Fake News

Going Viral: Disinformation and the Smallpox Vaccine

Debates over vaccination are not new. Public conversations over whether to vaccinate communities date back to the eighteenth century when the smallpox vaccine was first developed. Its critics and advocates cited statistics, appeals to emotion, and one-sided arguments to convince the public of the merits of their cause. These debates around vaccines continue to this day, though the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1979.

While the disease no longer plagues us, the ideas and language it created still do. In particular, it's “infected” conversations around disinformation. Columnists duped by fake social media posts bemoan their lack of “immunity” to “viral” videos, while others fear the outcome of elections which seem determined in part by the internet’s susceptibility to the spread of what some call “fake news.” Game developers hoping to ebb its spread describe their work as a means of “inoculating” the public from disinformation by exposing players to it in small doses. Is it possible to vaccinate the public against disinformation? What can the history of the smallpox vaccine teach us about methods of spreading disinformation? 

This exhibit will investigate the histories of the smallpox vaccine and the methods both advocates and critics used to present their beliefs. These tactics – appeals to emotion, falsified data, and propaganda – are still used today to spread disinformation around divisive topics online. What can this episode tell us about modern efforts to deal with what is controversially called “fake news?” Does it point to any effective means to “inoculate” the public?

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