Sarah Renaker

“Pharmageddon”: A Rhetorical Analysis of the 21st Century Anti-Vax Movement

April 3, 2021   /  

Name: Sarah Renaker
Major: Communication Studies
Advisors: Dr. Melissa Rizzo Weller, Dr. Denise Bostdorff

This study analyzes the 21st century anti-vax movement’s rhetoric and persuasive techniques to determine the movement’s ideology. I conducted an ideological criticism to analyze the rhetoric surrounding vaccines, because while this ideology has been around for the past 200 years, Andrew Wakefield’s study falsely connecting vaccines to autism sparked a resurgence in the movement –a resurgence only made worse by the rise of social media. More specifically, I examined the anti-vax website, Outlaw Health, through the lens of Elaboration Likelihood Model, from which several themes emerged including pseudo-science, unconventional beliefs, and systemic influences on ideology. From this study, I concluded the anti-vax movement’s rhetoric is rooted in false scientific beliefs and contains cult-like unconventional ideals. Additionally, negative systemic influences affect anti-vax ideology and isolate the movement which heavily relies on peripheral persuasion to convey their messages.

Sarah will be online to field comments on April 16:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST: 6-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

30 thoughts on ““Pharmageddon”: A Rhetorical Analysis of the 21st Century Anti-Vax Movement”

  1. Great job on your IS! The anti-vax and vaccine hesitancy movement, ideology and rhetoric continues to be very influential especially with vaccines and their approval process being more in the news with the COVID vaccines.

    1. Thank you! I think the hesitancy behind the COVID vaccine has brought many people to join the anti-vax movement, and has almost created a resurgence of this ideology in the mainstream media.

  2. Good work, Sarah! Of your three themes, which do you think should be the first for public institutions to address in closing the divide between the pro- and anti-vax movements?

    1. Thank you, Dr. Weller! Obviously, I think all three themes are important and should be addressed; however, I think addressing the systemic influences on the anti-vax ideology would be an important first step in bridging the gap. Understanding the negative implications the pro-vax and medical field have on the anti-vax ideology creates distrust and distain for medicine, especially vaccines, and mending this relationship would open many anti-vaxxers to information and resources they need to make informed decisions (not based on mistreatment.)

  3. Hey Sarah! Congrats on finishing IS! I think this is very well executed, and it’s especially cool that you picked a topic this timely and relevant. I also think it’s smart to discuss Andrew Wakefield’s study, and to link/extend that to look at the impact of social media. Cheers and congratulations!

    1. Thank you so much, Nick! I think social media plays a bigger role in this ideology than people initially realize, and I wish I had the opportunity to explore that more. Unfortunately, the social media platforms I was initially analyzing were taken down to “stop the spread of misinformation” according to Facebook. However, in the age of technology, and now the COVID pandemic, I think the anti-vax ideology is more prevalent, and therefore, should be understood on a deeper level.

  4. Sarah, I don’t have any questions since I asked you so many as the second reader for your orals, but I enjoyed seeing your digital presentation of your study. As I noted before, it’s such a timely topic with definition applications. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you Dr. Bostdorff! I appreciate you being my second reader, and helping me become a better writer during my 4 years at Wooster. Without a doubt, you helped shape me into the student/person I am today.

      1. You’re very kind, Sarah. And in your case, it really has been the four full years! I still remember our argumentation class your first year: a fun group of people.

  5. Sarah,

    I am so very proud of you. Your finished product is a reflection of your thoughts, research and insight. This is an interesting topic and one that will likely be discussed and debated for decades to come.

  6. Awesome job Sarah! This is such a cool topic especially with the current times so congrats!

  7. This was a great project Sarah. Good job! I am so happy we started in FYS together and finished this project together!

  8. This is such an amazing project Sarah! I really appreciate your conclusion that chastising the group only pushes them further away from vaccines and scientifically backed medicine. You mentioned at the beginning that the group shares cult-like qualities, could you tell me more about that?

    Love you, and this project is amazing!

    1. Thank you so much, Grace!

      In some instances, usually in cases where someone holds an extremist belief, their judgement can be clouded by other phenomena that might be deemed fallible. So, when an extreme anti-vaxxer allows, for example, religion to cloud their judgement and control their ideology, they are exhibiting behavior similar to religious cults. This does NOT mean that anti-vaxxers themselves are cults or that religion is bad; however, ignoring societal norms and shaping/being selective with the information that you share/receive is similar to how cults interact with society.

    1. Thank you so much, Yash! I appreciate you listening to me ramble on about this for the past year.

  9. Hi Sarah, congratulations!

    We’ve missed you at the library this year, but I’m so glad to see how your project ended up, since I remember discussing it with you last year. I really enjoyed your presentation!

    1. Thank you Alena!

      I’ve missed you all at the library as well. Thank you for checking it out, and for listening to my heated discussions about this topic.

  10. Congrats, Sarah! It is really interesting seeing your project all come together! Great job!

  11. Such a vital topic, Sarah! The observation about cult-like qualities to some anti-vax groups struck me as well (especially with the overlap between anti-vax sentiment and, say, QAnon adherents). Great work & best wishes!

  12. Great job, Sarah! I really liked learning about where the anti-vaccine assumption came from.

    There have been so many other studies that disapprove the assumptions that vaccines cause autism. So why do you think the study by Wakefield was shared and believed by so many individuals?

  13. Really interesting presentation, and always relevant. Great job and congrats on finishing!

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