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For wellness community, social media often a conduit for misinformation

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Health experts warn that low vaccination rates may help create favorable conditions for new COVID variants like omicron to emerge. In some parts of the world, as in southern Africa, the concern is often the low number of vaccine doses available. Here in the U.S., the bigger problem is that millions of people, about 30% of the population, have not yet received even a single COVID vaccine dose.

And there are many reasons for that. Misinformation and conspiracy theories about the shots play a big role. There's one group in which such false claims have found widespread traction that may surprise you - the health and wellness community. And for that, we've called upon Derek Beres. He's author and co-host of the podcast "Conspirituality."

Derek, welcome.

DEREK BERES: Hey, David. Thank you for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: So what makes the wellness and spirituality community so susceptible to the spread of conspiracy theories like this?

BERES: I would say two main reasons, one of them being America is an extremely individualistic nation. It's bred into us. And even though yoga communities tend to be very tribal and have verbiage around collectivism as slogans, the reality is they are very focused on themselves. The second one is this is a community that's generally politically disengaged. I would also add that they are predominantly scientifically illiterate. And in the wellness community, there's this idea of the sovereign immune system that has persisted for decades. It's not new to the pandemic.

But what happened was you had a group of people who are predominantly white, predominately privileged in America that can afford all of the trappings of the wellness industry, which is, you know, predominately expensive. And they were being told they can't do something for the first time in their lives. So the general instinct among them was to rebel against any perceived authority. And that didn't just include politicians; that also included public health officials because they didn't know where to turn to for credible information.

FOLKENFLIK: How are folks on social media - particularly, say, Instagram influencers - playing a role in all this?

BERES: They are the pipeline. People in these communities - they're not reading or listening to NPR. They're not turning to credible news sources. They scroll through their social media all day. And that's why a screenshot of a headline often serves as a replacement for news for them. They don't have to read the article. They can read 10 words, and then think that they know what they're talking about. Your body is - knows better than any doctor ever will. Your immune system is sovereign. Only you know what's best for your health. All these messages have been shared for decades in this community. And that - and so the pipeline by which it happened was Instagram and specifically certain hashtags. But that was the indoctrination process and what stoked so many fears in this community, specifically.

FOLKENFLIK: So how is this likely to evolve as we move forward?

BERES: Well, as we see the continued bifurcation of media in so many different directions, a lot of these people - they might have been kicked off of YouTube or Instagram. But now they're on Telegram or Gab, and they have their email lists in the hundreds of thousands. They are creating their own media sources. So I don't have an answer for everything getting better right away.

My bigger fear is that it's going to break off, and you're going to see more - what are called sovereign communities. There's one that's being built in Austin right now that combines, quote, unquote, "medical freedom with tactical arms training" by some of the people who founded this community. And my fear is that you're going to find more of those sort of communes popping up, where people can be away from the medical establishment and then their own educational system. And I fear that it's going to get much more tribal. And vaccines are just one entry point, but it is proven to be a pretty powerful one at this point.

I would hope that some sort of public school education reform and better education around public health and around civics would be instituted widely. But that's sort of a pipe dream at this moment. And it's much more regional than that. So I think you're just going to continue to see these various communities popping up and having influence, and then you're going to have professionals and scientists coming out, try to counter that. So it looks like it's going to be a long-term issue.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Derek Beres. He's author and co-host of the podcast "Conspirituality." Derek Beres, thanks for speaking with us today.

BERES: Thank you so much, David. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZERO 7 SONG, "DESTINY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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