Snapshot In Time
COVID-19 is real. The new virus was killing many people in many countries. There was a risk that millions of people would die like in the 1918 flu
Hospitals were overwhelmed with the number of patients. Many people were dying because they just couldn’t get medical care
The stock market crashed
30 million people were in danger of becoming homeless in the United States
Entire business sectors were threatened with bankruptcy
There was no more room for dead bodies inside hospitals, so refrigerated trucks were brought in for storage and parked outside
“… the pandemic has created a demand shock, a supply shock, and a financial shock all at once (Triggs and Kharas 2020).”
An emergency was declared by the United Nations and every country on Earth.
Propaganda = Information, Biased or Misleading, that Promotes Particular Point of View
Obviously, leaders across the world were scared. When a vaccine was developed quickly, the next step was to get people to take it.
Enter the messaging.
Below are short clips featuring celebrities trying to create social pressure to get people to take the COVID vaccine. Of course, “celebrity” is a relative term. While someone may flutter the heart of my teenaged niece, I would just ask the nice young man to reach for the flour on the top shelf for me.
“No One is Safe Until Everyone is Safe”
It’s an interesting video. Clearly someone came up with “no one is safe until everyone is safe” for media figures to keep chanting to an annoyed populace. I really encourage you to watch at least the start of this video montage. It’s almost the recipe for propaganda, both in its representation of the pro-vaccine message and its mockery of it.
Xavier Becerra - “We want to make sure people can discern the truth…. Make sure that everyone knows that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Antony Blinken, Jeff Zients, Michael Sheldrick, Dr. Michelle McMurray-Heath, Charles Michel, Seinem Kalemli-Ozcan, Dr. Julie Gerberding, Sen. Bob Casey, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Washington Post, New York Times, Tony Blair, World Health Organization, Medhi Hassan, Face the Nation, CBS the Morning, CNN, ORF, Richard Quest, Dr. Hans Kluge, President George W. Bush, the United Nations, Mark Green, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Bono, Melissa Fleming, Bill Gates, some German guy, Gov. Kathy Hochul, President Joe Biden, Mika Brezinski, Dr. Lena Wen, Don Lemon, Howard Stern, Jim Cramer, Gene Simmons, Sean Penn, Keith Olbermann, Jennifer Aniston, Cenk Uyghur, Piers Morgan, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah, Ethan Siegal, ESPN commentators during a basketball game, Toure Neblett, Rachel Maddow, Ben Shapiro, Gov. Jim Justice, NPR, etc.
But we have to ask ourselves - is it deliberately misleading? I think not - because the people who created the message really believe it. Then, could it still be propaganda?
The message in question is repeated constantly, ala FoxNews. The human tendency to believe what is heard over and over again is a well-known cognitive bias, hence repetition as a tactic. It is a persuasion tactic, and also a propaganda one. Salespeople do it. Politicians do it. Alex Jones does it.
Of course, that is not enough. After the message is delivered so that almost every non-comatose American has seen it, in comes the assurances.
“If you get the vaccine, you will not get COVID,” Dr. Fauci says on CNN. Then the headlines that he test positive for COVID. What do you know? The same happens for multiple people.
I am not stating a position on taking the COVID vaccine. We are simply examining the messaging and counter-messaging surrounding efforts to get people to take the vaccine.
Then the shaming.
“Jennifer Aniston is cutting everyone who hasn’t had the vaccine out of her life.” A whole reel of political and social celebrities guilt trip the vaccine-resistant.
“Unvaccinated people are a threat!” is repeated a few times, as is “The war against COVID-19.” From Geraldo Rivera:
They should be banned from the VA, banned from restaurants, and from other businesses and colleges…
And to round out the peer pressure tactics, criminal charges are filed for Americans who cough on police officers.
“Pandemic of the Unvaccinated”
The next message everyone repeated at us was that COVID was now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. It implies that you are essentially volunteering for death by refusing to get the vaccine. Because “if you are vaccinated, you are not going to die.”
Note the difference between the earlier message and this one. Now the expectations are being managed down because earlier claims proved to be patently false. Again, this is no judgement about the vaccine itself. These are just a series of messages to induce people to act using tactics of persuasion.
After “pandemic of the unvaccinated” was also disproven by facts, even the New York Times reported that the claim was not true.
Rachel Maddow invites her fans to join a benevolent conspiracy to pressure people to get the vaccine. At the time, Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories were worrying our nations leaders and was top-of-mind as institutions puzzled at his success.
But is it propaganda or messaging tactics?
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A Particular Point of View
Get the COVID Vaccine
Clearly an all-point press to get Americans to take the COVID vaccine, so a point of view is promoted:
the COVID vaccine is safe
the COVID vaccine works
the COVID virus is a serious and global health threat
smart people will get the vaccine
if you don’t get the vaccine, you are selfish and ignorant
coughing on someone or licking vegetables in the supermarket is now a criminal offense.
We could debate the effectiveness of the pro-vaccine messaging. My money says that it was a little heavy-handed.
The “Don’t Look Up” People of COVID-19
While the video mocks our establishment and institutional leaders, at the same time plenty of others were convincing people that COVID-19 wasn’t real. Denial is also a cognitive tool to deal with things that are scary.
As we discussed in an earlier article, the purpose of conspiracy theories is to sow doubt. At first, it was that COVID-19 didn’t exist and was just an excuse to take away our right to cough on people and scream at Walmart workers.
Then that anti-message changed to doubt about the safety of the vaccine compared to natural immunity. An important note is that many people did not survive their first experience with COVID, so natural immunity wasn’t the best option for them. It was also a point not brought up by the anti-vaccine proponents to their audiences.
Propaganda, or No?
The essential analysis rests on whether propaganda can be true or not. We are not going to give you a definitive COVID-19 answer about anything other than its existence. Yes, COVID-19 existed.
If you believe that the COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t safe or effective, then the persuasion campaign by the world’s leaders was definitely propaganda. It had information, possibly misleading, with a bias that advanced a particular view.
If you DO NOT believe the COVID-19 was unsafe, the persuasion campaign was still in place with all the elements of propaganda. So can we have good propaganda?
Looking at the video we’ve been discussing, the focus is on the message repetition without any context for the risks of COVID-19 to health or the economy. There is a childlike glee in finding authority figures wrong in their initial claims about the disease. That no one knew about COVID-19 is ignored, as is the scientific method, which requires reevalutation and updates on conclusions in light of new facts.
It can even be said the updating of vaccine messaging is a sign of its believability.
Also missing from this video of anti-vaccine mockery is any solution to the crisis. Any brooding teenager can slouch in the back of the classroom and complain. The only solutions from that side of the debate were to let COVID-19 tear through the population until all the vulnerable were killed or to pretend it wasn’t real.
Are both the video and the vaccine message it attacks propaganda? Both present information, with bias, to persuade people. Tell me what you think.
If you don’t like messaging campaigns like that one, what would you have done to handle the crisis? That’s the essential element missing in all the criticism and complaints.
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Clearly, that slickly edited video is a form of propaganda. But, so are public health messaging campaigns. Remember "this is your brain on drugs," smoking kills, and my favorite - the driver's ed films. Hey, Ralph Nader vaulted into fame on "Unsafe at Any Speed," a book which targeted one model of one auto brand, the Chevrolet Corvair.
Propaganda was invented by the Germans to rally their populace in WWI, a war in which nobody had the moral high ground. But, when you know who and his gang of incels appeared in der Vaterland they propagandized so malevolently and for such horrible outcomes that the term is now only a pejorative.
Fast forward to 2020 and another loudmouth appears on the other side of the Atlantic and wrongly decides to politicize and propagandize a global health crisis for his own re-election chances. He refuses to where a mask, holds rallies among the unmasked and un-vaccinated, catches Covid and is air evacced to the best hospital in America, is attended by 12 physicians, and then tells everyone that they to need not worry if they catch Covid, as he rips of his mask while standing on the White House balcony ala Mussolini. That's nefarious propaganda. What would I have done? Easy, the situation was tailor made for benevolent propaganda.
By presenting it to the public as a war against this horrible virus, Americans love to rally for a war, vaccinations would never have become controversial and opened the door for the Internet and broadcast BS that followed. Plus, and I say this with very mixed emotions, it would have guaranteed that buffoon's re-election. Americans do not change horses in the middle of a war. Even when the horse they are riding wears pancake makeup, dyes his triple comb over, has a volatile temper, and despite a Wharton MBA is less articulate than the average high school sophomore.
When people “do their own research” they fall risk to misinformation. As a scholar or medical professional that works at an academic institution, I have access to information that has at least a pretence of being verified. However, that information is not free to access. I followed Facebook groups that had epistemic mistrust of medical advice to see how people could justify their beliefs and claims. Most information was accurate so I trusted the source... until the end of long articles where the poorly reasoned argument was added and then summarized along with the accurate info in the closing paragraphs. I did not interact (except to ask non-accusatory questions to prompt awareness of contradictory statements, etc.) but did not see where people could go to get referenced information (academic) to verify or contradict the accurate or inaccurate information.
As a health care professional, it was painful to watch people’s decisions to not get vaccinated be touted as righteous, but I can’t assume they realized the implications of their beliefs. I framed my belief as a personal statement, that I learned of epidemiological studies of hospitals that allowed unvaccinated (flu) workers who inevitably had asymptomatic but contagious workers & several patients die from an unrelated admission diagnoses, namely heart attacks. I’d ask how they would feel if Granny came in for hip replacement and ended up dead in ICU from heart attack because the nurse didn’t have the vaccine, I personally would be devastated to know I had caused someone’s illness that led to their death, especially because it was someone I was trying to help. Also causes spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) if I unknowingly gave the virus to early term coworker or family member. After reading those studies, I felt personally responsible to protect the patients. Would also say ‘remember Typhoid Mary!’ (healthcare kitchen worker who was asymptomatic but contagious and responsible for thousands of deaths but it was the only work she knew and didn’t believe healthy people could transmit so assumed aliases to continue her professional role with pride).
Emotions inhibit the prefrontal cortex, so I try to keep things calm.