How cultural tribalism is feeding the anti-vaccination and COVID conspiracy movement

Credit: Maura Losch/Post-Gazette
Credit: Maura Losch/Post-Gazette

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in an intensification of… personal identity as a way to push conspiracy theories, unproven treatments and ideological agendas.

Anti-maskers say, for example, that face coverings infringe their constitutional rights. And if you are the kind of person who is for constitutional rights (and who isn’t?), then you should be against masks — or so the argument goes. Likewise, lockdowns and physical distancing are framed as attacks on basic democratic freedoms. 

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If [a] YouTuber speaks to and confirms a pre-existing worldview that is core to who you are, that message has a good chance of winning out over science-informed information from an expert.

When a belief becomes linked to personal identity, it can become very resistant to change. Indeed, once a person feels part of a community or a movement, the adherence to a science-free position may begin to feel not fringe-y, but “brave and righteous” — as a recent study of the Australian anti-vaccine movement found.

What can be done? One thing to consider is speed. Studies have shown that the best debunks of misinformation are targeted and happen quickly. A study published in Nature Human Behaviour concluded that a prompt communication response to Covid-19 misinformation can “make a major difference in determining the social outcome” of the misinformation.

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