Countering social media’s power to target misinformation should be the first order of business as Aotearoa emerges from the pandemic, writes Nicholas Agar

Opinion: Luke Malpass writes on Stuff about the “mixture of people” who came together outside Parliament to protest vaccine mandates. “There were anti-three waters signs, tino rangatiratanga flags, New Zealand flags and many besides. Placards ranged from the amusing to the offensive.”

Politics works by bringing together mixtures of people. A political party succeeds by forming coalitions of women, men, union, business, Māori, Pasifika, and Rainbow people. But there is an important difference between mixtures of people that make politics work and the “mixture of reasons” opposing vaccine mandates on show outside Parliament.

I trace the mixture of reasons of the Freedom Convoy to social media. The enormous profits of Facebook and Google come from targeted advertising. You didn’t know that you wanted that Queensland crocodile safari, but when you see an internet advertisement for it you’re ready to click and purchase. The same mechanism responds to a vague doubt about vaccines, offering a profusion of reasons to reject them.

This suggests a more dangerous future. Social media’s algorithms will improve. Countering its power to target misinformation as it gets better at selling us stuff should be the first order of business as Aotearoa emerges from the pandemic.

How mixtures of peoples differ from mixtures of reasons

Pasifika and Rainbow attendees at a political party’s annual conference can understand that though they come from different places, they belong in the same party. There is a mutual understanding.

This differs from the mixture of reasons that have brought people to the anti-vax protest at Parliament. Many reasons outright contradict each other. Some people are protesting the corporate greed of Pfizer. Others doubt the existence of the coronavirus. Still others insist that, though the virus is real, vaccines only increase your risk of death. Many reject the idea of a mandate to protect yourself against a virus that they accept is potentially lethal. Rationally, the anti-vaxxers are a hot sticky mess.

Each of these reasons is easily countered when considered individually. Yes, we should complain about Pfizer’s pandemic profits, but we should nevertheless accept that its vaccine works. SARS-Cov-2 demonstrably exists. There are risks from vaccination but these risks are far outweighed by the risk associated with an unvaccinated encounter with the virus. Many people resentful about a mandate to protect their health accept they will be ticketed if the cops catch them driving without a seatbelt.  

Earlier I suggested that the problem comes from the fact that we encounter these reasons as contradictory expressions of a mob.

An anti-vax rally as a mob brings together a host of reasons for rejecting vaccines that, considered individually, are easily rebutted. But the fact that this jumble of reasons coexists in a mob explains its power to reject counterarguments. Suppose I’m chanting that the virus doesn’t exist. You stop me and demonstrate its existence. No matter. I look over at a fellow protester whose banner proclaims that Pfizer’s vaccines only increase my risk of death. By the time you are challenging me on that I’m already marching on.

We need to boost Aotearoa’s cognitive herd immunity

We hope that with the help of our vaccines, Aotearoa can achieve herd immunity, a state in which the pandemic peters out because the virus increasingly encounters people with immunity to it.

It’s important to look at barriers to herd immunity that may exist in New Zealanders’ minds. Social media is so good at spreading bad reasons. We need to boost our cognitive herd immunity so that when social media suggests that we should reject vaccines because Pfizer Inc. is a pandemic profiteer, or that mRNA alters your DNA, you are prepared to respond. In a population with cognitive herd immunity, bad reasons increasingly encounter people able to reject them.

Most of us have gone through a crash course on the basics of epidemiology and virology these past years. A program of strengthening New Zealanders’ understanding of biology could help avoid some of these errors.

There is a better option. That is to increase New Zealanders’ understanding of the difference between good and bad reasons. My academic subject, philosophy, does that. But it’s the focus of many subjects in the humanities. We will need to get better at fending off bad reasons about vaccination or about climate change. As we saw in the disappointing commitments of the COP26 Climate Change Conference, there are many bad reasons for inaction about the climate crisis. 

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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