If you needed any proof at all that certain topics could be a catalyst in widening our great political divide, look no further than “vaccine passports.” This past weekend there were clear battle lines on social media, with many calling out the dangers that such passports bring, while others argued that the use of these could make it easier for people to travel and gather safely.
Those opposed voice fears akin to government overreach.
Former Republican Texas Congressman Ron Paul wrote, “‘Vaccine passports’ must be stopped. Accepting them means accepting the false idea that government owns your life, body and freedom”
“We are against vaccine passports. We are for voter ID,” noted author David J. Harris Jr. (@DAvidJHJarrisJr)
The sentiment was shared by Dr. David Drew Pinsky (@drdrew), who called for everyone to get vaccinated but remained an opponent of any form of government sanctioned passport. He wrote, “These vaccine passports segregate people and strip them of their freedom to travel internationally. Vaccinations are important, and I encourage everyone to get the Covid vaccine, but how would you feel if international travel also required other vaccinations?”
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By contrast those in favor highlighted how vaccine passports could bring about a return to normalcy. Political commentator Brian Tyler Cohen (@briantylercohen) was among those who also called out Dr. Drew noting, “International travel to certain countries literally already requires vaccinations. Every country requires a passport.”
The issue has continued to divide users, and it is one where it seems that middle ground is simply impossible to be found.
“The Covid pandemic has scarred all of us and emotions are boiling over like never before,” explained Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research. “The vaccine passport is simply the latest issue to roil across social media. As lockdown restrictions are eased and people who have been inoculated want to move forward with their lives, there’s no doubt that it is a significant topic.”
Yet, that won’t make it any easier to find common ground. In fact, both sides have such a strong case to make that their stance is unlikely to move the needle on the issue.
“There are strong arguments on both sides of this issue, which make implementing it problematic,” added Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.
“On the pro side, it would provide a mechanism for vaccinated people to do more things, it should make traveling safer, and it would promote getting vaccinated,” offered Enderle. “On the con side, given vaccinations aren’t yet available to all so it would be inherently discriminatory, it is not yet clear whether the vaccines prevent transmission or are effective against all variants, possibly putting people at risk, and if it isn’t done securely, fraud would likely be rampant.”
One notable aspects of the divide on social media over vaccine passports is that it isn’t strictly a left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative debate.
“There are some practical concerns about racial and ethnic disparities in vaccination rates,” explained Greg Sterling, VP of insights at the marketing SaaS firm Uberall.
“The concern there is that vaccine passports could contribute to discrimination toward non-while populations, although there’s nothing inherently discriminatory in the concept of a vaccine passport. Privacy and data leakage are additional concerns,” Sterling added. “Generally, however, the vaccine passport concept has triggered the conspiracy minded Covid denying population, which was influenced by the previous administration’s politicizing of the virus. That is the cause of many of the problems with certain populations resisting the vaccine.”
For many it is still an issue where the rallying cry is “freedom,” which is why hashtags for vaccine passports have trended with holocaust and fascism.
“The vaccine passport to them symbolizes government overreach,” said Sterling. “They’ve also been conditioned – partly by social media – to reflexively reject all things having to do with taking Covid seriously. Social media is where these conspiracies have been disseminated and amplified.”
Level Playing Field
Some of the issues may be addressed as more people can be vaccinated, but that may not solve the issue of passports, however.
“Time will eventually solve the discrimination problem – except for anti-vaxers – it does look like vaccines prevent transmission, but variants are still developing,” said Enderle. “There are secure systems like Clear that could be used to prevent fraud. By the time this was implemented correctly, we are likely to have variants that bypass the vaccines rendering passports useless. However, it may still be worth doing if only to drive more people to get vaccinated more quickly, reducing the odds that a vaccine bypassing variant emerges. You could also make the passports conditional, with new versions to address newer vaccines viable against the variants. Still, the related process would be complex, making it likely to be abused.
“As a result, a digital mechanism much like the one used for cyber currency would seem to have the best chance of both being trustworthy and adjusting for the changing virus mutation issues rapidly,” he added. “But much like we are unwilling to explore electronic voting, a non-paper passport is likely unacceptable to most decision-makers at the moment, making a viable vaccine passport solution unlikely.”
What is clear from this issue is that in addition to being impossible to find that middle ground, each side has continued to shout in the void. However, the hostility has increased accordingly.
Earlier this year President Joe Biden suggested that we’re in an uncivil war, and this is issue certainly highlights that fact as much as any. Issues like this truly make it seem that “you’re with us or against us,” and there is little room for anything in between.
“In today’s world, every significant topic is debated online,” said Netpop Research’s Crandall.
“It’s not much of a surprise that people are airing their feelings about the vaccine passport online, often using very hostile statements that roil across social media,” Crandall noted. “This is the new ‘normal.’ It’s where people turn to vent or just share their opinions to others. Whether or not others are reading doesn’t really matter. It’s the only place available to people these days to express themselves. Thankfully, much of it is hot air and we just hop from one topic to the next just like we did when discussing the last episode of Saturday Night Live around the water cooler at the office on Monday mornings.”