Lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington.

Lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP

To Beat the Pandemic, Biden Needs to Take the Politics Out of It

The vast majority of recent survey respondents said “Politics has made it harder to learn the truth about COVID-19.”

Many have written about the sharply divided American electorate and its consequences for the incoming Biden administration. Our research on the COVID-19 pandemic highlights just how significantly those divisions may impact the ability of the new administration to succeed in some of its more pressing—and ambitious—goals.   

Bottom line up front: That success may hinge in large part on how effectively President Biden and his team can depoliticize the public conversation around such challenges as mitigating the deleterious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, our recent survey*, conducted by the  University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs and Florida’s Center for Cybersecurity, highlights the extent to which politically-oriented social media messaging can influence personal behaviors at the expense of public health considerations. 

For most Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic has been far more than just an abstract political debate playing out in cyberspace. For example, when we surveyed a representative sample of 1,003 American adults from January 9-12 of this year, over two-thirds of them (67%) said that they either “somewhat” or “strongly agreed” that the COVID-19 pandemic has been “too politicized” in both the mainstream and social media.  

In addition, nearly one-third of our respondents (30%) noted that disagreements with their family and friends over the nature and extent of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused tension in those personal relationships. Indeed, among those respondents who were active users of Facebook—the most ubiquitous of social media platforms—nearly 1 in 4 respondents (23%) reported unfriending someone over “political” comments made about COVID-19.

However, the treatment of COVID-19 in social media has created more than just tensions in American households and friendship networks. It has also impacted personal behavior, and in so doing, the largely unregulated nature of social media discourse may impede public health strategies designed to mitigate the worst of the pandemic. 

For example, over three-quarters of our respondents (76%) indicated that “Politics has made it harder to learn the truth about COVID-19.” And if that “truth” influences someone’s personal behavior—social distancing, wearing a mask, getting a vaccination—then it’s something that elected policymakers and those charged with implementing their polices must reckon with. 

Just how deep and influential is that political divide? Polling data released over the past year (not connected to our survey) have consistently shown that political party affiliation plays a critical role in shaping one’s attitudes toward pandemic public health measures and mitigation practices, and those attitudes now appear to be influencing individual behaviors regarding COVID-19 vaccines as well. 

For example, half of those indicating an affiliation with the Democratic party in our survey (50%) said that they will “definitely” get vaccinated, while only 34% of those indicating a Republican affiliation and 32% of political Independents said the same. Meanwhile, 17% of Republican respondents and 18% of those indicating no political party affiliation said that they will “definitely not get vaccinated,” compared with only 8% of Democratic respondents.

These results also show that Republican and independent respondents are more likely to lack confidence in the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, notwithstanding the fact that they have been studied, reviewed, and ultimately approved by the federal government.

Considered in the aggregate, these results paint a picture of just how deeply politicized the COVID-19 public health crisis has become, and the more politicized the debate becomes, the more likely citizens are to rely on political cues rather than scientific guidance when making decisions. Alarmingly, only 21% of our respondents reported having a conversation with their doctor about whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine is right for them, a figure that has to be disconcerting to the new administration.

Indeed, when we asked where our respondents got most of their information on COVID-19 vaccines, the three most commonly cited sources were television news (57%), friends, family, and coworkers (40%), and social media (32%).  Less than one-third of respondents reported that they relied on official federal, state, and/or local government sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health (30%) or even medical webpages, such as those sponsored by the Mayo Clinic or WebMD (25%).  

While the new administration will certainly face significant challenges around the development of effective vaccines (especially with the emergence of mutant strains of the virus), as well as those around the logistics of vaccine production, distribution and administration, these all may be exacerbated by the impact of politicization—largely but not exclusively driven by social media—on individual pandemic-related behavior. 

And unfortunately, the options available to government policymakers and public health officials to combat that impact are problematic. How do they de-politicize information about the pandemic, especially when the data suggest that a significant segment of our citizenry look first to other unofficial sources—such as family and friends, many of whom are likely accessed via social media, that are likely part of their personal “echo chamber”—for pandemic information they trust.

And in our view, this concern isn’t just limited to information (and mis/disinformation) about COVID-19. Our research has significant implications for other pressing public policy issues that may be exacerbated by social media, ones like immigration, gun violence and social equity that are even less amenable to relatively objective, scientific facts. 

It may also mean that the new administration may have to take a page from the very social media that they may have to refute, looking at sophisticated communications and education techniques that are at least intended to be more benign and public-spirited than the “active measures” they may be trying to combat. So far, government has been reluctant to consider such techniques, and for good reason, as such strategies represent a very slippery slope. However, the trade-offs, in terms of the spread of the pandemic and its policy and behavioral consequences, may be worth it. But alas, like so many other issues, there are no easy answers here—only difficult choices. But this one may have life-or-death consequences. 

*The survey was conducted online using Prodigy MR, a leading market research provider; the  sample of 1,003 Americans was designed to be representative of the nation’s demographic composition, based on census data regarding region, age, gender, race, ethnicity, and education. Results are reported with a confidence level of 95% and a margin of error +/- 3.1.

Dr. Ronald Sanders, a former Associate Director of National Intelligence, is Staff Director for Florida’s Center for Cybersecurity. Dr. Stephen Neely is an Associate Professor of Public Administration with the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs.