Well, we're all going to die. Facebook is going to kill us all. You thought it was going to be giant self-aware robots, but our humble smartphone apps will be beating them to the punch.
Two researchers at the University of Stirling in Scotland released a study last year concluding, based on data from January 2011 to August 2017, that there were “statistically significant positive correlations” between the use of anti-vaccination search terms and falling rates of immunizations, suggesting that online anti-vaxxer activity is having real and potentially deadly consequences.
To be fair, this is evident even without scientific studies to back it up: People who promote anti-vaccination conspiracies will of course be vaccinating their own children at a lesser rate, and people who seek out anti-vaccination conspiracies are obviously those who are predisposed to such skepticism in the first place. From individual Texas churches to Washington state, recent disease outbreaks have cropped up among ... less-vaccinated populations, of course. So yes, the anti-vaccination conspiracies peddled so breezily on social media by self-regarded geniuses who consider their own wisdom to far exceed that of all of the medical profession and collected world history are causing Americans to get sick. It will cause some to die.
There's a lot to be said about this, and to be honest it's difficult to muster up any of it. Willful ignorance is not an easily solved problem; the ease with which new conspiracies can travel around the planet in days, rather than by paper and pen, means every person is now drowning in a multitude of them, all the time, every day.
And that ignorance can be weaponized.
If one nation can manipulate public opinion in order to bend an election in a rival nation one direction or another, it is just as easy to mount a campaign targeting the public health of rival nations. For better or worse, those efforts are likely to be completely unnecessary—it seems citizens are always eager to detonate such weapons themselves, out of boredom.
There may be no straightforward solution, or even straightforward patch-up. You cannot bar people from spewing false information, at least not in any nation that pays lip service to human rights. It is usually impossible to single out individual conspiracists that can be blamed—and sued into oblivion—for individual deaths many years later. Efforts to make mega-profitable advertisers like Facebook screen each ad and reject ones whose claims are transparently false have, naturally, fallen flat.
The best approach would obviously be to improve public education so that at least in our own country, people were not so easily taken in by obvious frauds and con artists. No, eating a particular fruit or nut will not protect you from measles. No, polio cannot be staved off with an overpriced blend of common spices. Yes, some vanishingly small number of people may actually die from a freak reaction to any injection, for any purpose—and many, many, many more will die from not getting that same care. The odds of concrete or steel falling onto your car when crossing an American bridge seems to be steadily on the rise, of late, but nobody's selling their car and going canoeing. Nobody is claiming a religious exemption to standing behind the little yellow lines in subway stations that mark the limits of you continuing to exist or being turned into an oil-infused mulch.
The second best approach, if we can't come up with the money to teach every American the basics of the scientific method or at least how to solve magazine-printed logic puzzles, has been another thing we've gotten too lazy and out-of-practice on: mocking the conspiracy promoters until they are forced back behind the public woodwork. Mocking them and their business plans relentlessly, in public, for daring to bring their dangerous, child-killing ignorance into our presence. There ought to be a social price for being an eager idiot, as there is for being a public racist or sexist.
I'm not saying we have to make anyone wear neon-colored hats or the like, and it is important to separate victims of conspiracy peddling from the peddlers, but ... still.