How The COVID Vax Campaign Convinced So Many People
Eight decades of research in persuasion was put to the test
It was recently disclosed that - contrary to early reports - US public health agencies used a cool billion dollars of taxpayer money to pay entertainers and influencers to promote COVID lockdowns and shots. This back-channel astroturfing (reminiscent of the Soviet-era “spontaneous demonstrations” of loyalty and support) raised a few eyebrows. But celebrity endorsements were far from the only method employed to persuade the masses to relinquish their skepticism and bodily autonomy.
At this point, it is worth taking a step back and looking at the big picture: how did institutions that directly profited - either by accumulating power, money, or both - manipulate the populace worldwide, and why did it work so well? At the same time, did unintended consequences occur that might make it more difficult for the powers-that-be to pull the same trick again?
COVID-19 "vaccine hesitancy" was anticipated by public health officials and professional psychologists even before shots even became available in December of 2020. In the summer of 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services established the COVID-19 Public Education Campaign, which created and maintains the ongoing “We Can Do This” initiative.
This comprehensive effort to reduce hesitancy includes “market research, key messages, partnerships and outreach, paid and earned media,” and creative assets such as digital ads and TV commercials.
Also in 2020, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of social scientists, behavioral psychologists, and other experts, which published guidance entitled “COVID-19 Vaccine Communication: Applying Behavioral and Social Science to Address Vaccine Hesitancy and Foster Vaccine Confidence.” Advice in this report included the “safe and effective” messaging that quickly became ubiquitous, and the promotion of COVID vaccination as a social norm by using “I got the shot” stickers and social media messaging. It also suggested avoiding both “language of requirement and mandate” and “communication that heightens negative emotions such as fear or shame.”
It is noteworthy that, while some of the expert guidance from HHS was followed, this admonition against coercive and emotionally negative language was not.
The Nature of Influence
Beginning with the HHS’s COVID-19 Public Education Campaign in late 2020, a wide variety of tactics were employed to promote COVID shot acceptance. Examples include celebrity endorsements and conventional advertising on television and radio, continuous coverage of tragic deaths among the unvaccinated by news media, and unprecedented censorship ("content moderation") by online platforms. By doing so, both legacy and social media strayed into territory historically associated with propaganda, which is communication “intended specifically to influence an audience’s opinions or actions rather than simply to inform.”
Around the same time, we started to see the unintended consequences of overtly coercive policies, such as the requirement to accept a COVID vaccine to remain employed, to serve in the military, to cross international borders, to attend college, or to participate in conventional social behavior such as attending concerts and dining at restaurants. Although these measures undoubtedly achieved compliance (particularly in domains such as the military and higher education), there is a wealth of evidence that they also galvanized resistance, provoked mistrust of authorities, and increased hesitancy.
This result was not entirely unexpected. In 2018, psychologist Stephen Gibson concluded that coercive measures are “a sign that the institution ... is failing to be sufficiently persuasive. The direct order is thus a sign of the weakness of the authority – a sign that the institution itself is not sufficiently authoritative.”
Tactics of Influence
First, a little history. Public officials realized the value of combining social science research with the tools of mass media in the years leading up to World War II, and were keenly interested in using these new methods to influence public opinion. It is generally believed that researchers Merton and Lazarsfeld invented the “focus group” methodology as part of their effort to improve the effectiveness of government propaganda promoting the war effort.
By the turn of the twenty-first century, researchers studying influence and persuasion had concluded that “six basic tendencies of human behavior come into play in generating a positive response: reciprocation, consistency, social validation, liking, authority, and scarcity.” These six methods provide a useful high-level framework for categorizing attempts at persuasion in the COVID vaccination campaign.
Reciprocation. It is a social norm that gifts should be repaid in kind (“I owe you a favor”). Therefore, even if subconsciously, the acceptance of an unsolicited present creates a sense of obligation. In the case of COVID, it could be argued that the $850 billion in direct payments made to US taxpayers stimulated the impulse to reciprocate this largesse by cooperating with the government’s vaccination effort.
Consistency. As recommended by HHS in 2020, the COVID vaccination campaign has used several messages (e.g., “safe and effective”) with extreme consistency. This repetition helps to anchor these concepts in the minds of the public, so that when they think of the vaccines, these positive phrases will be associated with them.
Social Validation. In times of uncertainty, people instinctively look to see what others are doing. This is why the perception of consensus is so persuasive. By classifying dissenting opinions by doctors and scientists as misinformation, public officials and news outlets did maintain a public consensus in favor of vaccination, but whether this backfired by undermining trust in media and authorities is yet to be determines.
Liking. Individuals are more likely to conform to expectations if they have affinity for the people telling them what to do. This persuasive method was used largely by the entertainment industry, with vaccine-positive messaging being promoted through celebrity endorsements, social media communications, and on programs hosted by popular entertainers such as Steve Colbert.
Authority. As demonstrated so compellingly by Stanley Milgram’s experiments, authority figures are highly influential. During the COVID pandemic, officials such as Dr. Fauci were key assets in the effort to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
Scarcity. The message that “supplies are limited” is often used in retail advertisements, and with good reason. Psychologists have concluded that the perception of scarcity is highly persuasive (Nicholson, 2018). The messaging that COVID vaccines were in short supply was repeated often, especially during the first few months that they were available.
Despite almost two years of virtually unanimous support by mainstream voices in both the public and private sectors, a substantial number of individuals and organizations have displayed significant resistance to messaging promoting COVID vaccines. For social scientists, the existence of such robust resistance against an effort supported by public health officials, medical organizations, government leaders, celebrities, both legacy and social media, paid advertising, and even travel and employment restrictions, creates an unprecedented opportunity to study the way individuals resist both authority and social influence in the modern era.
In closing, Gibson’s argument for a new definition of obedience seems particularly relevant. He writes: “In treating obedience as synonymous with following orders, social scientists have neglected the more subtle ways in which authority operates, and in which obedience is enacted … in this context, direct orders are not necessary for obedience, all that is needed is for the system to do its job – to persuade people that a certain thing needs to be done, and that they are the ones that need to do it … A new definition of obedience might thus be proposed as simply the submission to the requirements of an authority.”
This idea of “persuading people that a certain thing needs to be done” is exactly what the COVID vaccination campaign was intended to do. Investigating the degree to which it was successful, and the reasons why people decided to participate fully, partially, or not at all, will provide valuable insight both for policymakers and for members of the public who wish to be aware of attempts to influence their behavior.
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