. . . and it’s costing lives

This past week, the Mississippi Department of Health made the decision to restrict comments on its Facebook page due to the fact that some comments “mislead the public about the safety, importance and effectiveness of vaccination.”  The media establishment, normally on the side of openness and transparency of Government at all levels, have essentially lionized the effort.  Mississippi news outlets that would normally editorialize at the top of their lungs against public outlets obfuscating dissenting voices have been mute.

It probably didn’t help that shortly after that Mississippi’s COVID Czar, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, gets caught on a Facebook live feed mocking people who have concerns about vaccinations by labeling them as “anti-science Nazis” and “excuse monkeys” and then proceeds to get in a Twitter back and forth with an attention-seeking former House member who finished a distant third in a three man Republican primary two years ago.

Before I get into what is a very valid criticism of MSDH on some just bad PR moves, let me say again, I think everyone should get vaccinated from COVID.  Full stop.  I did it for myself.  The math as I’ve calculated it is unassailable.

Now, MSDH has made the determination that because random people commented in ways that might be in conflict with MSDH’s messaging on its Facebook page comment section that people are jeopardized.  This, of course, presupposes that there weren’t already people out there that were anti vaccine or at least skeptical about COVID in some ways.

In a related story at the national level, the White House has been selectively flagging content for Facebook and encouraging its removal under the same school of thought.  Under the distopian label of “misinformation” the White House is making a list and urging social media outlets to shut down voices with all of the weight and leverage of the most powerful political office in the world.

Whether it’s the White House or the MS Department of Health, this high minded, heavy-handed handling of people that disagree with them is the height of arrogance and tone deafness.  It presupposes that everyone reading things on Facebook is a moron who are incapable of deciding for themselves what’s true and what’s not.  I can tell you that in 16 years of Y’all Politics, there have been tens of thousands of comments on our Facebook posts that I don’t agree with, but unless they’re libelous we generally take the stance that people should be free to express themselves.

Unfortunately, Mississippians (and Americans in general) have a long storied history of ignoring public health advice.  Not wearing a seatbelt can kill you.  Smoking can kill you.  Being fat can kill you.  And public health advocates have screamed for decades about all three and yet, people still make choices.  Arguably bad ones . . . but their choice nonetheless.  COVID public health advice is being dispensed now with such sanctimony, and it seems to have the clear intent of just beating people into submission.  People generally don’t like that and push back against it.

The difference now and clearly what MSDH does not understand is that so many COVID vaccine hesitant individuals believe in their heart that COVID has been politically weaponized.  It has been weaponized to substantially alter the course of the 2020 political campaign.

COVID has been used to justify trillions of dollars of new spending, and it is being used as an excuse to nationalize and radically alter voting practices.  And there is a lot of angst about that amongst conservatives, who are universally portrayed as morons for daring to push back on any of it.   They see 90%+ of the mainstream media as complicit with that effort.  Social media is at least one place that average people can feel like they can at least speak and maybe be heard.

Now MSDH’s primary delivery mechanism for their COVID messaging has been the mainstream media.  Press conferences, TV ads, and newspaper stories/interviews are the main thrust. That certainly makes some intuitive sense, particularly through the onset of the pandemic.  But now, things have changed.  When you realize how badly that conservatives, who are disproportionately vaccine resistant, distrust those sources, MSDH’s outreach and messaging progress has completely stalled out.  Its initial strategy has hit its limit through the messaging channels it has chosen.

A Gallup poll that came out this week says that only 10% of conservatives trust the mainstream media – and that’s nationally.  In Mississippi, it’s probably more like 5%.  That shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Mainstream media bias in Mississippi and nationally is systemic and the vast majority of those in the mainstream media in Mississippi have actual disdain for average Mississippians.  But 10% trust ratings is down there with telemarketers selling you an extended warranty on your car.  Spoiler alert – 73% of Democrats trust the same mainstream media in the same poll.

MSDH as part of its health mission, needs to figure out a way to talk to and target conservatives in their messaging.  And that’s not controversial. It has targeted demographic groups on outreach for a variety public health messages before.  But conservatives believe that the media means them harm, and at least in Mississippi, the ones with their hands on the lever have substantial disdain for the rank and file conservative voter in Mississippi.  And now Dobbs have handed people who have vaccine hesitancy a super easy excuse to shrug off public health advice from people they perceive think they’re idiots.

Whether MSDH has the legal right to selectively edit or just outright stop Facebook comments is arguable.  What’s not arguable is that by doing so it will further alienate MSDH from the people it needs to reach the most right now.  Vaccine hesitancy and skepticism about COVID long predated MSDH’s Facebook page.  But trying to muzzle the very people you’re trying to help by pretending that the comments section of the MSDH Facebook page has Svengali-like powers of persuasion for public health matters is not only bad PR – it’s bad public health policy.

MSDH has a tough assignment here.  I get it.  The politicization of COVID was not their doing.  But it is real and they appear tone deaf to that reality.  COVID has made everyone – and I mean everyone – look bad.  Public health officials, government officials, the media, political candidates, doctors and policymakers have all at one point had egg on their face due to the evolving nature of COVID.  No one (Trump, Biden, Fauci, Dobbs, Reeves or the media) has gotten this thing right from the beginning.

No one has cornered the market on what’s true either politically or from a public health perspective.

MSDH and Dobbs should immediately develop some humility and awareness of the environment they’re in.  They should try to outreach meaningfully to populations by engaging people they trust.  Get out of their self-induced media bubble.  Don’t be afraid of criticism or if people speak out.  Seek advice and cooperation from people who can help you reach those populations.  Don’t be preachy and for God sakes don’t mock people who are vaccine hesitant.

We are all in this thing together (even the ones we don’t agree with and the ones that don’t agree with us).  State and federal health officials should act like it.