Ms. Bashful welcomed me in and led me to a well-worn sofa, the kind that sort of swallows you in and threatens to show you just where missing nickels and stale Chex Mix go. She settled herself at a small desk that sported a dusty Dell Inspiron, its cooling fan wheezing like an asthmatic in an iron lung. A television in the corner blared QVC, gaudy paste jewelry and kitschy porcelain figurines parading across the screen. She lowered the volume and turned toward me, keeping one eye on her monitor's strobing screen.
Me: Ms. Bashful. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Tell me a little bit about your role at Age of Unreason.
Anne Bashful (AB): Well, where to begin? I guess to put it simply, I'm in charge of our propaganda outreach program, Media Infiltration Squad Lacking Evidence And Decency. I sit here in front of my trusty computer [she pats the tower, leaving smudges in the dust] scanning the interwebs for stories about autism. I've gotten help from the Google Alerts, so I have more time to watch my programs. Anyways, every one I find, I make sure to leave a comment or four. Then I sic our readers on the articles.
Me: Some of your critics have claimed that your comments lack substance and that they are misleading.
AB: Of course they're misleading! That's my job!
Me: But, isn't that unethical?
AB: Look. Sometimes people need to be coaxed into believing you actually have something valid to say. If they swallow that, they'll swallow all our other BS pretty quickly. Just look at our regulars! Do you think they'd give us any credence if we stuck to the truth? I draw a lot of inspiration from that nonfiction book...[she looks around a bit, then snatches a tattered paperback from a pile on the floor]...here it is. 1984. Great tips in here. [She prods it a few times with her finger.]
Me: I see. So that's where your title comes from?
AB: Clever, isn't it?
Me: I've noticed a lot of people pointing out that you generally make your comments, then never return to answer the criticisms.
AB: Well, I'm not dumb. If I stuck around, I'd have to actually use logic and evidence [the disdain drips with each word to sizzle on the floor] to support my claims. That's hard work. Besides, my day's filled with trolling around, looking for other sites to copy and paste my comments into.
Me: Copy and paste?
AB: Yep. Got a bunch of stuff saved here in this file. [She falls silent a moment, staring intently at the screen as she stabs the keyboard.] Hah. There, got another one. Mostly, I just copy and paste it into the comments, but every now and then, I need to change something just a bit so it fits with the article.
Me: So a lot of your comments are just the same thing over and over? But what about when people point out that you're wrong.
AB: Doesn't matter. I've already moved on and I ain't sticking around to lose a debate. Besides, every new comment thread's a brand new audience. Most people don't keep reading after the first couple comments anyway. That's all that's needed to plant the seed of fear and doubt.
Me: Your goal, then, is to frighten people into thinking that vaccines are bad?
AB: Do bears s*** in the woods?
AB: 'Cause they're evil incarnate! The devil Himself [I could almost hear the capital H] created them to destroy our race. Did you know that they contain antifreeze? What are we, cars?
Me: Actually, they don't.
Me: Antifreeze. Vaccines don't contain antifreeze. But I can understand why you might think that, since the chemical names look very similar.
AB: [Giving me a narrow-eyed look] Are you one of Them?
Me: One of whom?
AB: One of those baby-eating, drug-pushing pharma whores? We did up a picture of some of them back in 2009. [Again, she rummages about, producing a photoshopped picture.]
|Picture posted at Age of Unreason before being removed under pressure.|
AB: Oh. Well, that picture was a bit too edgy for the weaker-willed among our regular supporters, and we had to take it down. [She looks at the picture once more, then sets it aside with an air of regret.] So anyway. Anti-freeze. And dead baby parts.
Me: Um... [I think about correcting her again, but decide my health might be in danger if I do.] Aren't you afraid that your, uh, activities will lead to an increase in preventable diseases?
AB: That's what those yahoos down in DC want you to think. But I know this doctor who says that vaccines don't do work. Here...[She punches something into the keyboard in front of her, then turns the monitor toward me with a slight grunt]. See. This graph shows clearly shows that diseases were declining before vaccines came around. They didn't do s***.
Me: That's mortality, not incidence, right?
Me: The number of deaths over time, not the number of cases.
AB: Oh. Yes.
Me: And you think this shows that vaccines don't work?
AB: [She glances around, as if someone might be listening in, then leans forward a little.] Between you and me, I know it's all a bunch of horse pucky. But it's what the faithful like to hear, and it's convincing enough to average folks.
Me: The faithful?
AB: I can tell you're one of those smart ones [she taps the side of her nose and gives me a conspiratorial wink]. This whole thing is religion. Our readers lap it up, and it helps that we cen---uh, editorialize comments. We don't actually have facts on our side, but belief. We got that in spades.We've even swindled a couple doctors to lend us legitimacy.
AB: One of our most effective has been Dr. Tom Sneers and his advocacy for altered vaccine schedules.
Me: Didn't he admit that his schedule has no scientific basis? And that he advises people not to tell others about their decision not to vaccinate?
AB: Oh, that. Yes. A bit unfortunate, but he's so personable and tells parents what makes them feel better. He helps assuage parents' guilt about leaving their kids prone to infection. And with his father's fame, people just gobble it up!
Me: Anyone else?
AB: Well, we used to have Dr. Clark Mire and his son, before they went and screwed up. We've had to distance ourselves from them publicly, but still give them a place at one of our annual vaccine vilification conference. Once we figure out a way to spin them as martyrs, they'll be back in the limelight, just like we did for St. Dandy Fakedeal. Oh, yes! [She slaps her knee.] We also have young Blake Woeisme. He's not a doctor, but we've been working on him from a very young age. His mother, especially, has done a fine job indoctrinating him; he actually believes everything we tell him! And how he tries to get vaccine proponents fired is just precious. And once he finishes his graduate program, we'll be able to claim we have an epidemiologist on our side.
Me: Have any of them done legitimate research on vaccines?
AB: Legitimate research? Oh hell no. How would that serve our goals? Remember, we're all about spin and advancing our agenda. We're not about truth.
Me: That does come across in your comments online.
AB: Thank you.
Me: Uh...you're welcome? So where do you see your efforts going from here?
AB: Right now I'm working on getting the truly committed to take the heat after I've commented on an article. There are a couple who've answered the call, but they make the mistake of trying to argue facts instead of emotions, and they tend to stick with the fight on any given thread a smidge too long. I'll work on that some more.
Me: Thank you, Ms. Bashful, for speaking so candidly with me. This was an eye opening experience.
She waves her hands, somewhat dismissively as the monitor again grabs her attention. I see myself to the door, her muttered apologies subsumed by the click clack of her keyboard and the exhausted whirr of her computer's fan. The sun shines obliquely through the trees lining the wide avenue out front as I walk back to my car, somewhat unsettled by the complete lack of shame I just witnessed. But there it is, a look inside the mindset of a dedicated anti-vaccine propagandist, whose modus operandi is to swoop in on the comments of vaccine-related articles, post spurious nonsense, then disappear to another corner of the internet, avoiding all direct challenges and confrontation.