A few days ago, we reported that Republican Representative Theresa Manzella was spreading false information about vaccinations on her Facebook page. It turns out that this was not a one-off for Manzella, who has been researching ways to outlaw mandatory vaccination in Montana since 2015. Manzella, who admitted then that she didn’t know enough about vaccines to make informed policy, didn’t turn to the CDC or medical doctors for information; she turned to a Facebook conspiracy group called “Vaccine Injury Stories.”
This Facebook group, which has 23,000 members sharing absurd fear mongering about vaccination. It’s filled with tales of people killed by the flu vaccine, claims that a 16-year-old young woman tried to complete suicide because of a vaccination she received when she was an infant, and links to pages that might look like they came from reputable medical sources if your reading level was somewhere around 5th grade. It’s the kind of conspiracy page that’s so riddled with delusions that a brief look found multiple stories from alleged separate individuals posting the exact same pictures of children who had died because of vaccines and claiming it was their story.
It’s heartbreaking to read these stories, but it’s infuriating that a legislator would turn to a Facebook conspiracy group to get educated about public health.
A year ago, Manzella also claimed that “she wasn’t such a crazed conspiracy theorist after all” after sharing a post claiming that the “FDA Announced That Vaccines Are Causing Autism.” You’d think a big story like that would have been published in every newspaper in the country, but for some reason, it only made it to anti-vax sites and the feeds of gullible Facebook users.
Because, of course, it simply isn’t true that the FDA came to that conclusion.
In the end, I don’t know how much it matters that Theresa Manzella is aggressively ignorant, but any careful observer of the Montana Legislature knows that Manzella is hardly alone. Montana has elected a PSC Commissioner who might be the least informed person in the state of Montana and every year, the Legislature sees a pack of representatives who traffic in conspiracy theories about bike lanes and black helicopters. It’s not that they are ignorant, as it would be cruel to mock someone for circumstances beyond their control, but it is concerning that they seem to seek out ignorant answers to questions that have already been answered by science.
Our republican form of government depends on the values of the Enlightenment: rigorous search for the truth through the careful study of evidence, the application of reason, and a recognition that what is true is often complex. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic at all to worry that the election of people who reject all three—and the accumulated knowledge of the past three centuries of science—because they can’t read and think critically threatens the very foundations of our system of governance, not to mention the lives of children threatened by the kind of legislation Manzella and her Facebook experts hope to pass.
Montana, we can do better. We must do better.