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Expert Blog: Understanding the Communications surrounding the Coronavirus Vaccine

Dr. Colin Alexander explores the communications surrounding the Coronavirus vaccine

Covid vaccine

Although I would rather not have to begin in this way, it seems necessary to start by saying that I am not a so-called ‘anti-vaxxer’. My wife and I have both had the recommended vaccines and so have our children. This latest expert blog will therefore refrain from either pro or anti vaccination appeals and simply focus on the exploration of propaganda and public debate surrounding vaccinations in the current COVID-19 climate.

The early twentieth century philosopher Antonio Gramsci discussed the notion of ‘common sense’ when it came to the circulation of propaganda within a given society. Gramsci noted how one of the highest achievements for the propagandist within the dissemination of mass communications is the successful transfer of a contested subject with a multitude of legitimate positions into the realm of public consensus wherein the vast majority consider alternative positions to be illegitimate and where some don’t even realise that alternative positions exist at all. In short, the highest level of propaganda is the wholehearted adoption of a position by the recipients of messages who are unaware that there was ever a debate to be had about the issue concerned. These propaganda techniques can be witnessed in the coverage of all types of issues: war as gallantry; the work of charities as wholly ‘good cause’; or the framing of North Korea and Kim Jong Un as psychopathic and the current threat to world peace.

To this end, my analysis of the current propaganda environment around COVID-19 concludes without much controversy that there is a complex, concerted, multifaceted and multi-agency communications effort operating within the public sphere that is tasked with the nullification of public debate about anything other than the positive merits of vaccination. All arguments against vaccination are being marginalised as illegitimate ‘extremist’ views. As Boris Johnson disparagingly said in July this year when discussing anti-vaxxers: “They are NUTS!” From a propaganda studies perspective then, there is a bid to psychologically overwhelm the public into believing that the vaccination is the sole solution to ending the COVID-19 pandemic, and not something that needs any level of critical thought, debate and questioning.

However, while some ‘anti-vaxxer’ material is quite hair-raising conspiracy theory stuff, the labelling of anyone with concerns about vaccinations as an ‘anti-vaxxer’ is unwarranted and forms part of this propaganda strategy to make even modest scrutiny of this contested subject appear illegitimate, extreme and perhaps even ‘unpatriotic’ if that age-old propaganda strategy of appeal to nationalism is included. Most of those being labelled ‘anti-vaxxers’ in this current climate should more accurately be called ‘vax scrutinisers’ as they are quite reasonably concerned with issues of body sovereignty and want to scrutinise powerful drug companies and a powerful state authority going out of its way to inject a substance into them. This is a rational and advisable position to take but one that appears to be threatening to the authorities. The next section will look at this in more detail.

In tandem with this position, the mainstream news media, social media platforms and even some alternative news sites appear to be engaged in a project of mass self-censorship where only limited scrutiny of the topic exists (a key part of propaganda campaigns) and certainly nothing that would resemble a fundamental interrogation of vaccine strategy. These organisations are thereby reneging on their journalistic oath by refusing to properly hold the government and drug companies to account. This is primarily on account of the allegiance of these media organisations to neoliberal capitalism and its regular functioning.

Analysing Pro-vaccine Propaganda

Much of the pro-vaccine propaganda revolves around the notion of it offering a return to ‘normality’. This is clearly an emotionally appealing message after a year of social restrictions and healthcare problems for many. However, the more critical question ought to be what is meant by ‘normal’ and ought we to desire a return to it? Remember: pre-pandemic ‘normal’ wasn’t all that great for a lot of people around the world and it wasn’t great for forests, soil preservation, air quality and the oceans either. At the most fundamental level then ‘normal’ appears to represent the return to mankind’s relentless slide towards an ecocidal climatic catastrophe. ‘Normal’ involves the re-emergence (if indeed it ever went away) of hedonistic consumption and the devastation of the natural world in its wake. To this end, ‘normal’ is being framed within the propaganda messaging as whatever you want ‘normal’ to mean, but it’s not public health that is at the centre of this ‘normal’ for the government, it’s a neoliberal capital normal with all its fallacies, pitfalls, addictions and exploitations. That, in my mind, is what the politicians really mean when they say ‘normal’.

Within this context then, the COVID-19 vaccine simply represents another example of modern medicine treating symptoms rather than the social and environmental causes of a great many illnesses. From taking paracetamol for a headache to taking anti-depressants on account of low or depressed mood states or cancer treatments without altering the lifestyle or environment that may have caused or contributed to these health problems – expertise spends most of its time trying to fix us when we’re broken rather than understanding the social, economic, political and environmental causes of illnesses and giving us the tools to prevent illness in the first place. The vaccine thus offers us a ‘cure’ for COVID-19 without us having to acknowledge that human behaviour creates the conditions for the easy spread of this virus (and many other viruses throughout history) on account of the way that we live and humanity’s unbalanced and exploitative treatment of the natural world. Pro-vaccine propaganda is thus part of the nullifying of a most necessary discussion surrounding us as a species needing to make changes to prevent future pandemics.

During the 1940s the cultural theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno discussed the concept of mankind’s ‘new barbarity’ in the age of Enlightenment. This argument has been reapplied to include the unsustainable exploitation of the natural world and the seeming lack of awareness of most people the consequences of doing so. Thus, in COVID-19 as a crossover virus from the animal kingdom, nature has sent us a very clear warning about the consequences of how we currently live. However, rather than view the virus as a consequence of our unbalanced interaction with nature, the propaganda asks us to view it as an ‘enemy’ that needs to be beaten. This was discussed in my previous vlog in more detail. By using militaristic language of ‘beating’ the virus with a vaccine we are able to continue to live as we do, ignoring nature’s warnings and continuing the conditions for future pandemics.

In relation to current understandings of human psychology we know from the work of the likes of psychologist Paul Gilbert that humans have a tendency to want to continue ways of living that they have normalised even if those ways are detrimental to our health and the world around us. Within this prism we underestimate and ignore threats that are complex and not immediate. At a most basic level then, questions ought to be raised around the prospect of a future where more and more vaccinations are needed for diseases that have emerged on account of our ways of living and unwillingness to deviate from them and what that dystopian world may look like.

This blog is not an appeal for readers to accept the COVID-19 vaccination or not. The appeal here is for everyone to develop greater propaganda literacy by making every effort to understand the decisions of their lives as fully as possible and to not be subservient to powerful bodies with vested interests in manoeuvring the public towards interests that may or may not fit with your ethical code or personal interests. Indeed, the prevailing pro-vaccine propaganda uses the wartime strategy of moral obligation messaging in its bid to encourage people to accept it. However, one person’s ethical code can be repulsive to another as there is no over-arching consensus as to what represents ‘good’ and ‘bad’. People ought to decide for themselves what their ethics are rather than have them dictated to them by external forces that may or may not have their interests at heart.

Furthermore, pro-vaccine propaganda discusses the speedy development of the vaccine as a landmark in human progress that should be celebrated. However, scientific and technological progress is often mistaken for actual human evolutionary progress (which is much MUCH slower). We are essentially the same humans as those who walked the earth five thousand years ago – a blink of an eye in human evolutionary terms. Do not be fooled by this message of the vaccine as part of our march towards progress. The mass vaccination of humans against COVID-19 may actually be counter-productive to the latter because it permits the continuation of a mindset that views the pillaging of the natural world as acceptable and thereby reducing the likelihood of mankind learning how to live in greater ecological harmony.

Finally, there is an adage in propaganda studies that you probably don’t need anything that is advertised to you. The cultural theorist Raymond Williams discussed how product advertising attempts to engage the viewer’s emotions rather than reason. For example, food advertising isn’t usually around fruit and vegetables but cakes, meats and drinks. While car adverts tell you little about the car itself and every perfume and aftershave advert is essentially the same regurgitated sexualised ‘glamour’. With this adage in mind then, the suspicions of the propaganda scholar are immediately heightened when encountering this government public communications strategy around COVID-19 and its vaccine.  This is not to say that getting vaccinated is wrong or not needed – that’s up to you in what I hope is as much of an independent decision as possible. However, the relentless and seemingly agitated pursuit of a dominant pro-vaccine narrative by the establishment must raise suspicions over the intent behind the communications. This is not necessarily to give credence to any of the conspiracy theories that can be easily found on the web but it is simply to say that a lot of very powerful people and organisations have a lot to gain financially from mass-vaccination and that we as a public have every right to scrutinise to the nth degree the full spectrum of arguments before we agree to be injected with something into our bodies. There is nothing unreasonable about that and those who do so do not deserve to be denigrated as ‘anti-vaxxers’ or ‘nuts’.

What is the solution then? If indeed one exists at all. I am not going to disclose my own decision around the vaccine as this is not an instructional blog and certainly not a ‘call to arms’ (to use the government’s militaristic approach to the glorification of key workers).  I do however firmly believe in the importance of propaganda literacy and in raising the public’s critical awareness of the communications environment around us. Achieving this is fundamental to individuals having greater control of their lives and not accepting the distortion tactics of the political class on whatever topic. Indeed, just knowing when distortion is distortion (and when it is not) and then questioning why we are being given certain messages or instructions, with alternative viewpoints silenced, is a major step in the right direction. No matter whether you decide to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or not then what is important is that the decision also comes with a commitment to a self-educational process about the communications world around you and your personal responsibility towards the ecological upkeep of the planet. Things should not just return to ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ in my mind involves more and more pandemics where vaccination is offered as a ‘solution’. However, ultimately there will have to be recognition sooner or later that this an unsustainable trajectory. Indeed, perhaps the dystopian future presented in the film The Matrix (1999) where humans are connected batteries living in isolation pods and being fed virtual images of a make-believe world is not so far-fetched after all. To quote the character Morpheus from the film, the question is Do you want the red pill or do you want the blue pill?

Dr. Colin Alexander is Senior Lecturer in Political Communications within the Communication and Society subject team at the School of Arts and Humanities.

Check here for the latest coronavirus advice and updates from NTU.

Expert Blog: Understanding the Communications surrounding the Coronavirus Vaccine

Published on 14 January 2021
  • Category: Research; School of Arts and Humanities

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