The Lure of the Caricature

Anger and the Public Sphere

The lure of the caricature

There’s a new story genre in the media and on social media now: the story of the unrepentant anti-vaxxer. I’m going to highlight lone example to make the point, but there are many.

It’s usually someone who remains unvaccinated despite tragedy, or someone who makes absurd claims. The subjects are fairly unreasonable. 

The posts and stories certainly go viral easily. 

Here’s a typical example by the Wall Street Journal. It seems like an audience success. It was presented to me over many days as a “What’s happening” topic (i.e. trending topics) and made into a Twitter moment. It was shared widely, too, from what I can tell.

Here’s the classic framing of the story (she has the byline):

I don’t doubt that some people will never be convinced. 

But here’s what polls have been showing for a long time:

Essentially, there seems to be around 13-14% of the population who express “definitely not.” However, there is another substantial group: those who want to wait-and-see” and those who will wait till if required. And it’s pretty clear that some of those people are getting vaccinated over time, which means they really are in a movable camp.

Here’s another chart (all from the same poll in from June) that matches other studies I’ve seen.

At least half of the wait-and-see are worried about side-effects—and if you dig into the journalism on this, you see a lot of concerns are about having to miss work to get the vaccine. 

Of the population polled in this chart, a little more than a third don’t think they need it.I’m not sure how many already had COVID, but we have had about 36 million confirmed cases in the United States so I wouldn’t be surprised if the real number wasn’t at least 100 million since confirmed cases are a fraction of actual cases—about a third is a modest, reasonable estimate. Will these people be better off getting vaccinated? Absolutely. But they are not in the same category as a resolute anti-vaxxer who thinks they don’t need it for two reasons. First, they do have some level of natural immunity—and usually such immunity is better than vaccination but in this case they would be better off with at least one but maybe even two jabs (recent study says with two, they are better protected against new variants). Still, “I had COVID” is a different stance than ideological anti-vaccination. I’m not sure how the total “I don’t need it” group breaks down, but I would expect to be a mix of both: those who had COVID and those who think the vaccines are useless or that younger people don’t need them.

Six-in-ten folks in the wait-and-see group are worried that vaccines won’t be effective against new variants. (This poll was conducted in June). About half from the same group thought the cases were low enough that they didn’t need to get vaccinated).

When journalists in the field actually talk to more ordinary people in the unvaccinated camp, the reality is more complex than the caricature that gets more attention in traditional and social media. 

Here’s a story that seems fairly typical, as far as I can tell, of some segments of the unvaccinated population:

Around 10 a.m., Marco Figueroa had completed five deliveries for work when he saw the sign he’d been waiting for: “Vacuna de COVID gratis.” Free COVID vaccine.

His sister and brother got vaccinated in May, but the 42-year-old wanted to avoid taking a day off of work.

“Luego, luego,” he would tell his siblings when they asked when he’d go. “Later, later.”

When he spotted the poster board affixed to a utility pole, he decided to give up his lunch hour to get vaccinated. His co-worker parked their work truck in a loading zone on 12th Street and waited as Figueroa headed to the blue tents where two registered nurses were giving vaccines.

As Figueroa waited the 10 minutes for workers to prep the Pfizer vaccine, he gripped the sides of the folding chair where he sat. Not because he was scared, he said, but because he was worried about falling behind on the deliveries he had left.

As she waited to get vaccinated, Ericka Millan stared skeptically at the needle. She pulled nervously on her pink nails.

“Are you sure it’s Pfizer?” she asked the nurse, who assured her it was. Her family said they had experienced fewer side effects from that vaccine.

The 27-year-old had recently tested positive for an autoimmune disease and worried about what her reaction would be. Because she rarely left home, she had delayed getting vaccinated, one of the last in her family to be inoculated.

She finally decided to come because she starts teaching at a high school in mid-August and worried about getting exposed to more people. She also cited a growing number of people getting sick at her husband’s work in recent weeks.

A handful of people who showed up at the clinic, like Cozar, cited the fact that they had developed COVID during the last surge and felt they had immunity.

Castellon-Lopez said that’s something that’s come up in webinars she’s done with community organizations. She has also heard from Latinos who worry that the vaccine is too new, who initially worried about the cost or who brought up disinformation around the vaccine.

“I’m able to really spend time and leverage my role as a doctor and trusted source of information to provide people with more information so they feel informed and feel more confident in getting the vaccine,” she said.

The point of all this is obvious: there are a lot of people who will get vaccinated under the right conditions. Those conditions include making it easier, having access to a healthcare person who’ll take time with them to answer their questions (millions of people in this country either do not have health insurance or easy, cheap/free access to a doctor/nurse even if they have health-care professionals), mandates, or hearing from relatives. Stories about dangerous surges and about repentant anti-vaxxers (who got sick, or who died and now their family members talking about it posthumously) probably help, too.

Masha Norman, 19, arrived at the clinic to get her grandmother tested for the coronavirus after her unvaccinated brother tested positive. Her sibling, who is in a band, had gone to play at a show and started feeling sick afterward.

Norman and her grandmother were both vaccinated months ago, along with most of her family. But she called her brother an “extreme anti-vaxxer.”

“Why it’s spreading in L.A. County, why we have to wear masks inside again, it’s mainly because of unvaccinated people,” Norman said. “Hopefully with my brother getting COVID now, he can realize that no one is invincible and everyone can get it.”

Auxiliadora Gutierrez waited on her twin sister, Socorro Santamaria, to join her at the vaccine clinic. She had held off on getting vaccinated over the last few months, she said, to see how other people reacted to it.

Gutierrez said she had recently watched a man on Spanish-language TV talk about how he had waited and finally decided to get vaccinated, but got sick before he could get his shot.

“He said ‘vaccinate yourselves, don’t keep thinking about it,’ ” Gutierrez said. “That motivated me. I didn’t want to keep thinking about it.”

Santamaria filled a black pushcart with produce and a box of rice before getting vaccinated.

The 55-year-old had heard mixed messages about the vaccines and decided to delay, but the rising COVID cases in the county, along with counsel from the pastors at her church, persuaded her to come.

Gutierrez’s sons have been vaccinated, but her daughter, who administers the vaccine to others, has not gotten the shot. Her daughter was shocked to hear that she was at the clinic.

“It was lack of information. Now I know it’s good to get vaccinated,” Gutierrez said.

Santamaria said none of her children have been vaccinated, calling it a “roulette.” Her 13-year-old granddaughter showed the family a video filled with misinformation about women becoming infertile after getting vaccinated.

“Now I’m going to motivate my daughters,” Santamaria said.

The reader can deduce that the second story certainly did not go viral, get its own Twitter moment, or create a groundswell of demands for post-vaccination paid-time-off in workplaces, or for making healthcare workers available in pop-up clinics around the country.

I certainly understand the anger at the grifter anti-vaxxers like Tucker Carlson (I’d absolutely bet he and his family members who are eligible got vaccinated, probably as soon as they could) or a variety of high-profile figures who spout nonsense. I also have no doubt of the existence of people who cannot be convinced. 

But this is a pretty straightforward example of how the current public sphere — shaped by human tendencies, politics, financial incentives and platform and algorithmic design which responds to the first three—is hampering us. Villains make for better stories, and we like stories with clear individuals villains—the ones that resemble the caricature, even better. So the newspapers publish them, we click on them, algorithms amplify them, and we produce the content. 

I see so many people around me spending mental energy getting mad at individuals like the one in the first story above, and these same angry people are also convinced that there is nothing to be done but to get mad at them and despair.

Meanwhile, in reality, there are a substantial number of people who remain unvaccinated who could be convinced or pressured (via mandates). Not all of them are dislikeable, misinformation-spouting die-hard anti-vaxxers with strong ideological agendas. Many of their reasons range trivial to historically-rooted to personally idiosyncratic, but more importantly most of those are addressable with some effort. 

For some people, it’s as simple as being afraid of needles—something that can be addressed with support.

Others are worried about side-effects making them lose days from work, or about not having childcare during that time. 

Black people remain under-vaccinated, and their historic and ongoing mistreatment by the medical system clearly has a big role to play in this ongoing mistrust. 

Plus, the actual risk itself can move people. As of today, over 90% of 65+ people in the United States have had at least a single dose, and we know that this group has been particularly prone to misinformation and tends to be overrepresented in the Fox news audience. At some point, though, reality bites and moves people. 

Anger is a sponge that soaks up energy. In this case we are spending that energy getting angry at the wrong target to boot—the ordinary people rather than the anti-vax grifters who trade in their attention. 

I think mandates plus reality will make a lot more progress on this issue, especially since we seem incapable of even recognizing the hold-outs who aren't in the “inconvincible hateful rabid anti-vaxxer” mold. 

There’s long been an idea that a key problem with digital media has been the echo-chambers it produces, where we only encounter people like us who affirm our beliefs. That’s not false in that we tend to find people like us online, but that’s incomplete—if anything we are even more isolated offline in the United States. 

Digital media doesn’t just isolate groups; rather, it helps tribalize us even further. We certainly encounter “the other” online, but usually in caricature form. We seek out these cartoonish people and positions regardless of how frequently they actually occur or what else might be happening.

Both traditional media and social media helps produce the stories, algorithms amplify it, and platforms and media all get an audience out of it, and as individuals we can get attention (from virality) and an outlet for our anger and sense of helplessness.

I had written about this before, in the context of the process after the Arab Spring to the rise of Trump and his kind around the world:

The fourth lesson has to do with the much-touted issue of filter bubbles or echo chambers—the claim that online, we encounter only views similar to our own. This isn’t completely true. While algorithms will often feed people some of what they already want to hear, research shows that we probably encounter a wider variety of opinions online than we do offline, or than we did before the advent of digital tools.

Rather, the problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.

I guess I should add: anger can be stronger than the desire to win.

In Turkish there’s a saying for situations like this: “Would you rather beat up the guard to the vine or eat some grapes?” The first is human and understandable, but if the goal is to eat some grapes, it is not the smart or most effective path. And policy needs to take the smart path. Unfortunately, our public sphere is geared towards getting collectively angry—at real or imagined targets.

The Turkish proverb predates digital media so clearly, this is not merely a problem of digital technology but what technology does is increase out ability to optimize, at scale and in a fast feedback cycle. And we’re certainly better at optimizing, but what we’re optimizing for is the wrong thing.

Different actors can certainly keep being defensive about all this, or knocking down strawman or false dichotomies—”it’s what people want”; “it’s not just digital technology”; “are you advocating for censorship”, etc.—but the obfuscation doesn’t change reality, and as I said above, sooner or later, reality has a way of biting.