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Anti-vax: what influences the influencers?

February 25, 2021

Today is a big day in my family. You could call it Maximum Vax Day. Why? Because it will be 22 days since my wife and I received our first dose of the COVID vaccine. According to the manufacturer, it’s the day on which our immunity to the virus reaches the expected level of effectiveness.

We plan to celebrate by making a cake. I admit it’s a strange way to mark a milestone that has arrived without any noticeable change in physical make-up or function. It’s not as if we’ve grown a couple of inches or developed the rippling bodies of Marvel heroes.

Physically, it’s just another day. The same aches and pains of advancing years are still there. In fact, they’re probably worse, thanks to three months of lockdown inactivity.

But psychologically, the impact is immense. The sense that our personal defences against the invisible fiend that notionally swirls around us every time a puffing jogger passes us in the park, or when we fearfully set foot in a supermarket, have been boosted to the point that we are unlikely to get seriously ill or die if it colonises our noses or lungs, is immensely reassuring.

As much as anything else, we feel that we can now safely catch a cold without fearing that we’re on a path towards the ventilator. Though strangely enough, in the past year neither of us has suffered a hint of the sneezes and sniffles that normally come at you from nowhere as surely as the seasons change. That’s what comes of living in a bio-bubble, I guess.

The basis of our relative ease, when it comes down to it, is faith. Faith in the science behind the vaccine, faith in those who developed it and faith in the public health officials who have pronounced it to be safe.

Take that faith away, or undermine it, and everything changes.

Which brings us, of course, to the anti-vax phenomenon. I won’t call it a “movement” because I don’t think that’s what it is, at least on the evidence of a documentary in the BBC’s Panorama series that I saw last night. Panorama was once a current affairs flagship. It has predated all others in Britain by several decades. It’s somewhat diminished these days, in the face of rival terrestrial offerings, and also the myriad of channels on YouTube.

But its most recent offering made a fair stab at exploring the fears of those who are hesitating to take the jab, and the disinformation that is stirring up those fears. At the heart of the programme was a YouTube film that showed a succession of medical professionals repeating many of the standard anti-vax messages. It will make you infertile, it will modify your DNA, it uses animal products, it’s a plot to control you and so on.

There were interviews with anti-vaxxers, as well as with a focus group whom they asked to watch the video. Most of the group expressed misgivings after watching it, although they were sufficiently reassured by an immunologist who answered their concerns and debunked the disinformation.

It turned out that a number of the people on the video have been barred from medical practice. One who was interviewed, a British nurse, had been the subject of a story a couple of months ago. Though this was not mentioned in the programme, her son claims that she has become so obsessed with vaccination conspiracy theories that he can no longer communicate with her. A classic case of down the rabbit hole, it seems.

It disappointed me, though, that Panorama didn’t delve into the motivation of the people were featured on the anti-vax video, and particularly of those who put it together. Why would you try to sabotage the best hope of mitigating the catastrophic effects of the pandemic? How can you claim, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that COVID is a hoax?

They didn’t manage to interview the video makers, leaving one to speculate that their motivation was simple: to make money through repeated viewings on YouTube and Instagram. The effect of such disinformation seems undeniable. Here’s a graph from a survey in the US. It may or may not be reliable, but the trends are telling:

Whatever the motivation of the instigators, the techniques behind much of the misinformation are clear. To understand them, a useful reference point is the six principles of influence defined by Dr Robert Cialdini, an American psychologist, a couple of decades ago. Three of them seem to be obvious sources.

The first is authority. People look to figures of authority – in this case medical professionals – to establish and reinforce their beliefs. Then there’s commitment and consistency. People hold beliefs that are consistent with their values. So if you’re a believer in one conspiracy theory, you’re likely to believe in another. And the third principle is consensus. If all members of your peer group believe in something, you’re likely to believe in it too.

By understanding the methods of persuasion employed by the anti-vaxxers, you can then come up with counter-strategies. Hence the use in communities where hesitancy is widespread of authority figures with credibility within those communities to debunk the falsehoods. Local doctors, celebrities and religious leaders, for example.

The toughest nut of all to crack would seem to be consensus. I still find it incredible that within groups most severely affected by the virus, such as black and Asian communities, resistance is highest. And in America, the idea that among white Republicans 60% might either be unsure or committed anti-vaxxers is equally strange, until you realise that this section of the population is most likely to buy into the likes of QAnon.

To me, Cialdini’s principles make so much sense that they should be part of the curriculum at every school and adult education institution. We need to understand how influence works so that we can recognise the techniques being used on us both for benign and malign purposes.

Calculated, malign and well-presented disinformation is one of the themes of the past decade. Vaccine hesitancy is just one of the by-products. Countering the lie machines has spawned a whole industry of counter-influencers, analysts and communicators.

But the principles haven’t changed, only the vectors, in the form of the social media. You could argue that there’s nothing new under the sun, excepting only the intensity of the light.

What influences the influencers? No easy answer. But if we’re to fill the gaps in the vaccination programme, and not just in the UK, we need to use every tactic in the book to counter the malign and reassure the fearful.

Now for the cake. Coffee, chocolate or vanilla? No easy answer either.

  1. Not bad Steve.

  2. Mocha, please

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