March 23, 2022 - 10:00am

Risk calculus is a funny thing. According to a new poll, the Canadians most cautious about the risk of catching Covid-19 are also the most likely to support open war between Russia and the United States.

It wasn’t a big sample, but the results were stark. Ekos Politics polled a random sample of around 1000 Canadians, and stratified the results by vaccination status. This revealed that whereas 56% of unvaccinated Canadians oppose the idea of NATO imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, an even greater number of the triple-vaccinated — 59% — support doing so.

On the face of it this makes no sense. Why would the most Covid risk-averse be the most enthusiastic about a policy that would, as 79 foreign policy experts from across America’s political spectrum put it in an open letter recently, “would mean going to war with Russia”? Well, if you hold (as I do) that humans are not actually very rational, it’s possible that what is in evidence here is less a lack of understanding impeding rational choice than a further iteration in the tribal clustering of political alignments.

Vaccination has been acutely politicised in Canada, where non-compliance has been rewarded with punitive measures such as restrictions on travel and shopping and additional taxes. In turn, vaxx refusal has begun to coalesce with other forms of political dissent, culminating in the Canadian truckers’ protest, supported by many whose grievances reached well beyond vaccination mandates. In this wider context, being triple-vaccinated has wider resonances than healthcare; it’s also a crude proxy for ideological alignment.

Humans have probably always clustered by belief, to an extent. But it’s been evident since at least 2016 that social media greatly accelerates the intensity of this dynamic by unmooring it from material life. I can’t very well ‘cancel’ my local butcher if we disagree about vaccines or Ukraine, at least not if I want to buy a steak off him tomorrow. But if I do my grocery shopping online, I can demonise and expel to my heart’s content.

Lockdowns scaled this up radically by forcing as much as possible of our common life away from in-person interactions to the internet. Unsurprisingly, this has radically intensified ideological clustering and tribalisation. Accordingly, since 2020 we’ve seen BLM emojis sweep over social media bios, only to be replaced (or augmented) with vaccine emojis and, more recently, with an efflorescence of Ukrainian flags.

This is of course not to say that these causes have no material correlate in the world outside our screens. We haven’t seen the fourth Horseman yet, but war, death and pestilence are all real and cause immense suffering. And anyone who’s dipped even briefly into the sucking void of Q-Anon will see that credulousness is by no means limited to those whose emoji colouration tells the world “I support the current thing.”

But the internet-mediated intensity, changeability and mutability of this almost entirely dematerialised and tribal support for/opposition to ‘the current thing’ has a number of implications. When public opinion is this labile and tribalized, for example, how responsive should political decision-making be to it — especially where those decisions will have serious material ramifications (such as nuclear war)?

Much has been made of the threat Putin poses to “democracy”. But, unsettlingly, recent years have revealed our pundit class to be as radically adrift as everyone else on the tides of moral fashion. In that light we should, perhaps, consider whether the digital tools we’ve embraced and that now serve to consolidate our sense of ourselves as a ‘demos’ are not, themselves, radically undermining confidence in that demos as a repository of political wisdom.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.