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A person wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Covid is a scam.”
Anti-vaccination protesters take part in a rally against Covid-19 vaccine mandates, in Santa Monica, California, on August 29.
Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images

Why people who don’t trust vaccines are embracing unproven drugs

Inside the upside-down world where Covid-19 vaccines are dangerous and ivermectin is saving lives.

Some Americans who are reluctant to get vaccinated believe they are living through a very different pandemic — one where the approved Covid-19 vaccines are ineffective and dangerous, and where a long list of “miracle cures,” ivermectin among them, are critical to patients’ health and safety.

From the outside, these positions can seem not just dangerous but incoherent. What would lead a person to say they won’t take a vaccine approved by federal regulators, then take an off-label medication because they read about it online?

Of course, not all Americans who are reluctant to get vaccinated have embraced supposed miracle cures: The reasons that people give for not getting a Covid-19 vaccine are varied and complex. But over the past year, among some refusers, a community of intense vaccine denialism has developed and created a sort of psychological scaffolding to support their views. As a group, the most fervent vaccine deniers construct and perpetuate an alternative narrative of the pandemic. And when inconvenient facts — from a news report to a friend’s or relative’s decision to get vaccinated — challenge that narrative, they give them a place to take refuge.

This phenomenon has its origins in America’s political polarization. One of the best predictors of whether someone is resistant to getting the Covid-19 vaccine is whether they identify as a Republican, and we know those partisan bonds are powerful. But they are not sufficient to explain the intransigence. Most Republicans have gotten the vaccine by now, but about 12 percent of Americans say they will never get vaccinated under any circumstances. (Roughly six in 10 of those people are Republicans, but a small minority of Democrats also say they won’t get the vaccine.)

It’s this community of hardcore refusers that have closed ranks and created an insular world meant to perpetuate their beliefs.

“On the face of it, it doesn’t make sense that you don’t trust doctors and science, but then the next moment, you’re sharing news about some other medical cure and taking that and putting it in your body,” Jay Van Bavel, director of the Social Identity and Morality Lab at New York University, told me. “These are not trivial beliefs. These are some of the most significant decisions you can make in a once-in-a-century pandemic.”

In communities of hardened vaccine skeptics, new information isn’t necessarily treated as an opportunity to reassess their beliefs. Instead, new facts are seen either as affirmation of what this community already believes or as a distraction that should be dismissed because it doesn’t neatly sort into their anti-vaccine narrative.

Ant-vaccine protesters carry signs reading, “Freedom not force,” “We call the shots,” and “My children are not your science experiment.”
Anti-mandate and anti-vaccination demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on September 17.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

“People listen to people ‘from their group’ and whom they think they can trust,” David Dunning, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told me. “People really don’t know what science is, and so do you feel you can trust the person giving you advice, rather than appraising their expertise, becomes the thing.”

Why ivermectin fits into the anti-vaccine narrative

Ivermectin is the latest fad among hardened vaccine skeptics. But it is only one unproven treatment in a much longer line of alternative cures and “science” that has driven opposition to the mainstream consensus on masks, social distancing measures, and now the vaccines.

Early in the pandemic, this worldview held that Covid-19 wasn’t that serious of a threat to begin with, little more than the flu. Then it moved to existing drugs — hydroxychloroquine took an outsize place in this narrative — that meant the virus could be easily contained. At the same time, some Covid deniers came to believe that masks and social distancing restrictions were not only unnecessary but a power grab by the establishment, leading to protests at state capitols last spring.

But as the pandemic dragged on, the human toll became more difficult to ignore. People were getting sick and dying. So the anti-mainstream narrative glommed onto any new cures that surfaced in the fringe scientific literature.

“When you really want to believe something — like ‘you can’t trust the vaccines’ — you’ll come up with any number of rationalizations,” Van Bavel said. “It’s like whack-a-mole. You falsify one premise and they just create a new one.”

This is a well-documented social phenomenon. In a new book by Van Bavel and Lehigh psychology professor Dominic Packer, The Power of Us, the authors recount one controversial work of social science in the 1950s. Social psychologists infiltrated a doomsday cult to find out how the members would react when their promised date of salvation — the day that a UFO would come to Earth and take them away — came and went without the prophecy coming true.

Demonstrators gather outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston to protest Covid-19 vaccination and mask mandates with signs reading, “My mom calls the shots,” and “You can’t mandate my consent.”
The reasons people give for not getting a Covid-19 vaccine are varied and complex.
Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

The researchers found that when the prophecy failed, most people didn’t quit the cult. They didn’t discard their old beliefs, protest that they had been lied to, and desert the cult’s leader. Instead, the leader offered his followers a brand new narrative, which many of them accepted: Their fervent faith had been so powerful that the apocalypse had been averted.

It wasn’t that the prophecy was wrong. Instead, the followers believed they had been so right that the cult had actually saved the world. Such contortions are a survival mechanism when living inside a worldview that runs up against reality.

“At that moment of cognitive dissonance, they want to resolve that dissonance and make sense of it all,” Van Bavel said. “They’re looking for anything.”

This internal pressure can be immense. Van Bavel and Packer scrutinized some of the social science research that followed the 1950s study and reached similar conclusions, including the cult-like properties they identify in the corporate culture at Enron.

Today, being pro- or anti-vaccine has become essential to many people’s social identity during the pandemic. William Bernstein, a neurologist and author of The Delusions of Crowds, pointed me to the “moral foundations” theory, which attempts to understand what motivates the decision-making of people on the right and left ends of the political spectrum.

That theory holds that, within the American right, the concepts of loyalty and betrayal are more influential to their worldview than on the American left. Staying true to your group is a powerful pull for conservatives.

“For these folks, facts mean nothing; membership and identity, everything,” Bernstein said over email. “Groupishness, in-/out-group differentiation ... is much stronger on the right.”

Republican vaccine skeptics have also been able to lean on messaging from their political movement’s leaders. Though most national GOP leaders are not explicitly anti-vaccine, many of them — particularly Donald Trump — have sown doubts about the seriousness of Covid-19 and distrust of medical science from the start of the pandemic.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that, according to August Gallup polling, unvaccinated Republicans see Covid-19 as less threatening, compared to how Democrats, independents, and vaccinated Republicans view the disease.

“When the vaccines showed up, it made sense to see them as unnecessary and untrustworthy,” Robb Willer, director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab at Stanford University, told me. “Once this situation crystallized, Republican leaders and media ... started to follow and play to anti-vaccine sentiment in the Trumpist base of the Republican Party, which helped to further crystallize anti-vaccine sentiment.”

This anti-mainstream narrative — skeptical of vaccines, hopeful about supposed miracle cures like ivermectin — can be found fully formed on patriots.win, the successor of the now-banned subreddit r/The_Donald, which once claimed nearly 800,000 members. I took a look to see how the president’s most fervent and most online followers, who were forced to build this new online home in the middle of the pandemic, construct their worldview and maintain it among themselves.

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the anti-vaccine narrative’s ability to evolve to keep up with the facts on the ground. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. Most of the population has gotten one of the vaccines at this point. The people dying today are largely unvaccinated.

But people have still proven quite capable of shaping and reshaping a narrative that doesn’t require them to admit they might have been wrong.

In fact, some think it’s their side saving the world.

“IVERMECTIN PRESCRIPTIONS SURGE,” reads one recently trending post on patriots.win, “Democrat media is failing. The truth is getting out. People are getting well. Lives are being saved.”

It doesn’t matter that, as Vox’s Kelsey Piper recently covered, the most methodologically sound studies find no net benefit in using ivermectin to treat Covid-19. The studies that do purport to show a benefit either are flawed (the drug may have been used in tandem with another drug, like dexamethasone, that is shown to work against the coronavirus) or maybe outright fraudulent.

Nor does it appear to matter to certain portions of the anti-vax community that the United States has been averaging more than 2,000 Covid-19 deaths every day, the highest numbers since the winter, and deaths have been concentrated among unvaccinated people. (One in four Americans over age 12 still has not received a dose of the vaccine.)

“If we’ve learned anything in the past five years,” Bernstein said, “it’s that tribal identity trumps everything else, including ... self-interest.”

People have formed a sense of community around being anti-vaccine

People will not surrender the skepticism of vaccines easily, because, as the moral foundations theory would hold, conservatives are especially resistant to betraying their in-group’s core beliefs.

One poster on patriots.win took that mentality to its logical conclusion, saying they would die before they let their children receive the Covid-19 vaccine. Another poster said, proudly, that they had pulled their child out of a school over a mask mandate. They were greeted with congratulations and praise.

This online community has become a source of solidarity and serves, from a psychological perspective, to deepen the person’s commitment to their worldview.

“Ostracism is so threatening to people. They create an insular community, relying on them for information and relying on them for belonging,” Van Bavel said. “They get social support. If they hear the news come out and defend the vaccine, other people rally around them.”

People can follow their chosen leaders and believe their chosen experts, but sometimes reality still breaks through. In some of those cases, they can seek support online when they are confronted with something in their lives that contradicts their anti-vaccine narrative.

One recent post on patriots.win begins, “Last night, a friend told me both him and his wife got the ‘jab’ ...” The poster recounts how a friend broke the news that the friend had gotten vaccinated in order to take a cruise that required it.

“The weakness of people is so disappointing,” says the top-rated comment.

A protester in a Penn State T-shirt holds a sign that reads, “No medical tyranny.”
An anti-vaccine and anti-mask mandate “Rally for Freedom” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on August 29.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
A protester holds a sign with a logo for “Earth protector” that reads, “Vaccines, a human disaster.”
Protesters gather for a “medical freedom and health choice” rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 28.
Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The discussion can stray into conspiratorial territory. In one recent post asking in all caps “IS THE VAX MAKING PEOPLE CRAZY?”, one commenter claimed to have seen two people in a car pull up to a green light “and just stare off into space confused.”

The person asked: “Did the vax do this?”

“See it every day ... It’s everyone,” another poster responded in a since-deleted comment. Added a third: “I’ve noticed that too.”

This kind of thinking is not new to humankind, of course. We have always relied on the people closest to us, whom we trust most, and been distrustful of outsiders and others. It is not uncommon, as cultural cognition theory would suggest, for people to flock to news and information sources that support what they already believe.

But these online communities — and the patriots.win forum is just one of many — have made it easier than ever for people to find affirmation in their fringe beliefs.

“Social media is not the cause of this, but it’s more like an accelerant,” Van Bavel said. “People have built reputations and communities online that matter to them a great deal.”

You can sometimes see the struggle to maintain a coherent worldview, to adapt, in some of these online threads. The oppositional narrative started with the idea that Covid-19 wasn’t all that dangerous to begin with — no more dangerous than the flu, a notion propagated by Trump, among others, early on.

The intensity of the pandemic has made it hard to maintain that belief. Covid-19 was always deadlier than the flu. The delta variant is more contagious than its predecessors and could be more virulent. One in 500 Americans has died at this point.

So the anti-vaccine narrative gravitated toward alternative cures in the face of the virus, hydroxychloroquine being the best-known example and ivermectin being the most recent to gain widespread attention.

Monoclonal antibodies, a treatment pushed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for people infected with Covid-19, are also a focus for posters on patriots.win. That treatment does have scientific evidence to support it — but it is to stop people from ending up hospitalized after they’re infected with the virus, an outcome people would be much more likely to avoid if they got vaccinated. But some Americans are clinging to any reason they can find to avoid the vaccine, and the availability of such a treatment gives them one.

There always seems to be something new: Rolling Stone reported recently on people gargling iodine as a coronavirus prophylactic.

“They’re trying to find some cure, because we are living in a pandemic,” Van Bavel said. “They’re looking for anything to rationalize their belief that the vaccines are wrong.”

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