The right-wing sabotage behind the anti-vax persuasion problem

Fox covid vaccine

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

In National Review Online on Friday, the conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty called for a new public approach to those who have not yet been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. The arguments of the vaccine advocates, Dougherty says, are “poisoned by condescension” and disrespect those who haven’t received shots by treating them as conspiracy theorists, and thus end up reinforcing the concerns of vaccine skeptics rather than convincing them. What’s more, he writes, the advocates fail to recognize that they have undermined their credibility with the skeptics through, among other things, the “​​the ongoing and bizarre public-health treatment of children.” To reignite vaccine uptake, Dougherty suggests “abandoning efforts that seem like open manipulation in defiance of the evidence.”

It’s worth reading Dougherty’s piece, in spite of its flaws. He is correct that vaccinations have leveled off, and while there are multiple categories of people who haven’t had shots, a large swath of the unvaccinated are members of his political tribe. Nearly half of Republicans say they don’t plan to get vaccinated, according to a recent poll, and there’s a sizable divide in vaccination rates between places that voted for President Joe Biden and places that voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020. As the delta variant spreads and a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” looms, it’s reasonable to turn to someone on the right for a sense of how to reach those people and prevent more unnecessary deaths.

But therein lies the problem: Many of the most influential figures of the right-wing movement, the ones with the greatest understanding of how to speak to its members, aren’t trying to convince them to get vaccinated. Instead, they’ve decided that their interests lie in fueling that skepticism. Any public health effort thus needs to cope with the results of self-interested, deliberate sabotage from media outlets that Republicans leaders have propped up for generations.

Dougherty’s National Review Online colleagues have encouraged vaccination, but they speak to a relatively small audience of conservative elites. The mass audience that needs convincing is more likely to be watching Fox News and listening to talk radio. The most influential figures on those venues frequently suggest to their audiences that the vaccines may be ineffective and dangerous, stoking their grievances about the Biden administration’s vaccination efforts.

A few hours after Dougherty’s piece was published, for example, Alex Berenson told Tucker Carlson’s Fox News viewers that the COVID vaccines are “declining in effectiveness very quickly.” NRO writers have questioned the credibility of both Berenson and Carlson in the past. Yet Carlson maintains the trust of his audience, and segments like this one still reach millions on a nightly basis.

Carlson’s show provides perhaps the most prominent platform for right-wing vaccine skepticism, but it’s not alone: Berenson reiterated his false claim on a different Fox show over the weekend. Other Fox figures have since falsely claimed that COVID-19 is “99.999% survivable” and defended the “choice” of the unvaccinated against a government that is supposedly overstepping by trying to keep people alive.

These segments amount to permission slips for unvaccinated viewers, telling them that they have good reasons not to get their shots and that the people trying to convince them otherwise are just trying to control them. But at least no one feels disrespected.

Such sentiments aren’t confined to the right-wing airwaves. Some Republican lawmakers are stoking fears about the vaccine effort and even proposing laws to curtail it. Trump, who was vaccinated in January, is now drawing a straight line from the lie that the election was stolen from him to his supporters’ suspicions about the vaccines.

It’s important for vaccine advocates to use the most effective messaging possible. But any message is going to run into the misinformation buzzsaw of the influential right-wing figures who have decided that it is in their best interest to undermine the vaccination effort. 

Dougherty seems aware of this. Toward the end of his piece, which largely deals with what vaccine advocates are doing wrong, he offers some advice about what to do instead. This includes some vague language about “leveling with people” -- and one very specific suggestion.

“A public-health campaign would give context to the information about vaccine reactions reported on the government’s own websites -- such as the VAERs system -- and explain how the government assesses them,” he writes. “In the absence of this, skeptics will take the word of whoever is willing to give this information context.”

Dougherty appears to be referencing Carlson’s repeated lies that VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, shows that thousands of people have died in connection with the COVID-19 vaccines. But the problem Dougherty is pointing to isn’t the system -- it’s that Carlson keeps lying about it, and his viewers trust him. The solution is for Carlson to stop lying, or for his bosses to make him stop. Since neither of those options is apparently on the table, Dougherty is left with the fantasy of creating a public health campaign that instantly and convincingly responds to lies from the people conservatives trust.

Perhaps instead, the vaccination effort needs to find a way to get the right-wing culture war’s endless outrage cycle working for its messaging, for a change. What if Democrats started adopting the message that they are happy Republicans aren’t getting the vaccine because, when they contract the disease and die, it will be easier for Democrats to win elections and enact socialism? Might that get the right’s propagandists to change course and encourage their supporters to get vaccinated out of spite and partisan interest?

That argument is both distasteful and untrue. But as Dougherty writes, “If vaccine advocates really do want vaccination uptake to increase more than they want to feel superior, they have to change course.”