Social media and the fight over vaccines

(Photo by Gustavo Fring)

One of the more interesting consequences of using social media obsessively is you lose the ability to be a persuasive communicator, assuming you ever had it in the first place. Interacting in short bursts with people you do not care to know anything about (who, frankly, may not even be human) trains you to be unpersuasive, in fact.

Because folks on social media are not in possession of any of the raw materials necessary to make a sound and persuasive argument, they tend to skip to logical fallacies and insults right off the bat. They communicate in generalizations that tend not to be true (everyone who disagrees with me is uneducated, a fascist, a dumb Millennial, and so on). They appeal to false authorities, to the perceived popularity of their position. They try to organize others to pile on.

None of this behavior is ever going to change anyone’s mind. You are never going to harass, bully, shame, or humiliate someone into holding a position they did not arrive at organically. If anything, you may make them more confident in the position they have, as you would not be behaving in this manner if you had a logical argument to offer.

When you are trying to make a case to someone in the real world, you are forced to use logic and reasoning. You would not attempt to stereotype or smear your interlocutor to make a point, because you would not be making a point – you’d be on the path to being scorned in polite society or getting fired from your job.

Consider this example. A man is talking to his coworker about whether or not they are getting vaccinated. Only this time, he’s going to talk to the coworker the way he talks to strangers on Twitter.

Man: I finally got my second dose of Pfizer. When are you going to be done with the vaccine?

Coworker: Actually, I have no intention of getting vaccinated.

Man: Are you kidding? I had no idea I was working with an ignorant anti-vaxxer. What the fuck is wrong with you? Did your mom drop you on your head as a child?

Coworker: I am not an anti-vaxxer. I have been vaccinated against many other diseases that I find uncontroversial. After researching it, I simply do not intend to get this specific vaccine.

Man: Oh, so you are one of those conspiracy theorists? I bet you are Q Anon. I bet you think Democrats are kidnapping little children to suck their blood too. I can’t believe we have to share this country with ignorant, uneducated people like you. I wish we could have a civil war and split this country apart so I don’t have to share space with your kind. You mouthbreathers make me sick.

Coworker: I am not uneducated. I have an MBA from a top-ranked university, which actually makes me more educated than you are. I am not Q Anon. I am not even a Republican. I was born with a heart condition and I do not think the government has addressed my concerns about the safety of this vaccine sufficiently. That’s all there is to it.

Man: Um, thinking there might be side effects to this perfectly safe vaccine makes you a conspiracy theorist, my dude. You realize by not getting vaccinated, that’s the same as attempting to murder everyone at our firm. You are probably going to be on a vent and die in a year, you ignorant motherfucker, and I hope it hurts. I hope your mother cries like the mothers of all the babies that you are killing cry.

Coworker: You have a good day.

Man: Wait, I’m not done here. Are you trying to block me, you chickenshit conspiracy theorist? You going to take your ball and go home when someone puts you in you in your place, you fucking coward? Hey, Pete, get over here, you would not believe we have an anti-vaxxer here!

Pete: I told you, if you talk to me again, I am going to the boss. Stay away from me.

Man: Oh, so you are one of those Q Anon dipshits too. I’m going to report all of you to the boss for attempting to murder me.

Pete: You go do that, buddy. I’m sure he’ll add it to your file.

Seems absurd, right? But every single day, millions of conversations like this one are taking place on the internet. And the millions of people having such conversations are becoming habituated to participating in and observing mentally ill rhetoric like this. Those who see it for what it is treat these folks like contrarian indicators of good decision-making. Because that is a rational response to behavior like this.

What’s more amazing, however, is politicians and journalists are among them. The biggest problem in modern politics is that the functionally insane person in this scenario gets put in charge of the federal bureaucracy, which makes his inclination to bully and pile on tyrannical. The biggest problem in media is the functionally insane person in this scenario gets access to a wire service, and gets to blast their petty grievances and smears to the world. That’s pretty much an entire genre of journalism at this point, writing articles about all the shitposting that is happening on Twitter.

Right now, fewer than 50% of American adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, per the CDC. (Some in the media try to exaggerate that number by including people who have only had one shot and people under the age of 18, who don’t have a choice in what happens to them.) That number has flatlined for a while. It is clear that many people received one shot and then decided against getting the second. It is also clear that many of the people who have chosen not to get vaccinated are quite settled in their position.

We are never going to get to 70% or 80% of the population fully vaccinated. My guess is coronavirus shots are going to become a lot like flu shots in the future – they add a new version based on the variant they think is going around, and some minority of people dutifully gets them every year, but the majority of Americans do not. It will probably still be a cash cow for BigPharma though.

The battle regarding vaccines in this country is, as a practical matter, over. With less than half of American adults fully vaccinated, vaccine skepticism is not a hold-out position – it’s the majority opinion, mathematically speaking. Even if these statistics budge a little, it’s not some rogue take to not want to be vaccinated. This is why the government is becoming increasingly desperate in their messaging and even going door-to-door. As more and more places normalize Covid restrictions and Armageddon does not unfold, this is going to become even more evident. Eventually they will normalize travel restrictions and it will really be done.

The biggest obstacle government officials faced in getting the population vaccinated was never manufacturing and distributing vaccines or disinformation online. It’s the fact that they are not regarded as persuasive (or even mentally well) personalities by the majority of the American population, and they keep digging that hole deeper every day. The safety and efficacy of vaccines was just the latest in a long line of issues Americans do not trust institutions to handle, after two acute financial crises within a span of 12 years (both of which benefited the ultra-wealthy and politically connected), decades-long wars predicated on outright lies (that also enriched Washington DC elites), and other catastrophic abuses of power.

This is not some crisis of credibility that can be attributed to Trump or Biden, or any one person. It’s about the behavior of the aggressively online population and how folks in Washington DC try to weaponize them, and often even emulate them. It flat-out disgusts ordinary people and fills them with unease about how the institutions in this country operate.

There is this tendency to portray skeptics as if they are not rational actors or empirical thinkers, a form of dehumanizing them. This is not the behavior of someone who wants to be taken seriously, but adults communicating like Twitter trolls. If you are being even remotely intellectually honest, there are many reasons why a well-educated, rational person would choose not to be vaccinated:

  • They have pre-existing health problems and worry about unknown side-effects. Your data about how “everyone else” reacts to the vaccine is not intellectually relevant to them. They do not regard their physical existence as a statistical numbers game. They want mechanical details to be able to make a good decision. Those are exceedingly difficult to come by in this environment, where even prestigious medical journals resort to censorship and mindless political spats (a mirror of how toxic academia has become). If someone tells you that they are allergic to peanuts and you tell them millions of people eat peanuts every day and they are just fine so eat the damn candy bar, you are not making a persuasive argument. You also are not the smart, informed person in that conversation.
  • They do not trust Big Pharma and believe the bureaucracy is corrupt in the selection of its contractual counterparties – an attitude that has been somewhat ratified by the fact that the government approved Johnson and Johnson to work on a vaccine. How did a company that put carcinogens in sunscreen and is now preparing to file for bankruptcy over talc lawsuits ever get selected to work on a vaccine? Somehow it was supposed to be shocking that a nearly broke company produced a vaccine with lethal side effects? This is what strong control and oversight looks like? (And let’s not even get started on the gain of function research fight, where government officials can’t even answer simple yes or no questions. Let the trust wash over you.) This does not make the process for scientific vetting look robust or honest.
  • Rather than being distrustful of government officials, they took people like Fauci at his word when he claimed masks offer better protection than a vaccine. This seems to be particularly true in minority communities.
  • They are living hand-to-mouth right now and understand the second dose will almost certainly make them very ill, causing them to miss work or not be able to care for vulnerable family members. That’s not something they understood when they got the first dose.
  • They have already had Covid-19 or have otherwise been exposed to it with no serious consequences. They don’t want a vaccine for an illness they have already had. It’s literally only downside risk to them.
  • They live in a state or city that has gone well over a year without any coronavirus restrictions and it’s been no big deal to them. They think the risks associated with Covid are overblown. (Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes? Somehow, they did not have difficulty during the Black Plague convincing people the plague even existed. One wonders why.)
  • They are watching the government devolve into police-state tactics like getting skeptics censored online, or deplatformed entirely, and making official lists of people who have not sought out the vaccine, and it makes them question officials’ motives.
  • They wonder why our country has a man in his 80s at the head of a project like this. Why is this man who is so busy saving the world posing for fashion magazines? They look at the absurdist models government agencies have gone back to citing, which make hurricane spaghetti models look precise by comparison. Americans got to look under the hood of government agencies during this episode, and it was not pretty.
  • They see objectively false information being reported and circulated in mainstream outlets, and it makes them doubt anything they see or read is real. Living in South Florida, where activist journalists have it out for a governor who is regarded by many as the next Republican presidential nominee, this has been a major problem. I recently saw the reporter that the New York Times has assigned to cover Miami tweeting that Miami hospitals (where barely over 50% of hospital staff have chosen to be vaccinated) are full of people in their 20s and 30s who are gravely ill and will likely need lung transplants. This is a baldly false claim, made about people living in a state that publishes real-time data on hospitalizations online for any interested person to see. Reporters are so comfortable in their political activism now that they don’t even care they can be fact-checked with a 30-second Google search. They just keep cranking to an audience that is becoming increasingly mentally ill. I have lost count of the number of people I have encountered who say they consume zero news at all now because it’s all garbage, and they aren’t wrong.
  • They watched government officials and the media minimize the number of “breakthrough” cases until they became quite large. They watch White House press conferences where Psaki will not say how many people in the White House tested positive for Covid, and admits that even the White House does not require workers to be vaccinated. (Yes, they are going door-to-door to convince people to do something that some of them refuse to do themselves.) They have watched countless politicians break their own rules over the past two years, which suggests they have never taken the risks seriously themselves, despite having inside information. They watch politicians and their lemmings cheer on opponents testing positive like it’s merely one in an infinite series of social media gotcha games, not an actual illness. These folks look like bona fide psychopaths to outsiders. Why would you trust people like this on any topic under the sun?

All of these are logical and valid reasons to have a contrarian position on vaccines. It’s this theater of trying to pretend they are not that is permanently destroying discourse in this society: “Everyone who disagrees with me is an ignorant hillbilly who thinks there are microchips in the vaccines.” They have made a big show of trying to stomp down skeptics, treating them like they are sub-human and irrational threats that must be physically brought to heel and silenced, and that’s going to be the legacy of this entire enterprise. They could have not sown panic, and instead spoke rationally and clearly about risks. They could have spoken about medical interventions as if they were sober courses of action, not political litmus tests. They could have not treated schoolchildren as pawns. We would have had a wildly different past two years. But they did not, and the lack of good faith is now permanently embedded in the psyches of several generations of Americans.

The best thing any politician in this country could do is get off of social media and start talking to their constituents with a modicum of intellectual charity. The problem is, they think they are running for President of Twitter. And they keep becoming more and more poisonous to our civil society, taking every single one of our social institutions down with them.

7 thoughts on “Social media and the fight over vaccines

  1. It’s scary, sad, but also a little fascinating to see how these people defend the vax as if they are defending their actual lives from a menacing threat. I can’t decide if there really are that many totally brainwashed, unable to think for themselves people, or is social media just using bots to make it look that way. What’s crazy is that these same people defend every single special interest group, EXCEPT people who want the freedom to make their own health decisions, oh and homeschoolers, and Christians, and White people. Never mind. They only defend the rights of gays and non-white, non-Christian women. But they are all supposedly fighting fascism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So this is what I just don’t get, and it’s not even particularly about vaccines. Regulatory capture (where there’s a revolving door between the regulators and the industry being regulated, or some other financial incentive) used to be taken very seriously as a political topic. Now there are millions of Americans who don’t even want to consider the possibility that money might be driving certain behaviors at all. They wear it as a badge of moral courage to be unskeptical. It’s so freaking weird! Americans weren’t even like that in WW2.

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      1. Yes, very strange. But are there really that many going along with all this, or is it a false perception created by the media? When I talk to actual people, they don’t seem so stupid.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s the point I was trying to make in the post, that it’s not the majority opinion in the country and most of it is just gaslighting (to use a word I loathe). But I do look at some of these people passionately, belligerently unskeptical people and think, man, this is some bizarro collective mental illness they have going on now.

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      3. Agreed. I follow the Texas Tribune on facebook just to see what those nuts are saying. Occasionally I will comment and I get attacked by belligerent, illogical, non-thinkers (possibly paid to do it) every time. However, I also see other people disagreeing with the liberal articles they post.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Facebook is less prone to sockpuppet accounts because it requires more personal information to sign up, IMO. On Twitter, it seems like half the responses you see now are not human. I’m sure China, Russia, and Iran have troll farms at this point that try to maximize divisive content. And the people who live on that hellsite and think it is real are unhinged. Even among conservatives who live on Twitter, the things they think are “popular” in the US now are nuts. It’s so difficult to explain to folks (especially older folks) that they are wasting their life fighting machines that are run by intellectual terrorists with various agendas.

        Liked by 1 person

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