Life can go back to normal in the United States only if millions more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19. The problem is that today’s communication environment is perfectly engineered to discourage that. Wild claims go viral, and partisans exploit any scientific uncertainty for political advantage. So when the FDA and the CDC paused the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week, the problem wasn’t just that a small number of people who had received it had developed a severe type of blood clot, or that experts openly disagreed about whether the move was justified or an overreaction. The April 13 announcement also created yet another opportunity for influencers to undercut public confidence in vaccination.
Never mind that experiencing a blood clot after receiving the J&J vaccine appears more unlikely than being struck by lightning. “There are reasons to believe those in fact aren’t the real numbers,” the Fox News host Tucker Carlson speculated hours after the FDA and CDC announcement. His 15-minute segment treated the government’s abundance of caution as evidence of nefarious intent. Carlson said:
Now [Anthony] Fauci has declared that because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has injured six people—and if that’s true, by the way, would make that vaccine much safer not just than birth-control pills, but safer than many other vaccines we’ve distributed in the past—because this one vaccine has hurt six people out of 7 million, we need to stop using it immediately. Does that make sense to you? No, it really doesn’t. It seems possible there may be more going on here.
The segment was a master class in spreading conspiracy theories under the guise of merely asking questions. On a typical night, Carlson has a TV audience of a few million people. He got an additional boost on Facebook, where his video was the most popular post about the Johnson & Johnson pause. Forty-five thousand people shared it on the leading social-media platform—which was already awash in friend-of-a-friend stories about supposed side effects from COVID-19 shots, aspersions against vaccines more generally, and portrayals of pandemic-related public-health measures as affronts to personal liberty.