Here’s How to Generate Fear Like A Cult Leader: A guide to the next phase of vaccine-resistance

What the Covid Vaccine Confidence Campaign Misses 

Assume correlation. Anticipate reaction. Always amplify fear.  

I call it the Cult Leader’s Playbook, the step-by-step strategies used by David Koresh and Jim Jones to deceptively influence the beliefs and behaviors of their followers. 

The creators of anti-vaccine messaging rely on that playbook now, during the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccinations, to spread misinformation about what will happen to people who choose the vaccination.   

After studying pseudoscience and misinformation for over 20 years, I know what those who are against the vaccine are doing.  And I want you to understand how they’re trying to manipulate you and make you afraid. 

There are lots of smart people out there trying to create what they call “covid vaccine confidence,” but that plan isn’t going to go as expected. I know the playbook on the type of misinformation that gets unleashed before it happens. 

The current timeline in the U.S. calls for vaccinating 45 million Americans by March 1, 2021. 

Myth: People’s trust in vaccines will increase as more people get vaccinated. The assumption is that those on the fence will get vaccinated. And others who think vaccines are harmful will change their minds and stand in line for the vaccine. 

But what does the Cult Leader’s Playbook have to say about how to handle the vaccine rollout? 

Right now, the Ad Council and the Covid Collaborative have a $50 million ad campaign to boost confidence in vaccines.  

The campaign relies on polls such as a recent Gallup survey of 2,985 people. When asked why they won’t be vaccinated, 37% mentioned the rushed development. And 26% want to wait until it’s safe. 

Basing the ad campaign on responses to polling is a good start.  I applaud the effort to increase confidence in the latest scientific development.  Yet, the ad campaign targets the feelings people had yesterday.  It doesn’t anticipate what they will respond to tomorrow. 

Think of all the people who are hesitant as a pool of potential recruits.  Two opposing campaigns are trying to recruit from this pool. One is the pro-vaccine Ad Council. The other is the anti-vaccine campaign. 

Messages from the pro-vaccine campaign promote information about scientific facts and build trust in vaccines. 

The anti-vaccine campaign targets the same pool of people. It starts with a few people creating and distributing anti-vaccine messages on social media and contributing articles at news sites. Readers share those messages online and with their friends and families. This fear breaks trust. That’s how vaccine-resistant beliefs make their way to the vaccine-hesitant crowd. 

Those messages of mistrust are five times more effective at recruiting people from the pool. And that was before the pandemic. The mistrust could even strengthen as people see headlines about bad reactions to the vaccine or hear anything negative. 

Here’s how the cult leaders will use their playbook to sway people to their side. 

Strategy #1: Assume correlations 
Of those 45 million people, how many will have a heart attack by March 1? How many  will discover they have leukemia? Or a stroke? Or any other unexpected disease or illness? 

How many will conclude that those two things didn’t just happen but, instead, conclude the vaccine caused the illness? 

This is called correlation.  A common refrain in critical thinking is: Correlation doesn’t not imply causation.  But, what does that mean for you? 

Here’s an example (and a prediction): 

In December, 20 million Americans got vaccinated.  Out of those, 409 got heart attacks. 

Those two numbers are related, because they describe the same people.  Nothing here proves vaccines caused the heart attacks, but it is implied.  There is a correlation.  That does not mean there is causation. 

Yet, 409 is a lot of heart attacks.  You could easily draw the conclusion that vaccines must be the cause.  Most of us don’t know, off the top of our heads, how many Americans have heart attacks every month.  Without something to compare it to, if you already felt dubious about vaccines… this could easily sound convincing. However, according the CDC, on any given month, 67,083 Americans have heart attacks. 

If I were a cult-leader or someone creating misinformation to break trust, I’d take every instance of an illness and amplify it, using causation, to frighten. 

It will be difficult to tell frightened people, “You are mistaking correlation for causation.” Those words won’t mean very much when someone in their family just had a heart attack after getting a vaccine. Because they will be terrified that they’re responsible because they encouraged a relative to be vaccinated. 

Research shows you can prevent people from falling for this implied connection. Limit the fear by explaining this technique before someone hears it.  (See Vaccinating Against Hate: Using Attitudinal Inoculation to Confer Resistance to Persuasion by Extremist Propaganda). 

Strategy # 2: Anticipate reactions 
After spreading misinformation, cult leaders will try to drive a wedge between you and your family. Here’s how they do that. 

First, they anticipate conversations between you and your relatives. Next, they explain that evil forces will try to keep you from learning the truth. They tell you those evil forces can come from people you know and trust like good friends and relatives. The cult leaders even give you examples of phrases you might hear like, “We’re worried about you. You’re withdrawing from us and spending time with strange people.”   

You’ll remember this when someone you love questions you about your new beliefs. As strange as it sounds, you’ll think the devil is talking to you through your brother. But that’s exactly how the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the cult leader of the Moonies, converted his followers during the 1970s. 

Taking a page out of the Cult Leader’s Playbook means anticipating their messages. If you can do that, you will understand what’s happening when you see pushback to the vaccine rollout.