Sunday, October 10, 2021

"It's All about Control:" Conservatives, Public Health, and the Jackhammer Method of Persuasion

Coronavirus, CDC Image
Right-wing firebrand Ryan Fournier recently complained on his Twitter account that the government uses the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to control people. He gave no support to public health. Instead, he invited his followers to fear the power that big government was exerting on their lives: 

“Los Angeles will soon require a VACCINE PASSPORT if you want to enter a:
Nail salon
This is no longer about the pandemic. It's about control!

Anyone who follows conservative anti-vaccine and anti-mask rhetoric hears the same phrase, over and over: “It’s about control.” It’s not about public health, they imply, it’s about control. Do they have a good argument to prove that? Of course not. Instead, they mindlessly repeat “It’s about control” over – and over – and over.

Indeed, what conservative listeners hear all day from their favorite media and elected officials is: “It’s about control.” “It’s about control.” “It’s about control.” The same phrase, pounded into their brains with the force of jackhammers.

Let’s start with two premises:

1. The coronavirus vaccines and face masks have been proven to be quite safe and effective.
2. For some reason, American conservatives have taken the virus’ side in this pandemic.

Since the substantive arguments against the vaccines and masks are absurd, American conservatives rely, instead, on two simple persuasive techniques: repetition and misdirection. The same methods that stage magicians use to fool their audiences. 
What are some of the absurd arguments against public health? Prominent conservatives have claimed that the vaccines magnetize a person’s body to the extent that brass keys (which, of course, are not magnetic) will stick to a person’s body. They allege that tiny octopus-like creatures are injected along with the vaccines. (No, I didn’t make that up). Or that the vaccines contain microchips. Or that they alter a person’s DNA. Or that face masks like the ones surgeons wear all day trap carbon dioxide. Only the most deluded people will believe such nonsense. Although there turn out to be more deluded people than I would have expected, conservatives need to reach a larger audience. Conservatives turn to repetition and misdirection because their substantive arguments are ridiculous. They have no other choice.

The point is that, whatever conservatives lack in content, they make up in repetition. In a massive six-month study, Media Matters found that Fox News hosts, guests, and announcers attacked coronavirus vaccines almost every day. Fox News offered a wide range of bizarre accusations, one of which is the argument that vaccines are about government control, not about health. Fox News also routinely falsely claimed that vaccines were killing people, that they were ineffective, or that the coronavirus can be cured by quack medicine treatments.

Here was my moment of epiphany. The other day, wanting to stay alert while driving, I turned on a local talk radio station. Hour after hour (it dawned on me) talk radio hosts rant about the vaccines and masks, say that the masks and vaccines are all about control, and tell people that they are dangerous. Then, of course, public health misinformation is also all over Facebook and any number of right-wing websites. Rarely do conservatives present any evidence. Even less often do they present evidence that is remotely credible. That’s not the point. The point is that they repeat wild accusations constantly. Fox News and talk radio addicts expose themselves to a constant run, an endless, frantic flood, of misinformation. Absurd lies. Obvious nonsense. And why do they believe the nonsense? The answer: repetition. It’s not that the information is good, or even that it makes sense, but that many conservatives hear the misinformation all day and all night. Televisions in military bases and airports blare Fox News constantly to captive audiences. Many people subscribe to cable just so they can be misinformed.

Worse, the exact phrase – “It’s about control” – crops up over and over. Listeners’ minds are programmed to believe that “It’s all about control.” It’s not just that the false idea is repeated, but that the exact words are repeated in a direct, simple, easy-to-remember formula. Let’s take a look.

“It’s About Control”
There are many examples of the standard formula. Pedro Gonzalez, appearing as a guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, complained about military coronavirus vaccination mandates:

“The answer to your question is that this isn’t about public safety, it’s about control.”

Likewise, Tennessee congressional representative Diana Harshbarger proudly posted on her website that she opposed President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates:

“‘The recent vaccine mandates by President Biden are nothing short of authoritarian government overreach that infringe upon our American civil liberties,’ said Congresswoman Harshbarger. ‘The Biden administration has revealed that this isn’t about COVID-19, it’s about control.’” Americans have rightfully lost their trust in President Biden to provide accurate guidance when it comes to COVID-19 as he continues to put politics over science.’”

Agreeing that it is all about control, actor Kevin Sorbo, who played Hercules on television, posted on his social media that:

“It’s not about a mask, it’s about CONTROL.” 

Similarly, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt tweeted that:

“But gov’t shouldn’t mandate those masks or masks for kids. It’s about control and I’m fighting back.”

Also concerned about government control, preacher Dr. Jimmy DeYoung, Sr. asked a guest on his talk radio show:

“Could this vaccine be another form of government control of the people?”

Not long after, Dr. DeYoung became one of several unvaccinated right-wing, anti-public health radio hosts to die from a coronavirus infection. It seems that it is dangerous to believe your own propaganda. Who would have guessed? 

Elaine's Post: Why Do People Fear the COVID-19 Vaccine More Than They Fear COVID-19? The Perception of Control  - Elaine discuses the psychology of vaccine hesitancy.

And the Repetition Filters on Down –
Does this constant repetition about “control” have an effect? Alas, it does. Perfectly ordinary people find themselves echoing the same phrase: that public health measures are all about control. They even repeat the exact words – “It’s about control” – over and over, like tape recorders, like automata who are programmed to repeat a favorite phrase while never thinking about what it means. 

For example, refusing to take a mandated vaccine, substitute teacher April Johnson wrote to a local newspaper:

“But it’s not really about science or being ‘safe.’ It’s about control. Our state government doesn’t think we, the people who elected them, are capable of making our own choices. They are using fear tactics to steal away personal liberty, bit by bit. But I won’t comply. I won’t play the game.”

Aha! She repeated the magic phase, “It’s  about control.” Of course, any number of demonstrators are waving signs like the one in a recent Boulder protest, which said: 

“It’s not about the virus. It’s about control.”

Similarly, Shannon Long, a speaker at a recent Maryland school board meeting, complained that it was all about control. According to the news report:

“Ms. Long complained about ‘politicians and their bull-- — science. This is not about health. It’s about control.’”

Not to be outdone, a speaker at a North Carolina school board meeting was even more defiant as she protested government control:

“‘The reason for these mask mandates is not the health of our kids. It’s all about control,’ one woman said. ‘We do not consent. We do not comply.’”

“It’s about control” has, by sheer force of repetition, programmed itself into ordinary people’s brains. People who would otherwise have lived perfectly normal, good lives immerse themselves in conservative discourse and, by sheer force of hearing the repetition, begin to parrot right-wing phrases. I can’t say that they are parroting ideas. They aren’t. They are parroting words that have pounded into their minds. 

In other words, conservatives use the jackhammer approach to persuasion.

And Misdirection!
A rational, issue-based discussion of vaccines and masks would focus on the actual issues. Does the FDA have good evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective? Are there documented harms from the vaccines, or do masks really trap your carbon dioxide? Discussing substantive evidence will get conservatives only so far, since they don’t really have much evidence. Talking about microscopic octopi and DNA modification only gets you so far. But as soon as conservatives say, “It’s about control,” we are no longer debating the same issues. We are, instead, questioning whether we want to let the government tell us what to do. Do we want the government to tell us how to raise our children? Do we want the government to make health decisions on our behalf?

There is, of course, nothing new or tyrannical about public health. I grew up in the era of polio quarantines. The Founders of our Republic imposed quarantines and other public health measures when they thought they were necessary.

Of course, unfortunately, on the whole, the conservative public knows no more about history than they do about science. And so, the pandemic rages on – needlessly, and tragically.

For, in real life, it is not about control.


Further Reading: People Did Not Believe Cassandra’s Warnings About the Trojan Horse, And People Didn’t Believe Bill Gates’ Warning about Viral Pandemics

Elaine’s Post: COVID-19 Misinformation and Lies Are Killing Young People

Research Note: A theory of persuasion called the Elaboration Likelihood Model says that there two different ways that audiences can process information. They can take the Central Route, which means they gather information and analyze the issue. Or they can take the Peripheral Route, in which they rely on otherwise irrelevant cues like the attractiveness of the source, or the simple repetition of the message.

People who feel qualified and willing to analyze information carefully will engage in critical thinking when they hear persuasive messages. People who, for whatever reason, are not analyzing the information will instead rely on cues. The simple fact that so many people have heard “It’s all about control” so many times gives them a peripheral cue. Repetition can persuade people–if they don’t spend time and effort to analyze the facts.

Citizenship Note: Yes, the conservative media outlets are utterly irresponsible. The rest of the public does, however, need to listen to what they are saying. There is, for example, no reason that the anti-public-health hysteria should have caught public health experts off guard. Right-wing propaganda goes under the radar only if people refuse to turn on their metaphorical radar sets and pay attention to what conservatives are saying. Yes, conservatives often live in a media bubble. When they emerge from that bubble, however, they can sometimes become quite dangerous. Pay attention.

[Note: In this post, I supplied italics every time someone said, “it’s about control.” The words are the same; I just added italics.

P.S. I love Kevin Sorbo's shows. Especially Andromeda. Just saying. 

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