filmmakers wanted to use Tribeca as a launching point for the movie. Tribeca itself didn’t show any enthusiasm for being used that way. They never included Vaxxed in their “guide to all of the social issue films at Tribeca 2016,” which seems like a harsh judgment of the film. After all, right or wrong on the facts, Vaxxed is a social issue film. Just one Tribeca never seemed to want to screen.
When science and health advocates found out it, there was an intense discussion about the problems with the film and the publicity it was milking from Tribeca. (I’m proud to have been a minor part of that discussion.) The first result was Robert De Niro stepped up to defend the film’s role at the festival, apparently confirming that he personally pushed to have it screened—bypassing the normal selection process. (This was another strike against the quality of Vaxxed; the subtext of De Niro’s statement was that the movie couldn’t have gotten into Tribeca on its own merits.) Apparently Wakefield worked a personal connection to Robert De Niro to accomplish this, although of course the details are unconfirmed.
Eventually De Niro and Tribeca changed their minds. Citing discussions “with the Tribeca Film Festival team and others from the scientific community,” they did not believe Vaxxed “contributes to or furthers the discussion” about autism. More importantly, they vaguely referred to “concerns with certain things in this film.” That’s not a surprise; even the trailer came under fire for splicing together audio in a deceptive way.
(Very few of Vaxxed’s anti-vax fans and defenders seem to understand that it’s based on surreptitious recordings of Dr. William Thompson, and that he didn’t (as far as I know) participate in the making of film voluntarily. In fact, one conspiracy theorist complained to Wakefield that I was accusing the filmmakers of “fraud” by claiming they used those recordings to make the movie. I can only imagine Wakefield’s reaction when one of his die-hard supporters accused him of fraud, as no one disputes they relied on recorded phone calls rather than Thompson’s actual participation.)
Of course the conspiracy theorists who are Vaxxed’s primary audience reacted as conspiracy theorists do. The wild accusations started flying almost immediately: De Niro was pressured, bribed and threatened. It was the CDC, the MSM, the NWO, the Rockefellers, George Soros, the Clintons, the Sloan Foundation, the Nazis. (All of those are actual theories that have been proposed.)
What really happened? I don’t know. Probably De Niro and the committee talked to some trusted advisors who emphasized that Wakefield is untrustworthy and that the movie is built to create the appearance of a scandal when in fact, an analysis of the documents in question shows there’s no substance to it. I think it’s particularly noteworthy that the filmmakers never tried to release the underlying documents—that came from an autism advocate opposed to their anti-vax message. In other words, the pro-vax community was happy for the underlying documents to be public for everyone to see.
Now Vaxxed is showing at a theater in New York and has a distributor, Cinema Libre films. (Apparently it’s a legitimate distributor; a documentarian who made a film about autism that they distributed has written an open letter discussing his disappointment with their decision. It’s informative, thoughtful, and personal. I highly recommend reading it.) The movie premieres tomorrow, April 1. In fact, there are about twenty showings on opening weekend; two (the two at which Wakefield and other filmmakers will make personal appearances) are sold out, and the others seem to have plenty of tickets available.
I strongly suspect there will a lot of seats available all weekend. Supposedly the theater is hosting Vaxxed for two weeks; if the contract allows them, I think it’s a pretty safe prediction that soon it will be down to one screen and attendance will be negligible. That’s not just because Vaxxed is a propaganda film, probably most documentaries would struggle to fill as many seats as Vaxxed seems to expect. But it doesn’t help that Vaxxed is a propaganda film.
Lessons for Vaccine Opponents
Having said my piece about Vaxxed, I doubt any anti-vaxers reading this care very much about the things I think they should learn from this experience. But it’s still worth saying.
First, no, you weren’t censored. And neither were the filmmakers. I don’t subscribe (usually) to the standard criticism of claims of censorship, which is that the word only applies when the government is suppressing speech. Yes, that’s the standard definition of the term. I’m comfortable calling it “censorship” when any powerful interest acts to keep someone else from speaking freely, however. But that’s not what happened here. Tribeca is a venue. They’re free to decide what movies they show—ironically, it’s part of their freedom of speech. When they decided not to host Vaxxed, it only mean that the filmmakers had to find a new screen. Tribeca didn’t burn the prints or prevent distribution of the movie. Your free speech rights have not been infringed in any way. Nor have the filmmakers. They can still speak freely and show the movie with any venue that will agree to host them, or kick it out for everyone to see on YouTube. Losing Tribeca probably resulted in a worse distribution deal, but that only makes it harder for the filmmakers to get paid. They don’t have a constitutional right to a sweet distribution deal.
Similarly, Wakefield has come under fire for claiming that he didn’t get “due process” when the film was pulled from the Tribeca lineup. Most people laugh at this, since “due process” is a legal term and they think he’s using it incorrectly. I disagree; I read his remark as a simple complaint that he didn’t get the normal process due to a filmmaker whose work is being pulled from the festival. I don’t think that’s a misuse of the term. But I do think it’s a silly complaint. What process is due to a filmmaker? Whatever the festival wants to give them—there’s no standard, as far as I know. And let’s recall that Vaxxed didn’t go through the normal process to get into the festival in the first place. It leveraged personal connections to De Niro, apparently, to get around the “due process” that every other film had to go through. It got into the festival through back channels, and it exited the festival through back channels. Live by the celebrity and die by the celebrity.
Finally, here’s the big takeaway for the anti-vaccine movement: Andrew Wakefield is poisonous. He is death to your credibility. I’m actually happy that anti-vaxers won’t listen to me here, because I don’t know to cut the ethical Gordian knot; on the one hand I want Wakefield involved in all high-profile anti-vax efforts because he sabotages them with his very presence, and I think they’re harmful to public (especially children’s) health. On the other hand, I also think it’s long past time for Wakefield to disappear into ignominious retirement. Since I don’t get to decide, there’s no harm in pointing out what’s obvious to the outside world: a man with the Deer and BMJ investigations hanging around his neck, who was successfully charged with “taking blood from children at a birthday party without ethics committee approval, in an inappropriate social setting, with callous disregard to pain and distress of children involved,” who reportedly used a nonprofit to pay himself $316,000 out of charitable contributions while giving just $80,000 in grants, who collaborates with a doctor who lost hospital privileges for performing unnecessary invasive procedures on autistic kids, who gets up on stage with people preaching about the miraculous healing powers of magical vibrations or telling parents of autistic kids that using wifi is hurting their children—that’s not a credible spokesman. Vaxxed is going to labor under the public perception that it’s “Andy Wakefield’s documentary,” because it is. And because that’s not a mark of quality or trustworthiness. Wakefield’s litigious, so let me add that that’s my opinion. It does seem to be a very, very, very widespread opinion.
If you want your opinions about vaccines taken seriously, you need actual credible experts backing your position. That’s going to be difficult, because the actual experts overwhelmingly believe vaccines are safe and effective. There’s a reason that Vaxxed is bragging about the involvement of a computer scientist: they couldn’t get anyone more credible or with actual expertise in this field. Why do you think that is? If your first answer is to jump to a conspiracy theory, try again—really, why do you think people who study vaccines for years or decades overwhelmingly disagree with the conclusions of the radical fringe, and vaccinate themselves and their own families?
Lessons for Science and Health Advocates
Mea culpa – I jumped the gun. A lot of us did. We immediately assumed that Robert De Niro was another Rob Schneider or Jenny McCarthy, and that was unfair. Not just because he’s better at his job than they are, but because he listened to criticism of his decision. I don’t credit the wild, paranoid fantasies of the anti-vaxers; I don’t think anyone leaned on De Niro. It appears that he, as a non-expert, listened to what he thought were credible voices. Wakefield is still called “Doctor” Wakefield in many circles, and is a very well-spoken and persuasive man. The film boasts other technical experts, and the problems with them wouldn’t be apparent to someone who wasn’t very familiar with the issues. For example, they may have told him they had the support of Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a “senior research scientist at MIT.” And that’s true, but De Niro (or the Tribeca staff) wouldn’t have any way to know that she’s a computer scientist, or that her work related to autism is derided as incompetent and misleading.
Sober, calm voices are the most persuasive. And apparently some of those voices reached De Niro and the Tribeca staff. That’s an assumption I’m making; it could also be that the Tribeca staff saw the public outrage and prevailed upon De Niro to reverse his public support for the film. Either way, we can assume Robert De Niro didn’t decide to kick Vaxxed out because “#RagingBullshit” started trending on Twitter.
A lot of us resorted to mockery prematurely. And that was a mistake, because we didn’t give Tribeca or De Niro enough credit. Had we believed that they would change their mind, we’d have focused more on trying to persuade them than on making fun of them or trying to use jokes as a form of social pressure. On the other hand it was not a critical mistake, because persuasive voices still reached the decision makers here—and the public outrage, fueled partly by the vibrant and passionate conversation on social media, may have activated or encouraged those voices to get involved. Should pro-science advocates have behaved differently overall? Well, once again, I don’t get to decide how people act, so I get to take a pass on passing judgment. We should merely be self-aware about how this turned out and why.
Lessons for Tribeca
I know that De Niro and Tribeca have been eagerly awaiting my advice, so here it is: your actions have consequences. You did well on balance. Bad job trusting the Vaxxed filmmakers, but lots of intelligent and well-meaning people have fallen for their propaganda. You did a very good job changing your minds, which is something a lot of people can’t or won’t do. I’m particularly impressed with De Niro, who publicly defended the film then changed course. Many people would let confirmation bias control them after the first public statement and become rigid in their beliefs. Being willing to reconsider is legitimately impressive. Although not so unusual as to give credibility to farcical fantasies about the CDC threatening him or his family with death, or the other goofy conspiracy theories being floated by anti-vaxers.
That’s the other lesson. Look at Twitter and Facebook. You can see the conspiracy theories forming. It was the Sloan Foundation, it was the Clintons, it was George Soros, it was the NWO, it was anyone and everyone except honest people honestly changing their minds. I can understand not wanting to disclose how the decision to reject Vaxxed was made, but consider the costs of not doing that: conspiracy theorists are going to gravitate to the most interesting possibilities instead of the most probable or most obviously true possibilities. You can nip that in the bud by being more open and direct. Is it worth it? I think so. There will always be conspiracy theories, but being open and honest will take the teeth out of them. A margin of conspiracy theorists would be less likely to believe that Vaxxed was intentionally suppressed by puppetmasters, and therefore less likely to believe its message, and therefore more likely to vaccinate their kids. Openness is a good policy anyway, and if it makes it even marginally more likely that a kid is protected against a vaccine-preventable disease, that’s a bonus.
So, Good News or Bad News?
Vaxxed fans seem happy about the fact that the movie is in a real, live theater. I’m dubious. We’ll see in a few weeks, but as I said I suspect attendance will be very low. It’s easy to post a message to Facebook about how Vaxxed is the most important movie of all time, but actually shelling out ten bucks and going to see it is more than most keyboard warriors are willing to do.
More importantly, its failure at Tribeca is a disaster for the filmmakers. They needed the boost in credibility that the festival would have provided. They wanted the word “TRIBECA” to hang over it when they trotted it out to distributors, theaters, and moviegoers. As it is, the movie is going to market under the label “WAKEFIELD” – he’s the most recognizable name attached to the project. And that’s a terrible liability.
Nor do I think the movie can stand on its own merits, as a film or as an expose. Remember that the movie seems to have been shepherded into Tribeca, which planned to air it (as I understand it) on the very last day and opposite the major awards, which would have limited its exposure. The festival also omitted it completely from its “guide to all of the social issue films at Tribeca 2016,” and yikes, what a vote of no confidence! As an expose, even Wakefield seemed nervous about it. When he premiered Vaxxed, he refused to let me or the professional journalists in the room. He only wanted conspiracy theorists, an audience self-selected for gullibility and an unwillingness to ask critical questions, to see it in advance.
I think Wakefield was concerned about us fact-checking it, and I think he was right to worry about that. When he (to his credit) gave me an interview that touched on the same subjects as Vaxxed, we were able to run his positions past someone with real expertise in the matter. Those claims did not stand up well to analysis. For example, when I asked Wakefield what kinds of documents the CDC supposedly destroyed, he talked generally about how a table was taken out of a draft document, but admitted that in fact the CDC had preserved the underlying data. And he seemed unaware of, or unwilling to discuss, Thompson’s statement that “[A]ll the associated MMR-Autism Study computer files have been retained on the Immunization Safety Office computer servers since the inception of the study and they continue to reside there today.” I think it’s safe to presume that Vaxxed will work to convince audiences that the CDC deleted critical data, but just like Wakefield in person will gloss over the actual facts that show it never happened.
Without a core of solid facts to impress reviewers and experts, I think Vaxxed will disappear into obscurity like similar discredited conspiracy theory documentaries. Remember Loose Change or America: From Freedom to Fascism? Millions of people watched them, but after an initial burst of publicity they survive today only as curiosities or jokes in the mainstream. They only retain their persuasive power with small, cultish groups devoted to their underlying ideologies. I think the same thing will happen to Vaxxed. It will be seen as incredibly important to a small minority of anti-vaxers who would have been anti-vaxers anyway, as a noxious piece of harmful propaganda to actual experts, and as a temporary curiosity to the mainstream. Vaxxed has reaped a few headlines and will not see that kind of publicity ever again. That’s not to say it won’t do damage; there will be some people who are persuaded by it to not vaccinate their kids. But that’s going to be a fairly small effect, and largely confined I think to people who would have eventually made that decision anyway—Vaxxed isn’t breaking any new ground in pushing anti-vax mythology.
What Do We Do?
Go see it if you’re interested; otherwise, just keep discussing it as new information comes out. My first draft of this piece urged people in New York to go to one of the screenings at which the filmmakers will appear, to ask critical (but not disruptive!) questions that would prevent the shows from being the unadulterated, unchallenged propaganda they were meant to be. But I took too long writing it, and those shows are sold out. (The fact that none of the other showings are sold out suggests to me that this is due to Wakefield’s dubious celebrity, rather than any real interest in the film itself.) Go see the movie if you’re interested, especially if you want to carefully review its allegations; don’t worry about boosting attendance numbers or putting money in the pockets of filmmakers. You’re doing more good for the theater, which is probably going to take a bath on all those empty houses.
We’ll get detailed reviews of Vaxxed before long, and we can compare its claims to reality. I hope to see detailed analyses coming from places like Left Brain, Right Brain (if he isn’t tired of the issue by then). It’ll be important to share and discuss those to create a record, again preventing the Vaxxed filmmakers from propagandizing based on a false version of events.
In the meantime, let’s not forget that Tribeca did the right thing. And let’s show some support for that! I don’t live in NY so I won’t be able to attend, but if you can, you should. It’s not like pro-vaccine advocates will make a difference in Tribeca’s bottom line, but show some support regardless. I’ve been going over their film guide looking for things I want to see when they’re available outside the festival. I’m looking forward to the shorts Curve and The Tunnel, and especially the documentary Betting on Zero (about a zillionaire’s war on Herbalife).
What about you? Check it out and please, go see a good movie or at least talk about one.