Behaviour Change and Insurrection

For the past few days, I have been monitoring voice chat groups used by people fighting vaccine mandates in Canada and attempting to overthrow the government.

I have been a fly on the wall of a virtual room that includes people who feel their freedom has been stolen by the government and they are mad as hell about it. Naturally, there are also a lot of anti-vaxxers in the group.

After listening in on an echo chamber of like-minded people I now better understand how people can connect and support each other through social media. Many participants don’t trust science, the government, or “the mainstream media,” but support each other no matter how fanciful some of the conspiracy theories can be.

Like many other Canadians (see the graphic above), I have my own judgements on this attempt to overthrow the government. But I don’t wish to write about judgement. Instead, I would like to make two observations related to Behaviour Change.

Confirmation bias is incredibly powerful. People in the chat rooms readily accept legal opinions from people without legal training. Medical opinions from people without medical training. Opinions about the government from people who clearly have no idea about how government functions or even who our government leaders are.

In one particular heartbreaking exchange, a father said his young child is unvaccinated and he was very confused about what he should do. He was clearly distraught, and several people admirably expressed sympathy for him in his situation. However, they also told him he was doing the right thing and not to put that poison in his son’s veins. The father broke down crying, saying “thank you so much, I haven’t known what to do.”

With all of the medical advice that is available to him, he took direction from anonymous BigTruckerBob54 on a channel set up by people who are trying to overthrow the government.

According to Wikipedia, confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

We are all susceptible to confirmation bias. We are wise to try to avoid it.

Social norms are powerful. In the chat rooms, leaders and followers are easily identified. Leaders set rules and are given the tools to kick out people (called “trolls”) with dissenting views.

While kicking out dissenters adds to the confirmation bias, it is somewhat understandable. It is hard to overthrow a government when government supporters have infiltrated your ranks, after all.

The leaders set and enforce rules of behaviour in the chat room.

For example, playing music is banned. Singing is not allowed unless it is the national anthem. Swearing is banned because many listeners have their children with them. Dissenting views are banned, as is questioning the goals of the leaders. Political speeches are banned unless it is criticism of Prime Minister Trudeau, which is not only tolerated but applauded.

The self-described freedom-fighters are surprisingly tolerant of the infringements on their freedom in the channels, including their right to free speech. Observing and supporting the rules, no matter how draconian, has become a social norm.

In summary, confirmation bias is bad, social norms are good – as long as you are not using them to overthrow a government.