Anti-Vaxxers and How We Got Here

Fascinating that Americans are so divided and alienated, that it isn’t that we won’t or don’t talk to each other; it is that we simply CAN’T.

For instance, I saw a commercial that was stark black and white depicting nurses and doctors saying, “You trust us with your health decisions, now trust us with the vaccine.” And then it cut from one doc to another, all saying, Trust us, trust us, trust us, trust us.”

 And this is stupid because it takes a good concept, ie. Doctors are trustworthy, and nurses work hard to save lives, but presents it as if Orwell had written it in 1984. The billboard on the side of I94 that says, “Eat beef. Beef is real meat” is ineffective for the same reason. If you have to tell me your beef is meat, it makes me wonder what is really in there. But then, I am probably not the target audience. If you show a beef lover the same billboard, he just says “Yeah, that sounds delicious! Chicken sucks!”

What we have here is a description of in-group and out-group, and how the same message might be seen differently by two different people. The same is true for vaccines and politics. There has already been a lot of research done on brain morphology, politics, and how an archetypal conservative and an archetypal liberal can look at the same image and come away with different impressions.  We are talking about implicit bias, motivated reasoning, and heuristics. The decision-making that occurs pre-consciously and is difficult to defend against. It is just a built-in feature of evolutionary biology, and it is systematically employed against us by bad people.  It is all made worse by search engine algorithms that are built NOT to give us the truth, but to funnel us (and like-minded peers) to content we like and agree with.  People create content to appeal to certain demographics so that they can sell targeted advertising. People consuming such false information are what conmen call the mark.

But let’s step back. There are people who believe all kinds of things. There are people who believe in things like government mind control, lizard people, pedophile rings in pizza places, that vaccines cause autism, and that people are not really dying of covid but that medical examiners all over the country are just all lying independently because they are part of some overarching conspiracy whose aims are as unknown as they are devious. They seek power and control, and it all begins by making you wear a mask and get vaccinated so that you will be obedient sheep with microchips in your blood. They will track you and use mind control and… Woah woah woah.

Slow down. Breathe.

The sad thing is that this all started because Trump did not want to admit there was an actual pandemic unfolding. I mean, he immediately went to racism and called it the China virus, and that united his base up for a while, but when Americans started dying en masse, he had to downplay it to keep his ratings up. He implied that it was a hoax, he said it was a liberal conspiracy, and then he promised that it would go away on its own “like a miracle.”  Then he thought people should shine uv lights on their blood, take anti-malaria pill, and/or drink bleach. I mean, this is not a great thinker, folks. Watching him fire these ideas off at a press conference, shooting from the hip was embarrassing, and the look on Dr. Deborah Birx’s face was kind of like watching a teacher listen to a kid bs his way through a report on Moby Dick. “It was…uhm…a bad whale, and the Captain was…uhm…maybe really hungry for whale meat…” I mean, we’ve all been that kid, but dang, this is the President. It was just bizarre. But the thing about being in an in-group is that you have go along with it or the jig is up. It was the emperor’s new clothes. And Trump supporters either had to admit that they had supported an idiot, or they had to double down. 

It’s hard to admit when we are wrong. Which is kind of the most important electoral strategy these days. Trickle down economics doesn’t work. It never has. But it would be a shame to admit that now.

So later, when Trump actually contracted covid 19, it was easy to pivot to, “See, he got well quickly. It is not a big deal at all, you liberal crybabies.”  At least, it was easier to do that than to say, “Oh, I guess I was wrong and was lied to and fell for it. It really is real.”  It might have causes some cognitive dissonance, but by that point, the believers were totally into it emotionally and intellectually.  Believers could not have pulled out, even after he got vaccinated and THEN started recommending that others get it too. By then, people were fully submerged in the swamp he had led them to. 

I’ll say it again. It is hard to admit when you were wrong.

Once you have argued with your friends and family about it, once you have told everyone what stupid sheep they are for listening to their doctors instead of a twice-impeached former game show host, it is really hard to change course.  So NOW, even though calling it a hoax and downplaying it is no longer politically expedient, the antivaxxers are still left carrying water for this guy who really didn’t care about their safety or well-being and just wanted to get re-elected. Is it really credible to believe that the politician who has lied over 20,000 times on record cares more about your health than the doctors and nurses who gave their life to the study of it?  It’s ludicrous. If you were given bad information, it isn’t your fault. But if you keep believing bad information in the face of mountains of good information, then that’s on you.  

But how do you move on from bad information to good? It is difficult at the least. Search engine algorithms made people think they’re as smart as doctors, and our reinforced cognitive biases are hard to examine critically. At the same time, on the other end of the spectrum you have propaganda pages like We Are Paul Revere where they congratulate one another on being unvaxxed, owning the libs. etc…. But they are on this page not because it presents the truth, and not because it is the best source of information. People are on this page because a search engine developer knew that ad revenue would follow. And the people here reinforce each other in their misbeliefs.

The CRAZY thing is that if I were a liberal who wanted Republicans to die of covid 19, THAT is exactly the kind of page I would make. More Florida republicans have died of covid at this point than DeSantis’s margin of victory. But you can’t tell them that. They have such elaborately constructed towers of falsity and conspiracy, you can’t even scale it, much less tear it down and replace it with truth. I mean, you point out all the people who have died of it, and they say, “Oh, well, they didn’t die of covid.” Then of what? We had an excess mortality rate of almost 500,000 people last year. Were they all just unlucky? Then they say, “Oh, well, they had comorbidities.” As if someone with asthma were somehow less deserving of life.  Remember those death panels that Sarah Palin was on about? Pot, meet kettle, kettle, this is pot.

How quickly any dissenting information is dismissed with nonsense. Yet at the same time, the people who actually know what is happening, epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, etc…. are incapable of talking to these people in a way that does not further out-group them. Antivax people are the same kind of cult as the church who sends out door to door missionaries. The point is NOT to make more members, the point is to show the missionaries how safe the church congregation feels after a day of getting doors slammed in your face. Antivaxers keep getting doors slammed in their faces, and rather than accept that the world doesn’t work the way they want it to, they retreat to safe enclaves like this and reinforce their out-group status as a source of pride. 

See what I did there? I out-grouped them. I compared them negatively to another group (one that they probably respect, no less), and now that reinforces that I am the enemy, that is it them against us, and that the best way to show me and my kind is to not get vaccinated and remain free and happy and healthy. That’s great, if it works out for you. But the vast majority of people getting infected now are not vaccinated.

The next line of defense is, “Oh yeah, what about Israel? They have high vaccination rates and most of the people who are getting delta are vaccinated. See, it doesn’t work!!!” Except it does.

Most Israelis are vaccinated, so most of the people getting covid now have been vaccinated, because that’s the pool. That’s just numbers. The vaccine provides less protection for the delta variant than the earlier variant, but it still provides good protection, and certainly better than none. What we are talking about is a small number of vaccinated people having breakthrough infections that are not extremely severe vs. many more people having had much more debilitating illnesses before the vaccine was created.

Compounding the ingroup/outgroup problem is that that feeling of us vs them,  that everyone is against us, and so on, leads to a bunker mentality, group think, and a kind of unconscious need for a hero, someone to come in and save the day and right the wrongs, someone to punish the people who have betrayed us. We see this with Q promising endlessly that someday soon Hillary is going to be arrested, ad nauseum. None of that is real, and none of that is going to happen. The one thing this DOES do is make the true believers prime targets for anyone who can come in and monetize that. And that gave us charlatans like Andrew J Wakefield who told us vaccines cause autism, even though he had a conflict of interest, fudged his results and lost his medical license. Like the lawyer Thomas Renz, who failed the bar exam the first four times her took it, and has little legal experience, but then realized he could hitch his wagon to the anti-vax donation gravy train.  He has raked in 250k in donations this year to fight against vaccine and mask mandates. Not a bad living for a guy with few prospects, as long as he can sleep at night. These are people who had dead-ended and realized lies are the best way left for them to make money. You’re smart enough not to be their mark.

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