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The narrative and tropes of the Italian anti-vaccination movement in their online communication in 2017

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posted on 2020-08-04, 08:21 authored by Marco Concer

This dissertation explores the narrative and the propaganda used by the Italian anti-vaccination movement in their online communication. The analysis is based on the comments posted on Facebook by the activists in the period between the 1st June 2017 and the 31st of August 2017. This time-frame was selected in order to include the 28th of July 2017, the date in which the Italian Parliament passed a new vaccination law, making 12 vaccines obligatory for children. During this time period, the NO-VAX activists were particularly active on social networks advocating against the new law.

This work researches contemporary topics in media and communication studies: political communication through social networks, online communication in social movements, and the role of narrative in their communication and propaganda.

Through the content analysis of the comments, I examined the most relevant tropes and rhetoric techniques used by anti-vaccination activists. When they are engaging a discussion online, I identified four main components in their communication:

• Attacking the opposition: this involves accusing vaccination supporters of being moved by unclear interests. Media and politicians are suspected of hiding information about the dangers of vaccines;

• Skewing the science: this consists of denigrating scientific facts that do not support their thesis while accepting only ‘non-aligned’ research;

• Supporting the battle: showing support and commitment to the people who fight against vaccinations, while presenting an ‘US vs THEM’ rhetoric;

• Shifting hypotheses: when a group of theories displayed by the anti-vax movement gets refuted by the scientific community, the movement’s supporters modify their thesis and challenge a different aspect of the topic. This may also involve presenting a personal story in order to discredit statistical facts.

The elements of their communication presents several similarities to what is defined as political propaganda, such as the presence of a vicious enemies to fight against (media, politicians and ‘mainstream’ physicians), a group of brave heroes and super-human figures (‘non-aligned’ researchers), and a major ideal to fight for (the freedom of choice).

This topic is particularly relevant because of the alarming news about the low Italian vaccination rate. Because of that, defeated diseases like measles have started to spread again in the country. The effectiveness of the anti-vaccination propaganda played a key role in increasing disinformation about this topic and worsened the situation. In order to be able to produce a powerful counter-narrative to contradict their claims, it is important to understand what kind of tropes and rhetorical elements they are using to gain support and to influence policy-makers.



  • Loughborough University London