How to talk to the vaccine denier in your life

Anti-vax sentiment is strong among people who rely on social media for most of their news

Anti-vaxxers: an Irish Freedom Party protester outside Custom House in Dublin in November 2020. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty

Anti-vaxxers: an Irish Freedom Party protester outside Custom House in Dublin in November 2020. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty

 

Nearly 80 per cent of people who have not yet been offered the Covid-19 vaccine say they intend to take it, and vaccine acceptance has risen in all age groups since January, according to the ESRI’s latest social-activity measure for the Department of the Taoiseach.

But, at 9.1 per cent, the proportion of people who say they won’t take the vaccine is at its highest this year. And, as Ireland’s vaccination programme targets younger age groups, including 30- to 39-year-olds, it is worth noting that, in a survey earlier in the year, people aged 35-49 were more sceptical about vaccines than younger and older age groups.

Those who consume social media for three hours or more a day were slightly more hesitant (30 per cent) than others (26 per cent), the Eurofound survey found. The proportion rose to 40 per cent among those who used social media as their primary source of news.

Not every vaccine-hesitant person is a conspiracy theorist. It is reasonable for people to ask their GPs about side effects or worries they might have. But others have fallen into an alternative world of unverified facts and wild theories

Not everyone who exhibits vaccine hesitancy is a conspiracy theorist. It is reasonable for people to ask their GPs about side effects or worries they might have. But others have fallen into an alternative world of unverified facts and wild theories in which all mainstream sources, from governments to the scientific community to newspapers such as this one, are suspect.

Many instances have been aired in the media of tension within families when members hold different attitudes to Covid-19 vaccination

So how do you address the vaccine debate with a close friend or family member who has fallen down the internet rabbit hole of anti-vax views?

Understand where their views are coming from

“People really have very little control over a lot of aspects of their lives at the moment, and that’s very debilitating,” says Aoife Gallagher, who monitors disinformation for a UK-based think tank, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “There is a comfort in knowing that there is someone controlling the world, even if those forces … are inherently evil to you.”

Mick West, author of the 2018 book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect, thinks listening is as important as talking. “This will both allow you to understand where they are coming from and will show that you respect them. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.”

Try to establish common ground

West believes it’s important to establish “some kind of mutual understanding … You might think they are being ridiculous; they likely feel the same about you … It’s a symmetry of perceptions. They think you have been brainwashed by the mainstream media. They are going to get angry and frustrated at you because you are not listening to them.”

Don’t pile on

Emily Duffy, deputy director of the campaigning group Uplift, which has been researching Covid-related misinformation, believes it’s important to avoid “acting superior or patronising people” and not to “pile on” when people are sharing misinformation online. “Effective responses hinge on compassion and empathy. And we all know those are things that are dialled down on social media.”

Appeal to critical thinking

Gallagher believes that arguing about the details can be pointless but that appeals to critical thinking can be helpful. “Conspiracy theorists often think that they have a higher level of critical thinking than the average person does. But what you see in these groups is that their critical thinking is just a rejection of anything that is termed ‘mainstream’. And that’s not critical thinking … So if someone says, ‘Oh, I saw this video that says the vaccines are actually going to kill you’, [then ask], ‘Well, who’s in the video and what’s their agenda?’ Get them to think about the information that they’re consuming.”

Anti-vaxxers: a protester in London in October 2020. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty
Anti-vaxxers: a protester in London in October 2020. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty

Focus on the positive

Instead of focusing on statistics showing why someone is wrong, it’s best to refer to the benefits of vaccines in ending the pandemic, Duffy says. “We tested four messages, and the one that won out was hugs – the idea of getting to hug your family members again when we beat this.”

Don’t ridicule

Mocking fringe beliefs might be tempting, says Gallagher, but it doesn’t work. “Saying, ‘Oh my God, they’re absolutely crazy. They’re stupid and they’re loonies,’ is not at all beneficial to how we solve this, because you’re just going to push people away further like that. So I think there has to be an understanding that [they are] actually your friends and family. They have gone through a hell of a year, like everyone has. They’re reaching the end of their tether.”

Keep the lines of communication open

“The most important thing you can do with a friend or family member is maintain communications,” says West. “If you’re not communicating, you’re not going to be able to help.” A lot of people who hold these beliefs isolate themselves, says Gallagher. “I often see posts [that say], ‘Oh, my mother won’t talk to me any more,’ and you see all the replies, ‘Just go leave her behind. She’s not awake,’” says Gallagher. “I will always tell people to try and keep the lines of communication open. And if that means that you don’t talk about the conspiracy theories at all, [that’s okay].”

Don’t give up (but maybe take a break)

“People often take a very long time to get out of the rabbit hole,” says West. “If they are in a phase where they are obsessively consuming content, it is going to be very difficult for you to make any headway, because they’re always moving on to something new.”

“In order to deradicalise people it really has to be a one-on-one kind of a thing,” says Aoife Gallagher. “It’s not like you can send out some kind of a message through the media that’s going to pull everyone back. It has to come from people they trust.”

Aoife Gallagher, Mick West and Emily Duffy were originally interviewed for this article and this article

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