Study: Can Memes Convince People to Get Vaccinated?
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Okay friends, what do you want first: the good news, the bad news, the second good news, or the second bad news? You know what, let’s just take them in that order.
THE GOOD NEWS: this week the FDA approved the COVID-19 vaccine for children under the age of 5. That’s about 17 million kids who can now be protected from the virus.
THE BAD NEWS: a Kaiser poll from April found that only 1 in 5 of those kids’ parents plans to vaccinate their child immediately. That’s about 13 million kids who won’t be protected from the virus even though they can be.
THE OTHER GOOD NEWS: a new study has offered a bold new strategy for convincing vaccine-hesitant people that vaccines are safe: MEMES!
THE OTHER BAD NEWS: that study also found the strategy didn’t work once vaccines were actually made available. Which this vaccine for kids now is. Ah. Alas.
Okay, to get into a bit more detail on all that: yes, kids from the age of 6 months and up can now safely receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. You may think that this is not a big deal but allow me to cite some stats from a multidisciplinary team of scientists and doctors who put together a very helpful PDF of info on this topic:
During the Omicron surge this winter, children under five years old were hospitalized
at a rate 5 times greater than when Delta was the dominant variant.
Only about half of hospitalized young children
had an underlying medical condition – the
other half were healthy children with no prior
Young children are also at risk of the rare
syndrome known as MIS-C (Multisystem
Inflammatory Syndrome in Children), which
is caused by Covid-19.
Covid-19 is among the leading causes of
death for children in this age group
So this is a safe and effective way to quickly save kids’ lives and ensure that they stay healthy and happy! The vaccines for kids under five are a lower dose than those for older kids but in trials on thousands of kids they reduced infections by 37 to 80%, with few mild side effects and zero cases of myocarditis (which COVID can also cause and which is worse if experienced due to infection, compared to vaccination).
Unfortunately, yeah, polls show that parents of kids under 5 are hesitant to get those kids vaccinated. 18% of parents of children under 5 said they’d get the vaccine as soon as it was approved, 38% said they would “wait and see” what happens, 11% sid they would wait until they were required to vaccinate, and 27% said they absolutely would not get their kid vaccinated.
In the same way that this pandemic refuses to end, we also have to go through this dance every year: how do we convince ignorant people to understand, accept, and trust the science on how to keep people safe?
All of which brings me to a new paper published this month in Computers in Human Behavior, titled “Preliminary evidence that brief exposure to vaccination-related internet memes may influence intentions to vaccinate against COVID-19.” In a series of six studies, the researchers showed thousands of UK residents a bunch of memes; half of the subjects saw “control” memes that were just the images without any words or context, which was probably kind of weird for those subjects, and the other half saw memes like these that mocked anti-vaxxers.
Okay, some of these suck ass but some are legitimately funny. “My blood hurts” haha
Anyway, after they saw the memes, the subjects were asked to indicate where they placed themselves on a spectrum from “anti-vaccine” to “pro-vaccine” and whether and when they planned to get the COVID-19 vaccine after it was approved. You see, the first three studies were conducted in late summer and early fall of 2020, and the second three studies were conducted in November of 2020, after the vaccines were officially announced. That becomes relevant later.
Sure enough, the group that saw the anti-anti-vaccine memes were significantly more likely to say they intended to get vaccinated and a little more likely to identify as a pro-vaxxer.
Wow, so that’s it, then, right? The solution to getting parents to vaccinate children under 5 is to show them memes like this, and this, and this, and this. Done! You’re welcome, kids, enjoy living! Or don’t, I mean, we also fucked up the planet and now it’s going to be a hellhole for the rest of your life.
Okay so no, as I said at the top of this video, it’s not that simple. The impressive results were mostly due to the findings of those first three studies that were conducted prior to the announcement of the vaccine. In the studies that followed, subjects who saw the memes mocking anti-vaxxers were equally likely to say they’d get vaccinated compared to the control group, and they were slightly LESS likely to identify as a pro-vaxxer, and WAY less likely to say they disliked anti-vaxxers. So. Yeah. For some reason, after the vaccines were announced, viewing mean memes about anti-vaxxers seemed to make people like anti-vaxxers more.
What’s going on here? Well, the researchers suspect that the early success of memes may be due to vaccine-hesitant subjects seeing them as coming from a source other than the ones they already distrust, like scientists or government officials. That’s right: memes made by random bozos on 8chan are more trustworthy than the recommendations of your doctor.
There’s also the possibility of a psychological trick I’ve talked about before, which is the idea that sarcasm and humor might be able to bypass our rational thought processes and influence us in a peripheral way. At the same time, the sarcasm delegitimizes the anti-vaxxer targets, making them into social pariahs: “Well of course I don’t identify as an anti-vaxxer–everyone’s laughing at them!”
But both of those latter things went out the window after the vaccines were announced and a public debate began over their safety and efficacy. That peripheral way that humor can influence us is only really effective for topics that we haven’t really thought that much about or that we don’t feel that strongly about. Obviously, by the end of 2020 everyone had a very strong opinion about the COVID vaccine, meaning that fact-free humor is no longer very persuasive.
Everyone becoming an outspoken vaccine expert also led to us all realizing just how many anti-vaxxers are out there, including in our friend groups and in our families. For me, learning that just made me unfriend those friends and be completely disgusted with those family members, but for a lot of people, people who weren’t so securely in favor of vaccines, it made being anti-vaccine more socially acceptable. So now when they see memes mocking anti-vaxxers, they see memes mocking their brothers or cousins or best friends, and that upsets them, causing the meme to backfire and for their sympathy towards anti-vaxxers to increase.
So yeah, unfortunately it seems like we can’t meme our way out of this pandemic. What CAN we do? Well, Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist who writes a great newsletter and who is one of the experts who helped create that PDF I mentioned earlier, points out the studies that show “trusted messengers” can make a big impact. This is something that sociologist Brooke Harrington has discussed, which is the idea that when people are conned, as anti-vaxxers have been, the best way to help them see what’s really going on is with a “cooler”: a person they trust and respect to gently lead them back to reality.
Trusted messengers are crucial to persuading anti-vaxxers to wake up, and Jetelina points out that for parents of young children, the most trusted messenger is a pediatrician. But friends and family are a close second, with 21% of anti-vaxxers saying they changed their mind and got vaccinated because of the people around them.
So that’s why I decided to make this video! If you are the parent of a kid under 5 (and over 6 months), please understand that this vaccine is now officially FDA approved as a safe and effective way to keep your child – and those around them – healthy and alive. And if you aren’t a parent, but know someone who is, maybe you can be that trusted messenger to encourage them to do what it takes to save kids’ lives.
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