OPINION | Sow Doubt, Reap Treasure: Vaccine Skepticism is Now a Bankable Character Trait

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines underway and different national and international bodies struggling to implement coherent and effective vaccination plans, it is mandatory to take a look at the mangled elephant in the room: vaccine skepticism. Initially seen as a quirky idea of the dispossessed and off-the-grid types, it has now snowballed into a social phenomenon which is actively hurting our attempts to put this pandemic behind us. Vaccine skepticism is no longer representative of a niche; it has reached mainstream culture through media outlets, politicians, popular and religious figures, making it incredibly difficult to navigate even one day of information consumption without bumping head on into it. From the most outlandish theories about the vaccine being an implanting device for microchips to the fact that it contains dead fetuses – these are all manifestations of a phenomenon which has less to do with those who are doubting and more to do with those who are creating and fueling this doubt. It is possible to argue that as it stands, vaccine skepticism is a bankable character trait: it makes money for traditional and new media, it sells products and also, very importantly, it ensures votes and accrues or preserves influence for those in power. 

Vaccines as the Devil 

There was once a time when the mere notion of having a vaccine for a disease was cause for immense celebration. The Polio vaccine is a famous example in recent Western memory but there is a long history of progressively more effective and necessary vaccines being given to large swathes of the global population: chicken pox and measles being diseases which are either kept under control or almost eradicated through the power of science. It seemed a done deal; we immunize each successive generation as they grow up and thus ensure the lowest possible number of deaths. With the involvement of large trusts and international bodies in vaccine programs which were implemented from the African subcontinent to the mountains of Nepal, we have even gotten a chance to forget about the efficiency of this system – the foremost proof that it works. For example, smallpox has existed for 3000 years and is fatal in 30% of cases, and yet was completely eradicated in the human population as of 1979. For measles, the period between 2000-2018 saw 23.2 million deaths prevented by vaccination and a 73% drop in deaths by it

While skeptics have always existed, the modern format of doubt and recalcitrance started in the 1970s with concerns over the whooping cough, and took off with the publication of a (discredited) article by Andrew Wakefield which linked vaccines with autism. His ideas were taken by a small group of believers and with the advent of the internet, spread across the webs. It took very little time for the medical profession to discredit Wakefield – just as little as it took the natural doubters and the predatory doubt-creators to take his work and run with it. Because of a timeline connection (instead of a causal one), some people came forward and said that indeed, their children became autistic after the MMR vaccine. The (baseless) fear against this vaccine caused others to shun all vaccines and, especially if layered together with factors such as fundamentalism and a lack of scientific education, pretty soon there were outbreaks of diseases in communities all across the world.  

There seems to be no end to the number of people who are willing to say and believe outlandish things. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this low-level doubt has turned into outright defiance. We are all very familiar with “Facebook mom groups” – most recently painted as the lavender-scented dens of over-protectiveness where mothers exchange the latest ways in which they can fake their children’s vaccination cards for school. We know there are some high level politicians and diplomats who seem to be very keen on not outright encouraging vaccinations. We also know of uglier things, like anti-vaxxers targeting grieving mothers in order to turn them into crusaders. These manifestations must be seen for what they really are: the effect of conscious manipulation on behalf of societal actors who are dead set on extracting every ounce of value they can from this subject. 

Do you know what sells? 

In Indonesia, the highest clerical body had to declare the COVID-19 vaccines as halal in an effort to encourage the Muslim community to get immunized – and yet there are some saying “they don’t trust something that isn’t organic”.  Italy pushed through emergency legislation to compulsorily immunize health-care workers after hospitals kept developing infection clusters, but the 5Star Movement (an anti-establishment party whose founders’ tagline was the necessity to crack the parliament open “like  a can of tuna”) has kept kindling anti-vaccine doubts. In this context, a former member of the party said that “there were more anti-vaxxers than I had imagined”, but that they took this stance as a form of political opportunism. In the UK and other countries, an independently published newspaper called “The Light: A Truthpaper” was distributed for free in people’s homes with front-page titles such as “COVID Shots Kill and Injure Hundreds”, a claim which was used for its shock-and-awe value rather than its scientific context. This particular paper also encourages people to stop wearing masks and disobey lockdown, heavily uses Facebook and Twitter to promote its message and (very relevant to this discussion) its founder sells anti-pandemic clothing on the side. 

The internet is full of such predatory businesses. For example, Truthwear.uk sells this spectacular shirt with the message “My Body, My Choice” accompanied by an image of a vaccine gun. ZeroHedge, a famous alt-right conspiracy website, consistently posts content aimed at enlightening the general population about the dangers of believing in the pandemic, in vaccinations or in institutions like the World Health Organization – and gains massive website traction on the back of that. A recommended website of theirs (Pandemic Warroom) writes about the U.S. being led by a “priesthood of scientists”. Upon accessing the site, a massive pop-up asks you if you’d like to buy the “Warroom Defense Pack”, i.e. dietary supplements to maintain yourself in “peak condition”. The fine print at the bottom of the page admits that none of their claims have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. A CNN investigation found that anti-vaxxers used MAGA rallies to promote private business ventures. In line with political opportunism, Monmouth University conducted a poll which found that vaccine refusal is driven more by partisanship than demographics

If you are surprised at how easily the human brain can be manipulated into doubt and fear, you shouldn’t be. For starters, fear is one of the most lucrative advertisement models in existence. Fear applies to many things; it can be used to sell you detox teas for fear of shame due to body size, or it can be used to manipulate voter bases through fear politics. It is quite advantageous for both companies and political parties to rev up the engine on the fear scale and the easiest way you can do that is through active misinformed and disinformation campaigns, appealing to emotion and offering collective soothing through the ascription of blame to things or people.  Social media also plays a massive part in how we perceive the world around us. We know that it’s very connected to our reward pathways, we know that there is a strong tendency for individuals who use social media to live in “echo chambers” (effectively providing themselves with a feedback loop of the same positively reinforcing information, most likely due to social media algorithms) and we know that most of us are on it – don’t lie! With social media being like a vortex which sucks people in, the deeper you go, the harder it is to come out. What you see consistently shapes the way you think, and the way you think directly influences your behaviour and actions. Unfortunately – and perhaps this is the source of all pessimism – we are also becoming more and more aware that correcting a falsehood with more or better information is not an effective way of bringing those who are skeptical back. It is a dire situation. 

Where is the fault line?

It is understandable that given decades of successive failures on all fronts on the part of national and international bodies, the general population is primed to be skeptical. However, there is a long way from questioning power to actively maintaining that “there is no such thing as truth” anymore. Seeking alternative narratives is not in itself the problem (after all, alternative narratives are also those opposed to oppression and power mismanagement). The problem is that currently, the alternative narrative framework has been hijacked by a sector of the population who is doing this for a massive power advantage. Entire parties can be voted into parliaments from one day to the next based on populist, fear-mongering agendas (like the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians did in Bucharest last year). Religious leaders can maintain and gain hardline followers by espousing anti-vaccine beliefs (white evangelicals are a strong example of that). 

Humans have an almost desperate need to simplify and categorize things – it aids with our navigation of the world. The anti-vaxxers call believers sheeple, and the sheeple call them insane. We look at those who have gone astray with pity or anger; we blame the crooked doctors, the corrupt politicians, the grieving mothers, the ethnic minorities. As I’m sure is clear, none of this is actually addressing the root cause of the problem. In our current system, we tend to focus on the smallest possible denominator so we can blame something, anything. The real fault lies not with the people who have adopted skepticism as a stand in for identity – the fault lies with the system which is built to both encourage and profit off of these exact situations. Much like diet culture, fast fashion and organic foods, the system that we live in thrives off of constant illusion and delusion, on misperception and uncertainty – because that is truly what sells

There is a lot of science pointing out the weakness of the human brain when it comes to being manipulated through misperception. In his book “The Perils of Perception”, Bobby Duffy addresses a very important point with regards to the dangers of this. In one of the studies conducted under his supervision, three in five people across a multi-country sample were unsure or believed that there was a link between vaccines and autism. The reason why is manifold, and it begins with how emotive the issue is, how bad people are at assessing risk versus hazard, the media keeping the subject alive and center-front and the power of the narratives which are embedded into the claims used by anti-vaxxers. All of these things put together prime an individual to disbelieve or dismiss accurate information shared by reputable sources because of feelings and emotions, rather than because of logical thought. The grounding of anti-vaxx narratives in the collective psyche of those who use it as a way of getting back at the system (ironically because the system primes them) is becoming more and more entrenched and until actors in the field don’t realize the necessity of correcting the system, the anti-vaxx movement will continue to thrive at the expense of human lives.

Is there hope? 

Vaccine skepticism is now a bankable character trait. The people who promote it have been taught that they’re fighting for freedom; that their struggle and oppression are similar to what minorities have gone through over the centuries; their deep sense of identification with the cause is a gold mine for those who profit off of doubt and fear. These are the grandparents who don’t know how to use the internet but are ready to vote for those who would reign the younger generation in; the mothers who are convinced that the worst thing that can happen to their child is immunization, and who thus put all other children at risk; the young men who have seen their wages stagnate and who feel disenfranchised and desperate, but for whom aggressive action against “the oppressors” becomes the only way of letting off steam. 

Some hope that the COVID-19 pandemic is the turning point, the one moment where we will understand the necessity of wide-spread scientific education, education about the difference between risk and hazard, about human biology and most importantly about critical thinking, the most hijacked of terms. There is hope that as we move in time, the effects of this education will become more and more visible in the general population. However, this will require active involvement from governmental and non-governmental actors focused on dethroning the faulty populares, yet under our current system, this is the last thing which is being encouraged. We are not even close to a solution yet. The question of “is there hope” can only be answered one way: hope is all there is, really.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Ana Vlădescu
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Ana is a graduate of the University of Glasgow with an MSc in Global Security and has a BA from Bangor University, Joint Honours in Criminology & Criminal Justice and Psychology. She is passionate about human rights and comparative warfare, and her main academic focus is the study of asymmetric wars, particularly the behaviour of weak actors towards non-combatants in asymmetric dyads, as well as use of ideology during armed conflict. Ana has been working for American Councils Romania since May of 2019, coordinating Youth Programs focused on genocide, civic education and democracy. She is also an avid reader and immersed into pop and internet culture and is interested in subjects such as history, mental health awareness and sex education. 

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