Millions of Americans view being anti-vaccination as a part of their social identity
The conspiracy originally took root in the United States but has spread to Europe Joseph Prezioso AFP

In a new paper published for the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, researchers found that 22 percent of Americans actively identify themselves as anti-vaccination, with 14 percent saying they are "sometimes" part of the movement and 8 percent saying this is "always" the case.

These self-described anti-vaxxers "embrace" the label of anti-vaxxer "as a form of social identity," the authors write.

"We also find that people who score highly on our [anti-vaxx social identification] measure tend to be less trusting of scientific experts and more individualistic," they noted.

The study is a stark reminder that vaccine-hostile attitudes are not a fringe view, but are possessed by a substantial portion of the US population, many of whom have come to consider the label a formative part of their identity. As daily COVID-19 vaccination rates have begun to decline, the cohort of self-identified anti-vaccination Americans are contributing to the delayed march towards herd immunity in the United States.

Indeed, widespread refusal to get vaccinated is a major reason why experts doubt the number of Americans who vaccinate themselves from the deadly disease will reach 70 percent, the rough number needed to reach herd immunity. Currently, slightly more than 47 percent of Americans are vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2.

Texas A&M University School of Public Health assistant professor Timothy Callaghan said in a university press release that "the fact that 22 percent of Americans at least sometimes identify as anti-vaxxers was much higher than expected and demonstrates the scope of the challenge in vaccinating the population against COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases."

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

Callaghan's concern reflects a growing challenge for public health experts, who have now to contend with the myriad ways in which basic public health advice has become politicized. Indeed, a March 2021 study, which revealed the extent to which partisan politics have influenced attitudes towards vaccination, found that Republican men were the most likely to be COVID-19 anti-vaxxers (49 percent) — followed by Republican-identifying women (34 percent), Democratic women (14 percent) and Democratic men (6 percent). The same study revealed that 40 percent of white non-college educated men and 38 percent of white evangelicals — groups that both lean conservative — said they would refuse a coronavirus vaccine if it was offered to them.

Another recent study also found that anti-vaccine ideas are most popular among Republicans. Despite the prevalence of anti-vaxxer views, researchers at the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that up to 65% of anti-vaccine misinformation on major social media platforms are being spread by one of a mere dozen individuals and organizations, meaning that misinformation is concentrated in its dissemination.

Pre-pandemic, the modern incarnation of the general anti-vaccination movement was spurred by a 1998 paper from the medical journal The Lancet which linked autism to the measles vaccine. That paper was later thoroughly discredited by scientists, denounced by The Lancet and retracted by 10 of its 12 co-authors. Its lead author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license in the United Kingdom for ethical violations. Despite this, many parents would read pseudoscientific literature inspired by Wakefield's paper and conclude that it was dangerous to vaccinate their children.

In April, Dr. Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, spoke with Salon's Nicole Karlis about the complex nature of the anti-vaccine movement. Viswanath pointed out that there are many reasons why someone might distrust vaccines, not all of which are linked to partisan politics. Patients from underprivileged backgrounds, for instance, might have previously experienced racism in our health care system and feel an understandable wariness.

"That's very different from a group of people who are outright refusers who say, 'No, this is my freedom,'" Viswanath said. "Personal liberty is one of the biggest drivers."