Arguing on Facebook about COVID: a case study of key beliefs, rationales and strategies

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, social media platforms have become well-known for both disseminating misinformation and conspiracy theories as well as acting as valuable information sources concerning the novel coronavirus and governments’ efforts to manage and contain COVID. Facebook in particular – the world’s most popular social media site – has been singled out as a key platform for naysayers such as anti-vaccination exponents and ‘sovereign citizens’ to express their resentment at containment measures such as lockdowns, quarantine and self-isolation regulations, vaccination mandates and face-covering rules.

What rationales and beliefs underpin these arguments? How and to what extent are they contested or debated on Facebook? What rhetorical strategies are employed by commentators to attempt to persuade others that their views/facts are correct?

To explore these questions, I chose a case study of a short video (2 minutes 5 seconds long) shared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Facebook on 19 February 2022. I came across the video three days after it was published on the platform as part of my routine Facebook use. It turned up in my feed because a Facebook friend of mine had shared it (which it how the average Facebook user is presented with content from organisations like WHO if they don’t follow these accounts themselves.) I noticed how much engagement this post had received in those three days. There were 6,000 reactions: including 5k likes but also 551 laughing face emojis (suggesting viewers found the video content risible), 1.2k comments, 2.2k shares and 244k views. I decided to delve into the comments thread to see what people were saying in response to the video.

WHO’s official Facebook page has a huge follower base: at the time that I viewed this video, their page listed over 14 million likes and over 38 million followers. It is clearly a highly trusted Facebook presence. Many of its posts have thousands of reactions (the use of emojis to respond to posts), likes, comments and shares. WHO shares content at least once a day and often more frequently: most of this content is made by WHO itself in its role to communicate preventive health messages globally. In reviewing their latest content, it is evident that WHO has a very busy and accomplished team making their social media content.

The video featured two WHO experts: Dr Mike Ryan (pictured above from the opening section of the video) and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, both of whom feature regularly in WHO’s social media content. Ryan was introduced in a caption as ‘ED, WHO Health Emergencies Programme’ and Van Kerkhove as ‘COVID-19 technical lead, WHO Health Emergencies Programme’.

In this video, both people spoke to camera as if to an unseen interviewer, explaining why they were concerned about governments beginning to loosen COVID restrictions too quickly.

The written introduction to the video stated:

Some countries are lifting all public health and social measures despite high numbers of COVID-19 cases/deaths. Dr Mike Ryan and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove explain why a slow approach is better.

Ryan and Van Kerkhove went on to use simple English to acknowledge that there is a strong desire on the part of governments and citizens to ‘open up’ and remove all COVID restrictions and ‘go back to normal’. They warn, however, that such actions could lead to the pandemic continuing ‘much longer than it needs to be’ due to ‘the political pressure to open up’ in ‘some situations’, and that replacing abandoned control measures would be difficult if a new variant emerged. Ryan and Van Kerkhove emphasise the importance of ‘a slow, step-wise approach’ to lifting COVID restrictions rather than an ‘all-or-nothing approach’ that ‘many countries’ are adopting at this point in the COVID crisis.

Both speakers are careful not to single out individual leaders or governments for criticism in these quite vague statements, leaving it up to the viewer to make a judgement about exactly to which ‘situation’ they are referring. These experts also ‘acknowledge uncertainty’ and that their concerns may be unfounded but emphasise the need for caution. They note that they do not ‘blame anyone’ for feeling confused, given the continual flux in governments’ COVID measures. Van Kerkhove ends by stating firmly that ‘you [the video viewers] have control over this’ regardless of government actions and then Ryan chimes in by asking ‘every individual just to look at your situation’ and ‘be smart, protect yourself, protect others, get vaccinated and just be safe and careful’.

There’s a lot that could be said about the statements made by these two WHO experts in this video: the veiled critique of ‘many countries” government actions and health communication efforts, the focus on individual responsibility in the face of government inaction and lack of responsibility. But I wanted to direct my attention to the more than 1,000 comments Facebook users wrote in response to this video.

I noticed first that comments came from all over the world – evidence again of the global reach and popularity of Facebook. When commentors were responding to each other, therefore, there were many examples of someone in Asia, South America or Africa engaging with Facebook users located in the USA, Australia, Canada, Europe or the UK.

Another observation was that a vigorous debate was occurring in the comments section, with supporters of the video’s messages seeking to argue with those who decried what they saw as an overly cautious or even unscientific argument from the WHO experts. Those who did not support the WHO’s points made such arguments as (my paraphrasing):

  • opening up will help the economy – people need jobs
  • people’s lives need to get back to ‘normal’
  • most populations are now adequately vaccinated, so there is no need for further restrictions
  • governments are lying to their citizens and spreading false information as a way of exerting greater control over them
  • the novel coronavirus does not exist and nor does COVID
  • it is risk to one’s health to wear masks for prolonged periods of time
  • other health conditions kill more people than COVID
  • COVID mass testing and mass vaccination have been conducted as a profit-making enterprise serving Big Pharma and governments
  • WHO’s facts are wrong and they are spreading lies and fear, trying to promote their own interests for political purposes
  • WHO has shown little leadership during the pandemic and is ineffectual
  • face masks give a false sense of security and are useless as a preventive measure
  • people who follow government restrictions are being controlled and can’t think for themselves
  • the pandemic has been going on for two years and governments and health agencies like WHO are still not controlling it adequately
  • the person commenting does not like to feel forced to do anything by government authorities, especially if restrictions/mandates do not help the situation (in their view) – ‘my body, my choice’
  • even vaccinated people can still become infected with or transmit the coronavirus, fall ill or die of COVID – they are therefore pointless
  • COVID is ‘real’ but controllable like influenza or no worse than the common cold
  • governments who continue to impose restrictions/mandates are ‘Socialist’
  • people’s immune systems can be strengthened without vaccines due to basic health promoting strategies
  • people are dying from being given too many COVID vaccines (including children), not from the disease itself
  • vaccines are ‘bioweapons’
  • the medical establishment and the government are forcing COVID vaccines on people and hiding evidence of their serious side-effects
  • there is a difference between ‘dying with COVID’ and ‘dying from COVID’ – governments and health agencies are deliberately obscuring this
  • people need to be freed from living in fear
  • scientists and medical experts are controlled by governments to serve political agendas
  • ‘commonsense’ practices such as eating a healthy diet, taking Vitamin D and washing hands regularly will adequately protect against COVID

People who supported the points made by the WHO experts in the video tended to be reactive in their comments, responding to the naysayers using such rationales as:

  • COVID is a real threat and has killed many people – we still need to be cautious to protect ourselves and others
  • even though the situation seems to be improving in many countries, new variants could emerge that could pose major challenges
  • scientific and medical knowledge and expertise should be trusted over other information sources
  • many people are still dying
  • opening up too quickly will lead to many more deaths globally
  • vaccines do protect against serious disease and death and everyone should accept them: the benefits outweigh any risk
  • face masks are important protective agents against infection (just as shoes, for example, protect against foot injuries)
  • people who don’t want to conform to COVID restrictions/mandates are being selfish and don’t understand the importance of self-sacrifice to protect others
  • wearing face masks and getting vaccinated are small sacrifices to make for the greater good and saving others’ lives as well as self-protection
  • economies are damaged if too many workers become ill from COVID and can’t go to work
  • the person commenting still feels at high risk from COVID and is happy to continue to engage in preventive measures such as wearing masks and accepting vaccination
  • young children have not yet been protected by COVID vaccination in many countries and therefore are vulnerable to infection
  • mass vaccination programs have worked well globally to protect people against other serious diseases, such as polio
  • people who support dropping all restrictions are engaging in magical thinking or do not want to face reality
  • low income countries do not have enough medical support to help people who become ill with COVID
  • countries should work together in a global response to COVID rather than simply pursing nationalistic interests

Rhetorical strategies on the part of both ‘sides’ of the argument included:

  • giving examples from their own lives/health (e.g. they had avoided COVID because of wearing face masks and getting vaccinated or they avoided COVID because their immune systems were naturally strong and not weakened by vaccines)
  • describing the situations of people they knew personally (e.g. those who died from COVID vaccines or those who died because they refused COVID vaccines)
  • urging people to ‘do their research’ or ‘due diligence’ and not just rely on television, social media or what their friends tell them
  • accusing those who are disagreeing with them of ‘lying’, ‘making up facts to suit their agenda’, as ‘stupid’ or simply gullible (to either misinformation or in believing the science)
  • providing hyperlinks to articles or blog posts outside of Facebook to support their claims and urging others to read them as part of educating themselves about the ‘facts’
  • claiming ‘truth’ in response to ‘non-truths’, ‘lies’ or ‘fake news’
  • contrasting the value of all human lives versus the value of individual freedom
  • the use of large numbers to support the validity of the arguments

As just one example of a pithy exchange between two commentators:

Commentator 1: We can’t stop living.

Commentator 2: 900,000 Americans have.

These findings demonstrate the kinds of beliefs and rationales underpinning Facebook users’ concepts of COVID risk and their attitudes towards COVID restrictions. Both sides received ardent support from others. Comments sometime descended into ad hominem attacks but most of the content was focused on presenting opinions or ‘facts’ and responding to these arguments with counter-claims. Most of the commentators attempted to act as educators, challenging the misinformation or extreme views put forward by the naysayers. Emotions ran high as people defended their position or accused others of stupidity, blindness to the truth or making up facts. Some extreme misinformation positions and conspiracy theories were advanced (e.g. ‘the holy blood of Jesus Christ is our only protection’) but many arguments concerned topics such as whether vaccines were necessary or effective (and how many there should be) or raised issues around the politics of COVID control.

The main insight from this single case study of COVID commentary in response to a peak health agency’s video posted to Facebook is that there was little evidence of an echo-chamber or filter bubble where only one main viewpoint was put foward. Instead, vigorous debate and contestation about ‘the truth’ went on in the comments section, suggesting an open forum for many opinions to be aired. However, it was also clear that people’s opinions or beliefs were not challenged in and through the debates or comments. Despite all the argumentation and presenting of examples from personal experience or hyperlinks to other material, no consensus or acceptance of other people’s opposing views was evident in these comment threads.

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