The conspiracies and misinformation associated with Covid-19 have shifted within my workplace on the Tube as the pandemic and the measures to combat it have changed. I hear less about 5G and the disease being fake or the same as flu, and more about fear of the vaccine and myths surrounding the “Great Reset”, the World Economic Forum’s plan for economic revival after the pandemic. Misinformation around the vaccine is what dominates now.
There is really only a handful of people who are passionately convinced by the anti-vaccine theories. They have gone out of their way to read up and listen to the propaganda. But the small number of evangelists have weight on what everyone else thinks.
For them, there is nothing that happens in the world that doesn’t smell fishy. An ulterior and more sinister motive is the cause of everything.
With people who will listen to the out-and-out anti-vaxxers and to me on a more equal footing, I have been trying to gradually shift people’s thinking. The pandemic is real. Actions need to be taken to control it. Vaccinating as many people as possible is a major way out.
My first instincts when hearing something ridiculous is to scoff. I have learnt it does not work. You have to find out how willing people are to talk, and how. Some people welcome discussion in front of others, with multiple views. Others prefer conversation one on one.
The dialogue has to be largely positive. Tackling the weakest or most outlandish proposition put forward won’t cut it. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote that too many leftist polemics would just ridicule some stupid or crass expression of our opponents. He instead proposed that: “It is necessary to engage battle with the most eminent of one’s adversaries if the end proposed is one of raising the tone and intellectual level of one’s followers and not just… of creating a desert around oneself by all means possible”.
To deal with claims that the vaccine is unsafe and has been developed too quickly without adequate testing is far stronger than ridiculing claims that it is a way for Bill Gates to implant a microchip into everyone.
If you engage in this discussion honestly you will get a more fruitful result. Building on ideas like nationalisation of the railways, nationalising big pharma to help tackle future pandemics and other diseases can be a relatively easy argument to make. Or you can get agreement that it would be beneficial to the whole of humanity if wider scientific research had the level of cooperation, funding, and support that has enabled the Covid vaccines to be developed at considerable speed.
A constructive discussion that persuades someone feels less like knocking someone down and more like a dialogue where people are genuinely convinced rather than humiliated. But just a big list of facts won’t cut it, either.
For every source you cite, an alternative will be put forward, and in the moment you cannot prove that your source is better than theirs. For vaccine scepticism, for example, a doctor or an alternative scientist can always be pulled from somewhere to argue that what you, a lay person, have said is false.
The recent Panorama on anti-vaxxers could highlight that most of the people who feature in the anti-vaxx videos that circulate on social media are under investigation, or not real medical doctors, or have been reprimanded for using untested treatments for other diseases, but on the spot you probably won’t be able to do that without hours of previous research.
Most of the time it is not the facts that hold people to conspiracy theories, but some feeling they have. Those feelings can make them see the person they are arguing with as a part of the conspiracy. The endorsement of medical science can make you a “shill of big pharma”, and the fact that you yourself cannot be seen to derive a personal benefit from your supposed work as a “shill” doesn’t do away with the suspicion that someone, somewhere, is benefiting.
Relating to why someone may have potentially hard-to-define feelings that put them off vaccines is also important.
We need to understand that people are interested less in expert opinion and more in the opinion of their peers and others they trust. An argument around scientific consensus is important here, as it is with climate change, but, for quite understandable reasons as well as negative ones, trust in experts whom people do not know is limited.
You will not achieve a knock-out blow from one conversation. Just as with the patient persuading we do when discussing why be a socialist, changing someone’s mindset away from conspiracies is a process. Ideas we have heard repeated have more grip than new information. It takes time for the arguments to filter through.
As I discussed in my previous article, where we can do them, intellectual “inoculation” and “pre-bunking” are better than debunking. Prevention is better than cure.