Here's why your efforts to convince anti-vaxxers aren't working | Brooke Harrington

What can we do for people who refuse to get vaccinated or continue to deny the existence of Covid? This issue has been the subject of heated debate for many months in the US. Respect them! exhorted conservative commentators. Some suggested that they be shamed. Others suggested empathy for disinformation victims.As the surge in the Delta variant brings about the pandemic, anxiety over persuading the remaining pandemic skeptics has given way anger and despair. Recent viral news videos showing a Louisianan man recovering from severe Covid-19 infections in a hospital bed exemplified this. He stated that he would rather be in hospital than receive a vaccine. Many of us witnessed the human face of a strange phenomenon that healthcare workers have been telling about since last year: patients refusing to accept the reality of the virus, even though they are sick or dying.Leo Tolstoy asked about another social problem that seemed hopeless, poverty. What then should we do? My research area for the past decade has been sociology of fraud.1952 saw the birth of a seminal essay by Erving Goffman, a sociologe, on the art and practice of con. He identified three characters to understand the phenomenon: the operator, who is responsible for the con; the mark, which is the target of it; and the cooler, who is an ally of con artists and tries to console the victim after the fraud becomes apparent. This makes it easier for him to accept the inevitable, and then quietly go home.Goffman noted that all marks eventually realize that they were defrauded. Strangely, however, almost all marks never report the crime or complain to authorities. Why is this? Goffman says it is because admitting you were conned can be so shameful that people experience it as a social death, the end of one of many social roles that we all play.Many marks instead deny the con and claim they were part of it all the time. While this saves them pride and prevents social death, it allows the con to go unchecked, trapping others. Marks make a cowardly and selfish decision by prioritizing their self-image above the common good. Goffman isn't afraid to call this a moral failure.This moral failure will manifest in 2021 as Covid-infected pandemic denier and anti-vaxxers ranting on hospital beds. They have made the decision to save face rather than save lives. They could tell the truth, expose the con and say: Covid is real. Get vaccinated. Many won't. It is difficult to not conclude that some people are conscious of making an emotional and socially-protective choice at the expense for the rest of us.Goffman's work suggests two strategies to deal with people who believe in false ideas. First, let them experience what Goffman calls social death. The second, and possibly more productive, option is to deploy coolers to help the pandemic survivors return to mainstream society.Coolers who are trustworthy and whose opinions they value are the most effective. People don't care about getting the approval of everyone. We care more about the status and faces of specific communities, which Herbert Hyman (a sociologer in the mid-20th Century) called reference groups.Many people belong to multiple reference groups. Some overlap with their families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and political affiliations. These groups are not only a structure for our social networks but also serve a gatekeeping function. We trust the information we get from our reference group and seek approval from other members.Anti-vaxxers and covid deniers are like everyone else in that they don't seek validation from anyone. The respect them, shame and empathise approach has not worked and will not change anything. Shame, empathy, and respect only have impact and currency within certain social networks. The same goes for the trustworthiness and credibility of information. Pandemic precautions suggested by lamestream media should be ignored by anyone who is part of Fox Nation's reference group. However, if the same information came from Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, it would likely be taken much more seriously.It is a good thing that some prominent conservative figures are starting to encourage vaccination, even though they have been, as in Goffmans Theory, complicit in the con. It is time to get back to the truth.Yet, there are not enough Fox News hosts or Republican politicians to encourage vaccination, masking, and other Covid precautions. We need coolers, and we need them fast.You can do this by looking for other reference groups, besides those in media and politics that are important to anti-vaxxers and pandemic deniers. As harmful as social media has been in spreading misinformation, it also makes it easy to identify and join groups that promote anti-vax sentiment.We can identify those who are turning their backs against Covid denialism and support them on their journey. If our reference groups overlap, we can message them to offer support, especially if they are from the same area or have the same faith. The better the social space shared, the more. If they are trolled about their concerns about Covid Denialism, we might offer to support them. We could also let them know we admire their honesty.Although they may not be able to reach millions of viewers on television, these people can still act as coolers for others in their reference groups online and offline. Their status in the group will determine how much influence they have to help their fellow travelers accept the reality of the pandemic. This may allow them to return to society or even prevent them from posing a threat to others.