Social Media, Tribalism, And Craziness

If we are ever going to emerge from pandemic hell or semi-hell, we have to get a handle on two of the most dangerous aspects of contemporary life: the use of social media to spread disinformation, and the politicization of science–including, especially now, medical science.

Talking Points Memo recently ran a column (behind the paywall, so no link–sorry) from an expert in social media. That column made several points:

  •  fake news spreads faster than verified and validated news from credible sources. We also know that items and articles connecting vaccines and death are among the content people engage with most.
  • The algorithms used by social media platforms are primed for engagement, creating a “rabbit-hole effect”–it pushes users who click on anti-vaccine messages toward more anti-vaccine content. The people spreading medical misinformation know this, and know how to exploit the weaknesses of the engagement-driven systems on social media platforms.
  • “Social media is being manipulated on an industrial scale, including by a Russian campaign pushing disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.” Research tells us that people who rely on Facebook for their news about the coronavirus are less likely to be vaccinated than people who get their coronavirus news from any other source.

According to the column, the problem is exacerbated by the way in which vaccine-related misinformation fits into people’s preexisting beliefs.

I was struck by the observation that acceptance of  wild and seemingly obvious inaccuracies requires a certain “pre-existing” belief system. That, not surprisingly, gets us to America’s current, extreme political tribalism.              
Let me share some very troubling data: To date, some 86% of Democrats have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot–compared with only 45% of Republicans. A Washington Post survey found that only 6% of Democratic respondents reported an intent to decline the vaccine, while 47% of Republicans said they would refuse to be inoculated. 

Not to put too fine a point on it,  this is insane.

Aside from people with genuine medical conditions that make vaccination unwise, the various justifications offered for denying the vaccine range from hypocritical (“pro-life” politicians suddenly defending the right of individuals to control of their own bodies) to legally inaccurate (“freedom” has never included the right to endanger others—if it did, we’d have the “freedom” to drive drunk and ignore red lights), to conspiratorial (COVID is a “hoax” perpetrated by those hated liberals).

Now, America has always had citizens willing to make decisions that endanger others; what is truly mystifying, however, is why such people overwhelmingly inhabit red states— including Indiana. 

Every state with large numbers of people who have refused vaccination is predominantly Republican. In several of those states, hospitalizations of unvaccinated COVID patients threatens to overwhelm health care systems. New York, a blue state, has five Covid patients hospitalized per 100,000 people, while red state Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has actually barred businesses from requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination, has 34 per100,000.

DeSantis’ Trumpian approach is an excellent example of just how dramatically the GOP has departed from the positions that used to define it. Whatever happened to the Republican insistence that business owners have the right to determine the rules for their own employees and patrons? (They still give lip service to those rules when the issue is whether to serve LGBTQ customers, but happily abandon them when the decision involves the health and safety of those same patrons.)

And what happened to the GOP’s former insistence on patriotism? Surely protecting others in one’s community from a debilitating and frequently deadly disease is patriotic.

Tribalism has clearly triumphed over logic and self-interest. As Amanda Marcotte recently wrote in Salon,

getting the vaccine would be an admission for conservatives that they were wrong about COVID-19 in the first place, and that liberals were right. And for much of red-state America, that’s apparently a far worse fate than death.

Making vaccine refusal a badge of political affiliation makes absolutely no sense. It does, however, correspond to the precipitous decline of rationality in what was once the “Grand Old Party”—a party now characterized by the anti-science, anti-logic, anti-intellectualism of officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Jim Jordan, Paul Gosar, and Louie Gohmert (who was memorably described by Charlie Savage as “the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse”).

These mental giants (cough, cough) are insisting that vaccination will “magnetize” the body and make keys stick to you, and that Bill Gates is sneaking “tracking chips” into the vaccine doses. (As a friend recently queried, don’t most of those people warning against “tracking devices” own cell phones?? Talk about tracking…)

Talk about buffoonery.

The problem is, these sad, deranged people are endangering the rest of us.


  1. Republicans are killing off their base. I think that’s why several prominent Republicans are urging their constituency to now get vaccinated. They were happily spreading false information while Democratic Black and Brown citizens were dying of Covid-19.

  2. You are spot on, Philip Coons. Maybe, just maybe, enough of the base will get sick, be hospitalized, and start with their mea culpas regarding vaccinations. And maybe some of the others will start listening. What is that saying, Karma is a ….

  3. One of my colleagues actually stated that 39% of people receiving the vaccine were dying off. He was upset that a fiend of the family had an adverse reaction to the virus at the time. So the mix between reality and fantasy is propagated by fear. What is worse is the delta variant is adding new data and circumstances in dealing with it. Can someone actually receive and spread the delta variant without symptoms? All these questions raise problems for people with full vaccinations.
    Social media platforms propagate the problem as advertising to people who use it creates their cash cow. So the more you use it the more they make. Anytime i see something in regards to the pandemic there is a special note however that directs them to read up on the vaccine info from the CDC.
    Are there new shots for the delta variant? Pfizer has a good record of dealing with it. Keep those who are dealing with the variant who havent been vaccinated in your prayers. They arent doing well. Mark Valentine the brother of Phil Valentine who spoofed the vaccine shot tells everyone to get the vaccine as His brother is fighting for his life.
    Ive known several who have died from Covid.

  4. I’m grateful that I live on the side of science and a member of the liberals that were right. Those GQP goons are wrong and those refusing vaccines may be short lived in this world. So be it. Shrugs

  5. I wonder…if we had responsible political leaders who told people the truth as well as major media outlets that didn’t feature the usual array of lying wing nuts, would social media even matter? Or put another way, would the COVID-denial contingent exist in the absence of social media? After all, Ronnie Ray-Gun didn’t need social media to propagate his lies and it worked pretty well for him.

  6. Seeing that we are sharing these stories through a source of social media (blogging), you might want to remove it from the list of problematic areas. Have you read comments to WRTV or WISH news articles?

    Those of us getting vaccinated have been brainwashed to have an untested vaccine injected into our bodies. I even purchased a Jeep without crashing it into a wall to see if the airbags worked properly. I’m such an idiot!

    I honestly don’t think we can fix stupid. The vaccine – not masks – should have been mandatory and it should have started one year ago. Now, school has started in red states with new variants and no vaccines. The idiocy will spread equating to death.

    Our POTUS, too scared to upset the ignorant masses hasn’t passed along a coherent message either. I just wish they’d turn over vaccines to our doctors going forward and ignore the federal and state governments.

  7. Ari Melber had a feature last week about a Missouri man taken down by COVID. He was in the hospital plugged into everything including a ventilator. He was allowed to take a brief interview with the local news station. The first thing he said was that his family was a strong conservative family and didn’t want to take the vaccine. Then, the doctor told him he had about a 20% chance to survive. “I’m letting your son and wife say good-bye through the isolation glass.” They filmed him waving to his little son. They, he said that his son should get the vaccine because this was no way for him to say good-bye to his father.

    So, there we have it. In a NUTshell. What the hell does “strong conservative” mean? Does it mean willful ignorance? Racist rants? Accepting disinformation through right-wing extremist media?

    Clearly our education system (Thanks, Ray-Gun) has finally spit out the products of its weakened curriculum and lust for high stakes testing so that those horrible teachers unions can be pushed back. After all, “strong conservatives” don’t want to pay taxes while they bitch about wanting world-class everything.

    What we now have is what happens EVERY TIME when “conservatives” control a government. The United Kingdom is still recovering from the draconian, Friedman-style economics forced on that country by the Reagan clone, Margaret Thatcher.

    So, some bloggers can wail about how leaders lack confidence, but the fact is that the Republican disinformation machine has been hard at ever since Lincoln was shot.

  8. Consider the following:

    “…Louie Gohmert (who was memorably described by Charlie Savage as “the dumbest mammal to enter a legislative chamber since Caligula’s horse”).”

    Isn’t that an insult to the horse?

  9. Peggy Hannon…I have owned horses since 1981 and yes that is an insult to horses! LOL!

  10. Seen in and borrowed from a recent tweet: “Please refer to them as the vaccine control group”.

  11. And yet 65% of the voting populace of Indiana and Ohio strongly favor Republican politicians. They are not dying off, but are in fact gaining strength in both states. Why anyone would risk their health to support a political party baffles me, but they do. Politicians #1 priority is to get elected. If the public were to reject the idiocy of avoiding vaccines, the politicians would immediately do a 180.

  12. …bitch,” Roberta. It certainly is. The only catch , for me, is that some of the female dogs I have, and do, know, are utterly sweet.
    “Not to put too fine a point on it, this is insane.” No, Sheila, please don’t “…put too fine a point on it.” “…in a state of mind which prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill.” They seriously fit the descriptor.
    The cognitive dissonance referred to by fellow bloggers, here, is astounding. The Conservatives can not even conserve their own lives!

  13. Ronnie Ray-Gun, BTW, was nothing more than an earlier version of a traitor (consider his pre-election contact with Iran), treating the presidency as an acting job. He did not have social media to magnify his idiocy, but he did have the “Bully pulpit.”

  14. Mitch, I think most of them don’t actually experience cognitive dissonance about these issues. Or anything. I’m not sure they can. There are surely many reasons for this. Among them, ignorance and plain stupidity, but I suspect religious dogmatism is also a factor. After all, if you are taught for all your life to ignore inconsistencies and nonsensical “facts” and to just spew the party line, then you are conditioned to NOT experience cognitive dissonance.

    Pavlov would be so proud.

  15. If government entities don’t go after these social media companies’ algorithms for regulation, they are going to continue poisonings people’s minds. There is a very real possibility that the months and years ahead will feature political violence of the type this country has never seen.

  16. Guys – you don’t get it. I love electing GOP officials:

    – They don’t raise my taxes
    – They don’t scare me by talking about “climate change” killing our planet
    – They don’t waste my tax money on lazy folks who don’t work
    – They let me alone to do what ever I want
    – They don’t ignore me to put all their concern on people who don’t look like me

    What more could I want?

  17. Long good article in Mother Jones: The Real Source of America’s Rising Rage

    Kevin Drum, the author goes through all the Usual Suspects of polarization. From his article:

    There are a few things that have notably changed for the worse. From a political standpoint, the critical one is trust in government. As we all know, trust in government plummeted during the ’60s and ’70s thanks to Vietnam and Watergate, and then flattened out for the next few decades. — There is a chart in the article, Public Trust in Government went from about 75% in 1965 to about 28% in 1980. — From 1980 to 2001, trust stayed at roughly 40 percent except for a brief dip, during Bill Clinton’s first term, that was quickly regained. Then, right after 2001, trust began to plummet permanently. By 2019 it was down to 20 percent.

    When it debuted in 1996, Fox News was an afterthought in Republican politics. But after switching to a more hardline conservatism in the late ’90s it quickly attracted viewership from more than a third of all Republicans by the early 2000s.

    And as anyone who’s watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times—from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory—but it’s always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America.

    Sophisticated viewers know the difference between news anchors and trash talkers, but most people probably don’t. White evangelicals may have been the political stars of the Reagan era, but since their peak during the ’90s, Republicans have watched despondently as the reach and influence of conservative Christians has fallen even within their own party.

    The share of Republicans describing themselves as fundamentalist has dropped by nearly a quarter since the mid-’90s, and conservative Christian beliefs are ever more at odds with broader society.

    Most progressives are unaware of this, but by 2015 the evangelical movement was in a crisis of despair. That, however, was about to change when, improbably, a corrupt serial adulterer New York real estate developer became the tribune for Christian evangelicals.

    Trump took explicit advantage of that by offering the simplest possible fix. The federal government, he said, was full of idiots. It was that simple. He’d appoint smart people who would make commonsense policy and repair everything in a jiffy. (Drain the Swamp)

    At the same time, he defended Christianity with the power and intensity of a tent revival preacher. Never mind that Trump showed about as much interest in attending church as he did in reading a book. Finally, here was a man who promised that he could revive religion in the public square. White evangelicals almost literally swooned.

    The Fox pipeline is pretty simple. Fox News stokes a constant sense of outrage among its base of viewers, largely by highlighting narratives of white resentment and threats to Christianity. This in turn forces Republican politicians to follow suit. It’s a positive feedback loop that has no obvious braking system, and it’s already radicalized the conservative base so much that most Republicans literally believe that elections are being stolen and democracy is all but dead if they don’t take extreme action.

    My Side Bar: The Trumpet’s reaction to Covid was to deny, lie and misdirect as he took over the News Conferences the elected members of the GOP for most part followed The Trumpet’s narrative. Given the belief that the government was inhabited by the Deep State and Swamp, the Medical Experts, CDC, FDA and Fauci were dismissed as saboteurs.

    Quarantines, masks and lock downs were not viewed as necessary steps to control Covid but as proof of a Socialist Agenda to control the population. It was a Badge of Honor in Trump World to resist wearing a mask, and the logical next step for Trumper’s is to resist the Covid Vaccine.

  18. Peggy and Lester LOL!!! Lester I love the way you created bullets around what the far right wants.

    Monotonous Langor Trump split off his own idiocy and then projected it onto others.
    It’s what narcissists do to maintain their poor self-esteem and their arrogant delusions.

    What’s tragic to me is that the GOP and the far right have never understood that their “Don’t Tread on Me” attitude toward the vaccine has led to many of them dying.

    Trump contributed to this insanity when he minimized the severity of the COVID pandemic and failed to take action quickly to begin to contain its spread. His Big Lie further undermined people’s ability to trust the current administration.

    The CDC made mistakes along the way as well. As soon as they knew it was air born, they should have recommended masks but did not. Due to the fact that they can’t keep up with the mutations of the virus, I started wearing a mask again before they recommended it.

    The inability of so many to use good critical thinking with the misinformation supports the theories of social Darwinism. The mistrust in government, the refusal to take vaccines and masks have led to the hospitalizations and/or deaths of many. It has also created people who are suffering with long term effects of the virus.

    I can recall in my childhood when people’s faith in our government was much higher. The government was the main source of information around public health. (Hospitals did not even run ads.) If we had the same kind of trust now, the government would inform us that those who are true patriots take the vaccine, and people would line up to take it to protect themselves and their fellow citizens.

    If we look beneath all those refusing to take the vaccine, I think we would see a belief that by doing so, they will support the current administration’s failure and ultimately another victory for Trump. They are aiming to defeat Biden and don’t seem to care that this will lead to many unnecessary deaths for themselves and others.

    As for me, I will wear a mask and take a booster shot this fall if recommended. And, in the midst of all this chaos and insanity I will be mindful of beauty( like the baby frog I saw sitting on a leaf yesterday) and I will practice gratitude. It’s important I stay centered and calm in the midst of all this chaos. I hope each of you can find a way to hold onto joy,peace, and love.

    I am grateful to all of you for your input which often keeps me better informed and gives me food for thought.

  19. As I understand it before industrial agriculture “seed corn” was a necessary component of growing corn. Farmers always had to plan for the future by not selling some of this years corn crop to save for planting next years crop. That’s not a lot different than effective financial management. Saving for investment in a better future.

    One indicator of the failure of the Republican Party is apparent ignorance of that principle and nowhere is it more evident than in the pandemic. Instead of building their base they are literally killing them off.

    Not effectively running their own organization is another bit of evidence of their failure in the development of leadership within the party.

  20. Good analogy Pete. Let me expand on it by pointing out that farmers no longer have to set aside part of their harvest to plant next years crop. They just utilize cheap credit and other benefits of over 1,100 programs offered by the US Department of Agriculture to ensure that farmers cannot lose money. But some still do every year and blame the government for it.

  21. I’m ashamed of our educational systems that have allowed graduates to be so easily influenced by social media and fake news reports. The condition of our population is not a matter of disinformation but rather of a matter of ignorance. An educated populace would be able to sift the wheat from the chaff.

  22. I’d be happier to see more dead Trampers if they weren’t so expensive to kill…
    They have gerrymandering and voter restrictions. We have Covid.
    “They’re the control group.” I LOVE it!

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