What Can We Learn From An Ex-Anti-Vaxxer?

Conspiracy theories
What Can We Learn From An Ex-Anti-Vaxxer?
Photo: Paul Wicks (cropped), Creative Commons License 2.0

Heather Simpson of Dallas, Texas, is doing something it takes a whole lot of courage to do. She's admitting she was wrong about a thing and is now trying to make amends for the harm that she caused by being wrong about said thing.

Speaking to Good Morning America on Monday, Simpson explained how she became an "anti-vaccine influencer" overnight after watching an anti-vaccine documentary and posting about it on Facebook, but is now speaking out in favor of the vaccine after having come to her senses. She's even started a podcast, a Facebook page, and a support group for former anti-vaxxers, which is great.

Perhaps most importantly, she discussed how and why she got into it in the first place — information it is helpful for us all to know if we want to be able to effectively combat misinformation.

"I was convinced that if I vaccinated my child, she would die that night," Simpson told "Good Morning America." "That kind of led me into the entire wellness community as a whole."

"At the time, I was a stay at home mom. I was lonely. I didn't have family or friends close by," Simpson continued. "It was so nice to be welcomed into this community. They were listening to your health concerns. They were supportive." [...]

When Simpson started sharing her own anti-vaccine beliefs online, her posts took off and people shared them hundreds of times.

"People saw me as a health authority," Simpson said. "I could post anything and they're going to share it and take it as fact."

Sure, this is a "Good Morning America" feel-good puff piece, and this woman has been speaking about her experience for some time now. But it's worth talking about because we need to work on figuring out off-ramps for people caught up in this and other foolishness, and because we need to remind ourselves every so often that people can and do change.

In various interviews over the years, Simpson has detailed several instances that led to her abandoning her previously held stance on vaccines, most of which have had to do with protecting her daughter, and with people patiently and non-condescendingly explaining to her the dangers of being unvaccinated.

Via WebMD:

In January 2021, one of those moments involved her daughter, now 4, who was scratched by a feral cat, raising concerns about tetanus. Her daughter had been bitten by a dog when she was just 1, and Simpson turned down advice then to get a tetanus shot. "I was convinced the tetanus shot would kill her faster than the tetanus."

After the cat incident, the anxiety was so exhausting, she listened to the nurse practitioner at the clinic, whom she trusted. The nurse gently reassured Simpson that the shot was less risky than the possibility of tetanus — but did not bombard her with statistics — and that won over Simpson and triggered an overall rethinking of her vaccine stance.

One thing I do think we need to keep in mind is that people who aren't getting vaccines aren't necessarily being malicious. Sure, there are a whole lot of people not getting them or just saying they're not getting them for the purpose of "owning the libs." But that's not everyone. People really have been very manipulated and frightened by some of the misinformation that is out there, and at a time when they don't have a lot of regular communication with a lot of different people, when they are — as Simpson was — lonely and isolated. The scary part about this rhetoric is that it actually is effective.

Another part of the reason people gravitate towards conspiracies and the like, and I think Simpson's experience speaks to this, is because they want to feel smart.

We understand that people who have never felt beautiful want to feel beautiful and sometimes go to extreme lengths to make that happen, sometimes even to the point of developing serious disorders — but we don't think about intelligence the same way. Imagine if you'd been treated like you weren't all that swift your whole life, and then this shit comes around and people start treating you like you are brilliant. That would have to feel amazing. Especially if it involved getting to smugly look down on the sort of people who had smugly made you feel stupid before.

As a culture, we generally kind of make fun of the idea that people would want to feel good about themselves, as if it is something for the kind of spoiled children who would refuse to walk to school and back uphill both ways, in the snow. There's this idea that good, moral, hard-working people are supposed to be above caring about that sort of thing. And we all do this to some degree. The Right mocks the idea of kids getting participation trophies, while the Left mocks the idea of giving out cookies for basic human decency.

But "how we feel about ourselves" isn't just some contrived hippy-dippy shit, it's something that plays a massive part in how we act, how we treat other people, and what we do with our lives, and it's something that can truly fuck us up or cause great harm when manipulated or used for evil.

Donald Trump surged to power because he made people feel good about themselves. Every dangerous cult on earth has recruited people by telling them they are special, that they are in tune with something the rest of the population isn't. We don't have to blow smoke up anyone's ass to counteract this sort of influence, but neither should we pretend it's not a thing.

I don't have a particular solution to this problem. People are always going to have low self-esteem and there are always going to be nefarious people out there looking to take advantage of that. What I do think we can do is first to be aware of that, and then to look at people like Simpson, who found an off-ramp, and try our best to recreate such off-ramps for those in our lives who have gone in that direction.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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