An Cailín Rua
ONE of the most remarkable changes of the twenty-first century to date has been the shift in power that has occurred as a result of greater internet access and social media. Where once upon a time the public relied on journalists and newsreaders to tell us what was going on in the world, now social media is our newsfeed.
In some ways, this is a positive development. No longer is the public limited to experiencing the news through the lens of news outlets that may not always be agenda-free or neutral. We recognise that there are bigger things happening in the world other than just those deemed important enough to make the Nine O’Clock News. However, the downside is that everyone is an expert, and when information is available for free, people stop paying for it. This means that the media, particularly investigative journalists, are forced to work with fewer resources. With unfettered access to information, it also can be challenging for ordinary individuals to separate the legitimate from the lies. And the greatest winner of all in this new equal-opportunities newsroom has, without doubt, been the conspiracy theory.
I had never heard of “chemtrails” until I joined Twitter, but I quickly learned that a sizeable cohort of apparently otherwise intelligent people believe that those little lines of “cloud” you see in the sky left behind by jet aircraft are laced with chemicals designed to make human beings more docile and to dull our questioning instinct. More sinister claims attribute the endangerment of honeybees worldwide to chemtrails, and some even suggest they are being used to control the weather. (If so, they’re not doing a very good job.) Websites masquerading as news sites present stories like this as fact; and for many, it can be difficult to tell what is real and what isn’t. And it is now all too easy to spread hatred, misogyny and xenophobia via the internet, where fact-checking is fast becoming a lost art.
Ironically, it then falls to the resource-starved traditional media to address and counter untruths.
This weekend’s Sunday Business Post contained a two-page spread about Gardasil, the vaccine used by the HSE to inoculate girls and young women against the human papilloma virus (HPV) which can cause cervical cancer. It is estimated that use of the vaccine could prevent approximately 90 cervical cancer deaths a year in Ireland, and the need for around 280 women a year to undergo treatment. Over the last 18 months, a number of parents have come forward to warn against the vaccine, citing unexplained illnesses in their daughters following them obtaining the vaccine. A campaign again the vaccine is being spearheaded by a group calling themselves REGRET (Reaction and Effects of Gardasil Resulting in Extreme Trauma). However, while it is undoubtedly true that several young women are ill, it is an inconvenient truth for some that there is not a shred of scientific proof that Gardasil is responsible. And in fact, while side effects do exist and are acknowledged, a number of large-scale, peer-reviewed studies (the most reputable kind) prove beyond doubt the safety of the vaccine.
Incidentally, The Sunday Business Post mentioned that the husband of one of the REGRET figureheads is a homeopath and is charging parents of young women apparently affected by the vaccine up to €120 a session to “treat” them. You can draw your own conclusions.
It’s probably unfair to blame the internet alone for such scaremongering; after all, most of us remember how in the 90s, a claim was made by a UK researcher linking the MMR vaccine to autism. To this day, children die because some parents resist MMR vaccination, despite the fact that the research was later thoroughly debunked.
A little learning is a dangerous thing. In an age where there is unprecedented access to information, we cannot afford to accept anything as fact without question. And ironically, whether it’s Gardasil, immigration, social welfare, abortion, or Trump, our traditional and mainstream media are needed now more than ever to question, to research to interrogate and sometimes, to debunk.