Mocking anti-vaxxers on Twitter won't convince people to get vaccinated

but hey, whatever makes you feel good

You should get vaccinated. I really think you should. My girlfriend (a nurse) was vaccinated in December of 2020. I was vaccinated several months later. My 14-year-old is vaccinated. My parents are vaccinated. We’re all fine. It was actually a huge psychological relief when I got that first shot. Like a weight had been lifted. I am eagerly awaiting approval for younger kids because I’d really like my 11-year-old to get the vaccine.

Vaccines can save your life and help save the lives of others. A fully vaccinated populace would mean a return to something like normal, bolster the economy and ensure that schools aren’t shutting down left and right, not to mention protect those with immune disorders.

I have said some form of “please get vaccinated” on Twitter and Facebook, including linking to this study that COVID-19 can cause erectile dysfunction, because I hope my words will convince people. What I’ve tried not to do is engage in snide mockery of anti-vaxxers—or those who are simply unconvinced about this specific vaccine—many of whom I know come from poor and minority communities with higher levels of distrust in government.

Black and Hispanic Americans are generally more hesitant to get the vaccine than white Americans. Rural Americans are less likely than urban Americans. There are obviously many exceptions, but that’s how the numbers break down.

It’s something to consider when you fire up Twitter to shoot off some tweets about how disgusted you are with those stupid, ignorant anti-vaxxers. Maybe in your mind it’s just some middle-aged Karen with a sign comparing the vaccine to Nazi Germany, but that’s just a caricature. You realize that, right? Plenty of people out there have doubts about the vaccine who aren’t frothing right-wing lunatics.

I thought we were supposed to be fighting for universal healthcare and that the pandemic underscores how deeply atrocious and inequitable our current healthcare system is and how desperately we need change.

Universal healthcare for everyone includes ‘TRUMP’S IRRESPONSIBLE ANTI-VAXXERS’ whether you like it or not, and nobody—no matter how uninformed—should be bankrupt for medical treatment.

Peak capitalism meets peak partisanship and Occupy Democrats is the embarrassing result. The culture wars are more important than anything else, remember, and the vaccine is the new nexus of said wars.

But what about holding anti-vaxxers accountable?

Cool, John, accountable to whom may I ask? To you? To the government? Should we lock them up and take their children away? Or, um, something something “freedom isn’t free.” Mmmmkay.

If we’ve failed so badly at convincing people to get the vaccine, aren’t we—the chattering class—to blame? Or at least we shoulder some of it. The experts and the media and the political class are to blame, and human nature is to blame, and I’ll toss god onto the fire as well. We can blame whichever deity you like while we’re at it. Let’s also blame decades—centuries—of racist policies and overreach. Mass incarceration thanks to tough-on-crime measures and the War on Drugs that hits poor and minority communities the hardest; doctors sterilizing Native American women without their consent or knowledge; economic and trade polices that have led to massive layoffs as American manufacturing has fizzled out, making it ever harder for the working class to live with dignity; wars abroad and here at home; an opioid pandemic that was killing Americans before COVID-19 was a twinkle in that leaky Chinese laboratory’s eye.

It’s not hard to understand why some people wouldn’t want to receive a brand-new vaccine if you really sit down and think about it and take five goddamn minutes in the muck, off your high horses. It’s also not hard to understand why people don’t trust the “experts” and your Facebook meme about how you don’t diagnose your own illnesses and you don’t change your own tires and you don’t like take seismic readings and shit because you “trust the experts” is annoying. Not clever, not helpful, just annoying.

I use scare quotes around “experts” because even these very smart scientific types have shown that they know very little and that they’re quick to change their minds, and statements, about the virus. I get why, I really do, this is a novel virus that we’re still learning about daily, but the optics matter and the optics have been egregious (who thought putting the CDC in charge of messaging was a good idea again?)

How much flip-flopping can the public endure before people just throw their hands up in disgust and say “These clowns really don’t know what they’re talking about why should we believe them?” Why should we believe these jokers who tell us one thing and then another thing and now want us to put a rushed-to-market vaccine into our arms? Into our children’s arms?

(And yes, I know that hundreds of millions of people have taken the vaccines and they appear to be perfectly safe, but we’d be lying to ourselves to say this was anything like a normal vaccine roll-out and plenty of people are distrustful of vaccines that have been around for decades).

It doesn’t help that the media has rushed every story, breathlessly telling readers that masks are not necessary one week and that they’re the only thing preventing certain death the next. Distrust in government and media was already at all-time highs, and this pandemic has added “experts” to the list of groups we should not take very seriously (unless, of course, we agree with them, much like the government and the media we agree with, then it’s fine).

The bafflement some liberals display at anti-vaccine sentiment is almost as bizarre to me as the mockery.

Well polio was around for thousands of years before researchers began working on vaccines in the early 1930s. The first effective polio vaccine, however, wasn’t developed until 1952 by Jonas Salk and mass vaccinations didn’t kick off in the United States until 1955 after extensive trials, one of which left some kids dead (behold the origin story of anti-vaccine sentiment). An alternative, orally administered live-virus vaccine rolled out in 1961. By 1979 we proclaimed polio effectively eradicated. This is a timeline of nearly 50 years.

In other words, many years and a great deal of research went into the polio vaccine, and at the time it first came out, people—deeply afraid of contracting polio—were only too happy to have their kids vaccinated.

Fear over vaccines cropped up later as stories of bad side-effects (including vaccine-induced polio) made the rounds. We have decades of growing division and mistrust in this country between now and when Robert Reich lined up so dutifully to get his shot. Or am I mistaken and we still live in a pre-Vietnam America that was all sunshine and roses?

All I know is that hopping on Twitter and mocking people for not getting vaccinated and pounding your chest and acting Very Superior and Very Disappointed in the unwashed masses’ refusal to do what you’re telling them to do is probably not a great strategy, rhetorically or politically.1

It’s kind of like thinking that punching a white supremacist and then running away will somehow like totally stop racism or something. Or laughing about “punching Nazis” on Twitter will make some sort of statement about racial inequalities rather than just make Nazis want to punch back. Might feel good, sure, but probably isn’t going to lead to any meaningful changes. (Actually, it turns out that talking to white supremacists is a more effective strategy—just ask Daryl Davis).

People aren’t going to read your snarky tweet and think “Oh dude, yeah, this liberal white dude from San Francisco just made fun of me and everyone like me, I’m totally gonna go get vaccinated now!” As though the social pressure of some randoms on Twitter is stronger than the social pressure of your own community.

Of course, this performative Twitter shit isn’t actually designed to change hearts and minds, it’s all for attention and social boosting. It’s preaching to the choir and basking in the warm glow of affirmation and reaffirmation and re-reaffirmation. It’s the liberal version of talking tough which, I mean, c’mon guys. You’re not very good at this.

Here’s Paul Waldman in the Washington Post:

FDA approval will also probably convince more companies to begin demanding that their employees be vaccinated. All of this, we can hope, will create an atmosphere in which being unvaccinated by choice will mean voluntarily marginalizing oneself from society. If you’re determined to make that statement about yourself, that you’re the kind of person to whom “freedom” means taking the chance of infecting other people with a virus that has killed millions, we’re going to do everything we can to isolate you.

To those who say “mocking those people will never convince them to take the vaccine!”, let me suggest that it’s too late to persuade them. I’m not talking about the hesitant and the uncertain — they can be persuaded, and we need to redouble efforts to reach them. But when you see that in Mississippi — which like many states with low vaccination rates is now being ravaged by the delta variant — the state’s chief public health official felt compelled to make a public plea for people to stop drinking livestock dewormer, since a good number got the idea that it’s a treatment for covid, you have to ask if there’s anything at all that would persuade committed refusers.

Actually, we know how they got the dewormer idea: the supercharged rumor-spreading machine known as social media. Over the weekend, Facebook reluctantly admitted that “an article raising concerns that the coronavirus vaccine could lead to death was the top performing link in the United States on its platform from January through March of this year.”

It’s gotten to the point where at a rally on Saturday in Alabama of his most loyal dead-enders, former president Donald Trump said that while he believes in everyone’s freedom, “I recommend: take the vaccines. I did it. It’s good. Take the vaccines,” and boos rang out.

Waldman trots out the mockery line and follows it by saying it’s “too late to persuade” people as though this is some innate truth he’s in possession of. But how does he know? And what’s his alternative? Um, I guess it’s to “isolate” anti-vaxxers which I think is supposed to happen via vaccine passports or like, uh, mass shaming on Twitter or something.

Oh, and clamping down on those pesky Facebook posts that we deem problematic. Social media is a place where rumors and misinformation are spread so we should . . . encourage more censorship and politicization of Facebook? Won’t anti-vaxxers just go somewhere else, to an even more dangerously cloistered echo chamber?

“They won’t disappear, but we can treat them like social pariahs,” writes Waldman from on high, peering down from his tower of self-satisfaction. “And if they don’t like it? They can go ahead and wallow in their fantasies of oppression and courageous independence. Nobody said “freedom” was free.”

Ah, there it is again. Freedom isn’t free. Such an original observation.

Just a quick reminder that black and Hispanic Americans are being vaccinated at far lower rates than white people so maybe you want to check that white privilege before writing your next Op/Ed. Same applies to these next twitter warriors:

White liberal America spent last summer pretending to care Very Deeply about BLM and “defund the police” and all that frothy social justice goodness (White Fragility is a best-seller because White Guilt is real) but when you lump all anti-vaxxers into your “fucking babies” statement you’re actually talking about a lot of black and brown people, many of whom aren’t big fans of Trump (or your stupid defund the police nonsense for that matter). You guys sure you’re okay saying this stuff when you’re referring to an awful lot of minorities here? Just making sure.

Could it be that having conversations might, in fact, be a better strategy than calling people “fucking babies” or whining very publicly on Twitter that you’re “EFFING TIRED” like OMG is it so hard to be you? Like how many of these people actually interact in real life with anti-vaxxers?

I’m sure anti-vaxxers will read these tweets and think “Yeah okay good points, we are infantile and we’re making the liberals sad which makes us sad. Let’s get poked.”

One of the prime motivators for Trump’s most ferocious base is to own the libtards. The politics of Schadenfreude are strong in MAGA land. But they’re pretty damn strong everywhere these days. It’s just that sanctimonious liberals scolding and wagging fingers at Trumpers and anti-vaxxers doesn’t actually do anything but make their hatred for liberals and everything they stand for burn brighter—and that includes the vaccine, unfortunately, despite Trump’s continued pleas for people to get vaccinated.

Why even engage in this type of behavior? If you’re so sure that the anti-vaccine camp won’t change their minds based on arguments, why not try to create incentives for people who are on the fence instead?2

What about just paying people to get vaccinated? $1,000 cash money (and send it out to everyone who’s already been vaccinated also, and I do mean everybody because means-testing was created by the devil and only does the devil’s work). Maybe $500 after the first shot and $500 after the second. No need for vaccine passports or snarky tweets, just cold hard cash. It would be cheaper than extending the pandemic and caring for the sick. Money speaks a whole lot louder than words, and especially tweets and Facebook memes.

The problem with all this rhetoric—the mocking of people who don’t trust the “experts” or who distrust a brand-new vaccine touted by said experts—is that it makes people dig in harder. It creates an Us vs Them dynamic that has no business in a public health debate. It intensifies the dysfunction that’s already running this country into the ground. It’s great for people who make a living on that shit3—the Tucker Carlsons and the Rachel Maddows and the politicians—but not for the rest of us.

How many of these smarmy Blue Checks have actually gone out into the country—into the actual country, where real people live—and talked to anti-vaxxers? Talked with rural Americans or Black Americans or Native Americans who, for perfectly good reasons, have a lot of mistrust in Uncle Sam and other institutions? Recall, Big Pharma is largely responsible for the horrific opioid pandemic that’s left countless Americans dead across the country.

Perhaps some folk out there are hesitant to put their lives in the hands of companies with such a callous disdain for human suffering. Perhaps they have other perfectly good reasons but could still be persuaded by someone who’s easy to talk to, who listens. That’s a lot harder than shooting off a tweet—it’s actually a little frightening—and it’s a lot less glamorous than writing an Op/Ed for the Washington Post, but at least it has some chance at actually working.

Whatever. I know that in the hierarchy of beliefs in this country “listening and talking with people with whom we disagree” is way at the bottom of the totem pole. We’d rather make sure our peers know just how effing tired we are of those fucking deplorable babies and how superior we are for listening to the experts and getting jabbed in the arm like it’s some heroic act and not just a very pragmatic one.

I strongly urge everyone to get vaccinated. Millions of people have and the side-effects are vanishingly rare for the vast majority of them, and even then usually not as bad as COVID-19 symptoms and long-term effects. I urge everyone to be decent and respectful and take whatever steps you can to stop the spread of this thing, whether that’s masks or social distancing or not sending your sniffly kid to school. But all of this I consider part of a larger project that we put far too little stock in these days:

To be excellent to each other. And party on.

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1

The doom and gloom of it all is especially galling when you consider that 72% of adults in this country have been vaccinated, which is pretty amazing. Indeed, between 1955 and 1966 some 30 million American children were vaccinated for polio. These appear to be equally impressive feats.

2

You probably won’t change the truly die-hard anti-vaccine community’s mind no matter what you do, but we can still find ways to convince those on the fence which, I believe, is a larger population than the truly die-hard crowd. But if arguments don’t work, and mockery doesn’t work, then we’re left with sticks and carrots. I’m not opposed to either. If businesses want to require employees to be vaccinated, that’s their right. If public schools require masks, that’s their right also. But let’s not forget the carrots.

3

I’m adding Sherri Tenpenny to this post after a reader clued me into her hackery. I think public figures like Tenpenny who use their influence and “expertise” to try to actively stop people from getting the vaccine or stop schools from requiring it or masks, should have their ideas put to the test and called out. Tenpenny says the vaccine will make you magnetic. This is obviously ludicrous. I am still not Magneto and that makes me very sad. By all means, write resounding criticisms of the pundits and hacks who are fueling anti-vaccination sentiment, but remember that a lot of people out there, their opinions and beliefs are still up for grabs. How do you win them over? That’s the question.