If we are ever going to emerge from pandemic hell or semi-hell, we have to get a handle on two of the most dangerous aspects of contemporary life: the use of social media to spread disinformation, and the politicization of science–including, especially now, medical science.
Talking Points Memo recently ran a column (behind the paywall, so no link–sorry) from an expert in social media. That column made several points:
- fake news spreads faster than verified and validated news from credible sources. We also know that items and articles connecting vaccines and death are among the content people engage with most.
- The algorithms used by social media platforms are primed for engagement, creating a “rabbit-hole effect”–it pushes users who click on anti-vaccine messages toward more anti-vaccine content. The people spreading medical misinformation know this, and know how to exploit the weaknesses of the engagement-driven systems on social media platforms.
- “Social media is being manipulated on an industrial scale, including by a Russian campaign pushing disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.” Research tells us that people who rely on Facebook for their news about the coronavirus are less likely to be vaccinated than people who get their coronavirus news from any other source.
According to the column, the problem is exacerbated by the way in which vaccine-related misinformation fits into people’s preexisting beliefs.
I was struck by the observation that acceptance of wild and seemingly obvious inaccuracies requires a certain “pre-existing” belief system. That, not surprisingly, gets us to America’s current, extreme political tribalism.
Let me share some very troubling data: To date, some 86% of Democrats have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot–compared with only 45% of Republicans. A Washington Post survey found that only 6% of Democratic respondents reported an intent to decline the vaccine, while 47% of Republicans said they would refuse to be inoculated.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is insane.
Aside from people with genuine medical conditions that make vaccination unwise, the various justifications offered for denying the vaccine range from hypocritical (“pro-life” politicians suddenly defending the right of individuals to control of their own bodies) to legally inaccurate (“freedom” has never included the right to endanger others—if it did, we’d have the “freedom” to drive drunk and ignore red lights), to conspiratorial (COVID is a “hoax” perpetrated by those hated liberals).
Now, America has always had citizens willing to make decisions that endanger others; what is truly mystifying, however, is why such people overwhelmingly inhabit red states— including Indiana.
Every state with large numbers of people who have refused vaccination is predominantly Republican. In several of those states, hospitalizations of unvaccinated COVID patients threatens to overwhelm health care systems. New York, a blue state, has five Covid patients hospitalized per 100,000 people, while red state Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has actually barred businesses from requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination, has 34 per100,000.
DeSantis’ Trumpian approach is an excellent example of just how dramatically the GOP has departed from the positions that used to define it. Whatever happened to the Republican insistence that business owners have the right to determine the rules for their own employees and patrons? (They still give lip service to those rules when the issue is whether to serve LGBTQ customers, but happily abandon them when the decision involves the health and safety of those same patrons.)
And what happened to the GOP’s former insistence on patriotism? Surely protecting others in one’s community from a debilitating and frequently deadly disease is patriotic.
Tribalism has clearly triumphed over logic and self-interest. As Amanda Marcotte recently wrote in Salon,
getting the vaccine would be an admission for conservatives that they were wrong about COVID-19 in the first place, and that liberals were right. And for much of red-state America, that’s apparently a far worse fate than death.
Making vaccine refusal a badge of political affiliation makes absolutely no sense. It does, however, correspond to the precipitous decline of rationality in what was once the “Grand Old Party”—a party now characterized by the anti-science, anti-logic, anti-intellectualism of officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, and Louie Gohmert (who was memorably described by Charlie Savage as “the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse”).
These mental giants (cough, cough) are insisting that vaccination will “magnetize” the body and make keys stick to you, and that Bill Gates is sneaking “tracking chips” into the vaccine doses. (As a friend recently queried, don’t most of those people warning against “tracking devices” own cell phones?? Talk about tracking…)
Talk about buffoonery.
The problem is, these sad, deranged people are endangering the rest of us.