A reversal mirror of the responsible subject. Chronicles of Italian mainstream representations of anti-vaxxersBy
In my first travel after more than a year since the beginning of the pandemic, I had a mask respirator, a PCR test and mandatory quarantine at my arrival. In my imagination, a severe police checkpoint awaited me at the airport. I felt like a veteran of the Italian total lockdown who never passed any borders without ‘proved and justified reasons’ as the strict mobility restriction protocols had so far imposed. At my arrival, no one checked the PCR test result. Since then, I kept sending test results to the hygiene station (the health department of the city) for each journey I made, even though I had the impression that I could not have. Throughout these two years of the pandemic, I was surrounded by silent disobedience of the restrictions. Back then, I did not understand why people I knew acted irresponsibly, taking the risk of spreading a dangerous disease ‘just’ to stay together and keep normal social habits. I had rigorously observed the national quarantine rules in the spring of 2020 as well as respecting all the subsequent ever-changing measures in the following year. When the vaccination campaign started, I immediately signed to have my jabs – in a very posh bohemian beauty centre – moved by a sort of blind cognitive automatism. No matter my critical thoughts on corporate science and scientism, nor international governance and its geopolitical conflicts: my (almost) white-collar trans-European social and professional life called me to be responsible. This blog post is motivated by a reflexive attempt to deconstruct discursive practices that subjectivised me as responsible.
What continued to make me doubtful, notwithstanding this un-reflexive conformism, was that the call to ‘be responsible’ was not working properly everywhere and, for sure, not for everyone. Indeed, despite the intense communication activism of public institutions and mainstream media, the vaccination campaign had different outcomes among and within European countries. These different accomplishments are rooted in complex socio-political and historical specificities that cannot be the object of any generalisation. However, discursive studies could offer critical reflections and deep insights into how these divergent vaccination rates across and within European countries have split the subject of the pandemic in an unconcealable dichotomy: on the one hand, there is the part of the population who had the two or three injections – and willing to have four, seven or ten jabs if necessary – who assumed, celebrated and treated vaccination as the reasonable, rational and indeed only way of getting back to normal social life, so to say; on the other hand, a heterogeneous type of individuals and groups who refused the vaccination for a multitude of ideological and emotional reasons, challenging any sociological taxonomy and journalistic representation. Despite this complexity, unvaccinated people have progressively become the centre of the media communicative agenda and national government goals. The increasing scepticism to measures for containment of the spread of the virus and a pervasive presence of anti-vaxxers in the news invited me to investigate the productive character of this dichotomy. Deploying discourse theory to decode these media representations allowed me to see that the reiterated use of anti-vaxxers’ abnormality was working as a (symbolic) legitimation tool of the management of the pandemic. From this intuition, I started to collect media representations of anti-vaxxers to construct a broader corpus for later systematic analysis. This snapshot analysis stems from this project, offering the main theoretical reflection supporting this project, namely, the idea that anti-vaxxer representations circulating in the Italian mainstream media created and reproduced a constitutive other, stabilising and legitimising a new political subjectivity emerging from the pandemic crisis management: the ‘responsible’.
Italian pandemic vanguardism and its discontents
Italy represents an undeniably interesting case to examine how the pandemic was managed by national authorities. This is not just because Italy was the first European country facing the coronavirus and applying full (preventive) lockdown on the whole national territory. Later, this pandemic vanguardism was reconfirmed in the application of the EU COVID Pass certificate (Green Pass henceforth) as mandatory to participate in civil and professional life. However, between the full lockdown of the first phase and the application of the mandatory certification, an extremely relevant political transformation occurred. At the beginning of 2021, the ’emotional capital’ owned by the Giuseppe Conte government was replaced in a Machiavellian fashion by the more ‘respectable’ national unity government guided by the former Governor of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. In contrast with the unconventional communication strategies of the previous government, the technocratic EU-led grand coalition guided by Draghi erased any sentimental communication from the paternalistic management of the pandemic, relying solely on both internationally recognised economic and scientific expertise. While the governmental agenda remained firmly anchored on emergence decrees, the vaccination campaign was articulated as a mere technical-logistic issue to be manged by the general of the Italian army: a propaedeutic action to relaunch the economy.
This entanglement of economic needs and health measures found in the Green Pass the perfect synthesis. In winter 2021, the fourth wave of COVID infection crystallised the emergence of strong socio-political discontent against public-institution discourses on the Green Pass. Non-pharmaceutical measures, such as isolation, restrictions, and lockdown, for the unvaccinated began to be presented as a feasible and rational solution to ‘re-open safely’. Demonstrations and protests opposing vaccination and legal measures followed shortly afterwards originating from different sectors, with the occupation of a major hub of global logistics, the harbour of Trieste. These demonstrations offered strong reference to the appearance of an abnormal and dangerous subject sabotaging the efforts of public institutions to ‘get back to normal’. In the media representations of these protests, the conceptual and semantic overlapping between the opposer of the vaccine as experimental medical preventive treatment and the juridical-legal extraordinary measures of the Green Pass became symptomatic of increasing socio-psychological othering within public opinion.
To legitimate differential application of restrictions, the signifier No Vax, a neologism coined to describe the multitude of anti-vaxxer instances, began to enter the pandemic vocabulary. Far from being a homogenous group, this represented unity became common sense in everyday conversations as well as in crisis management communication practices. Progressively detached from its original context and meaning, the No Vax signifier became a dominant modality of representation circulating in media outlets. The (floating) signifier No Vax added to the fear of the virus and the generalised poverty produced by lockdown measures another – apparently bigger and more dangerous – fear of the anti-vaxxer as a potential peril for the community.
Notes for chronicles on the media representation of anti-vaxxers
Mainstream media outlets have been a privileged channel of the construction of the anti-vaxxer as unitarian subject. Here, I present a sample of analysis from a broader corpus I am constructing in my research about coronavirus crisis discourses in Italy. A systematic analysis of the signifier ‘No Vax’ in national mainstream media offers great potential to understand how the media intervene in generating trustworthiness and legitimation of public and scientific authorities. These examples aim to briefly show how the use of the journalistic category of No Vax circulating in the mainstream media has been progressively detached from the concrete and specific movements historically opposing traditional vaccinations to serve as a legitimation device for the pandemic management.
Obviously, I would never hold that anti-vaxxer communities are purely a media construction. On the contrary, international anti-vaxxer movements existed long before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and mRNA vaccines. The anti-vaxxer creed is spread globally across different national contexts with a unique corpus of references circulating in and through social media. In Italy, for instance, anti-vax instances were also present among fractions of parliamentary forces. Big pharma represented a public enemy for the emergent political force of the Five Star Movement (5SM): its founder and leader, the comedian Beppe Grillo had an explicitly hostile and contrary attitude towards vaccines. A strong critical position on vaccination was an original feature of the 5SM political program, which later found a bizarre alliance with the Lega Nord guided by Salvini. When in 2018 both Lega and 5SM formed the green-yellow government, Walter Ricciardi, the head of the most important public health authority, Istituto Superiore di Sanità (National Institute of Health) resigned his position in sharp contrast to the anti-vaccination positions of the leading forces in government. As soon as the WHO declared the global pandemic, Ricciardi returned as the principal advisor of the Ministry of Health. Against the anti-vax crusade another virologist, Roberto Burioni, who was already a celebrity for countering anti-vaxxers, assumed a central role in the media discourse, thanks to his weekly lecture interventions on national state television. Throughout the development of the COVID crisis management, with the increasing centrality of scientific authorities in the public debate, both 5SM and Lega were domesticated in their sceptical attitude towards vaccination and ‘anti-vaxxer’ discourses were transformed from calls to ‘save the children’ and denouncing the conflicts of interest of pharmaceutical corporations in a public threat for the body of society.
When the COVID vaccination campaign started, ‘anti-vaxxers’ gained a previously absent visibility. Even if media discourses say that “they are less than we think”, the signifier No Vax literally invaded media communications from the launch of the EU Digital COVID Certificate in July 2021 by the European Union. Starting from summer 2021, several interventions in newspapers, supported by statistics and surveys, started to picture the identikit of the anti-vaxxer, underlying their monstrosity, irrationality, and danger for the rest of the national community. In online media engaged in reporting the mobilisation of anti-vaxxers the description has been accompanied by strong normative positioning. For instance, Wired wrote: “dangerous galaxy [pericolosa galassia] no vax”; “this mix of assorted rebellions, often well founded on political positions of hyperlocal income (see Forza Nuova and neo-fascist groups), at other times completely impromptu, almost children of the desire to emerge from anonymity, must end”. On the same register, another online network, Fanpage, dedicated weekly articles to anti-vaxxers and reports on the mobilisation against the Green Pass, where journalists were brutally attacked and needed to be escorted by the police to avoid lynching.
Big national traditional newspapers strongly engaged in the descriptions of ‘anti-vaxxers’. For instance, the Corriere della Sera, one of the most important newspapers in the country, wrote “both fascists and lunatics, anarchoids and QAnon adepts, ruffians or just poor citizens confused to the point of mixing the Green Pass with the yellow star imposed on the Jews”. In the same newspaper, a famous editorialist wrote, “Who are they? People in good health, educated, socially aware, environmentally conscious, with a new-age touch. They do not want to vaccinate because they are more afraid of the vaccine than of the virus, clever enough to create a justification, not wise enough to trust science, expertise, and evidence“. Thus, the description of this amorphous mass is articulated in different terms in the same newspaper: from crazy, freak, villain, ignorant, or simply confused to rich radicals, skilled and well-educated people sceptical about the pharma industry and the state control apparatus. However, both descriptions move from the same signifying practices lately explicitly elaborated in the same newspaper. Indeed, Corriere‘s editorial explicitly stated that No Vax is an umbrella category signalling a broader civic rupture in the country: “There is an Italy that accepted the vaccine. It is focused on refusing useless risks and it is conscious that the occasion to restart is right now. And there is an Italy of the maskless shouting demonstrations. The true discrimination is not between yes-vax or no-vax, but between the responsible Italy and the irresponsible one“.
Web platforms’ and newspapers’ representations are even stronger in TV programmes that daily engage in signifying practices on dissident groups. The TV series “L’aria che tira” on the LA7 channel has been the main site for the representation of anti-vaxxers. In November 2021, it broadcasted an episode titled “No vax lawyer speaks”, then a famous virologist intervened saying “We are giving too much attention to anti-vaxxers. You are a problem for us!”. The lawyer replied, “I am not a No Vax. I am defending the right to not be vaccinated with an experimental serum [the name given to mRNA vaccines by protesters]”. In another episode, a famous virologist says that the anti-vaxxer hunt is useless as a way out of the pandemic. Suddenly, the editorial line of the presenters interrupts him to synthesise: “The big battle is not against anti-vaxxers, but they that cannot injure the majority of people in the country that had the vaccine”.
The TV program ‘La Vita in Diretta’, a daily afternoon series, provided sensationalistic reports about anti-vaxxers. In one segment, a pharmacist removed from his office for refusing the vaccine says, “I am not a No Vax”. This affirmation opened more than 20 minutes of report about the mystical-magic-ignorant aspects of the average anti-vaxxer. Television series of general information offer space to the No Vax (floating) signifier as an editorial choice of presenting an ‘alternative’ voice to understand their rationale. In many cases, the discussions are continuously interrupted by frames of desperation from virologists and other institutional figures. These few examples out from a broader corpus in construction show how the signifier No Vax has been and is constantly used to describe a heterogenous, stratified and confused ensemble of discourses, ideas, and practices to delegitimate as anti-scientific any critical position towards the vaccination campaign. However, these representations targeted those citizens who got vaccinated without any – or only few – complaints about the form and content of the health crisis management. Therefore, the reiterated media construction of the identikit of antivaxxers ended up saying more about the ‘responsible’ citizen than any supposedly antagonist formations (on agonistic and antagonistic relations cf. Hannah Broecker’s blog post).
Apparatus of responsibilization
The management of the pandemic in Italy enforced a governmental apparatus where the statistics of the technical-scientific committee, emergency decrees, legal disposition, and administrative rules of an ever-changing legal-normative apparatus performed what governmentality studies call technologies of responsibilization. Drawing from the work of Michael Foucault, governmental studies focus on how modern governmental apparatuses produce and rely on the production of a particular kind of political subjectivity. Neoliberal governmentality relies on a new political subjectivity called to not just self-discipline him/herself but to be rendered individually responsible for security tasks that would otherwise have been the jurisdiction of state institutions and other public and private authorities (on agonistic and antagonistic relations cf. Hannah Broecker’s blog post).
Scientific and institutional discourses circulating in the national media outlets have offered fundamental mechanisms of these technologies of responsibilization. Technical-scientific, economic-productivist and political reformist discourses diffused in the national media, even if apparently conflicting, shared a strong distrust in the population. Virologist analysis, industrialists’ expectations, and reformist programmes ultimately converged on the implicit assumption that populations are potentially dangerous if left to self-manage themselves. Given this, a strong authority governing through health protocols, administrative management and technical-scientific expertise is not just presented as legitimate but ultimately necessary. However, in order to work, this apparatus needs the active consent and collaboration of a self-disciplined subject. It is this shared technocratic and paternalistic horizontal convergence that constituted the epistemic terrain through which the crisis management re-constituted a ‘responsible’ subject. This subjectivity accepts as an act of faith the scientist’s advice while s/he does not question the need for production and distribution within global chains of value and international governance. S/he is always ready to control and to be controlled, to change personal social habits, to understand and interpret the loci of new forms of emergency decrees of selective restrictions and to follow experts’ sanitary protocols. In front of a strong crisis of legitimation of expertise, the responsible subject restores the regime of truth constructed on authoritative and hierarchical roles of institutional and professional formations in the management of the crisis while operating as a molecular and local device of knowledge.
Italy has experienced the reconstitution of this political subjectivity since the outbreak of the pandemic. Indeed, while Chinese full lockdown could work thanks to a capillary system of control from building to building and flat to flat, as the journalist Santelli brilliantly narrated, in Italy lockdown measures, even if legally enforced by an infinite series of administrative emergency decrees, worked through the voluntary discipline of the population. Territorial control indeed operated via police departments chasing down people not following the rules. However, it was mainly the consent of a vast amount of the population that allowed the lockdown measures to work during the first phase of the pandemic. The measures required not just police activity but primarily the self-discipline of the population to follow the rules: technologies of responsibilization operating through the autonomy of the individual and emotionally appealing to individual responsibility. As with the full lockdown of phase I, when citizens were called not just to follow the rule of self-isolation but also to report those who broke the quarantine rule, the vaccination campaign was strongly dependent on ‘responsible’ private citizens who do not just quickly run to get their vaccine jab but are also ready to convince their fellow citizens of the rightness of this choice, and to judge and marginalise as dangerous and irresponsible whoever questions the crisis management. This discursive construction of the irresponsible other has been condensed in media representations.
In the mirror of the responsible subject
The construction of this irresponsible, dangerous and untreatable other has, in turn, become a fundamental element in the enforcement and empowerment of the responsible subject. The reconstitution of a responsible subjectivity able to act and think as an extension of the governmental apparatus is a process that passes through a multitude of discursive and material platforms. The modality of representations of ‘anti-vaxxers’ circulating in mainstream media is the product of this normative approach through which individuals are called to carry out tasks that would previously have been the jurisdiction of public authority. From this point of view, the signifier No Vax, in its indistinguishable amorphous unity, is a constitutive other, a reason for a system of significations that stabilises the regime of representations upon which ‘the responsible’ is constructed. Following the Foucauldian archaeology, this constitutive other enforces, defines, and better articulates the apparatus of responsibilization: (mainstream) media creates, re-produces, and diffuses types of knowledge and defined imaginary making heterogenous identities and extremely different political projects equivalent in front of the official discourse so as to erase the plausibility and reasonability of critical and alternative discourses about the crisis management. Freaks, Nazis, Facebook-addicted housewives, anarchists, flat-earth adepts, constitutionalists, evangelists and sceptical scientists are all grouped under the signifier of No Vax as a way to enforce the normative approaches of public institutions.
Far from negating the existence of anti-vaxxer discourses or different fractions organising and destabilising the COVID-crisis management, what I am venturing here is that the journalistic representations circulating in the mainstream media are an attempt to stabilise the institutional response to the COVID crisis, rather than a picture of actual socio-political cleavages. Indeed, the representation of the irresponsible monstrosity of the ‘No Vax galaxy’ by various media outlets reinforced the normative approach of public institutions and private firms towards what must be done to get out of the crisis and to ‘get back to normal’. Systematic analysis of these representations with the lens of discursive approaches allows an understanding the signifier No Vax as the reversal mirror of the responsible subject that the governmental apparatuses are aiming to reconstitute.
I was passing the border at the airport with a well-ordered folder of papers in hand. No one checked them, at which I was almost disappointed, as the containment of the virus depended on my PCR test and my passenger locator form. Around me, people were sneezing and touching their noses, visibly intolerant to masks and social distancing. I thought about my unvaccinated friends up in the hills of the southern Italian countryside and I realised that the fate of the rich and white old-age Europe depends on people like me, who are not just docile and dutiful to emergency decrees and emotionally blackmailable via social panic and paranoia but are also always ready to act as an extension of the governmental apparatus. Crisis management relies on the reconstitution of a subjectivity called to act as an extension of the police apparatus to reconcile health (system) catastrophes with capitalist valorisation processes. Legal measures, administrative protocols and statistical numbering serve as discursive mechanisms to sterilise conflicts over the political management of the pandemic by framing any possible contestation as dangerous and irresponsible. In this way, discourses on ‘national communities’ split into two opposite and irreconcilable fractions: a law-abiding altruistic citizen, trusting science and institutions, and an irresponsible egotistic population acting as a free rider on the back of the sacrifices of the responsible population. This population split works to boost those governmental technologies that reshaped the political subjectivities throughout the three decades of neoliberalism. While privatisation, financialisation and the dismantling of the welfare state created a self-valorising subject, the outbreak of the pandemic, with its constant emotional mobilisation, offered a complex technical administrative apparatus of control to enforce devices of self-discipline. The introduction of the EU COVID Pass as a prerequisite to participate in public life adds an implicit coercive means to this process. The pressure from economic groups to keep the machine of the economy working has espoused these molecular devices of control. A new political horizon is emerging in the post-pandemic where the orthopedy of valorisation processes is mishmashed with the apparatus of controls.
 Such attention has been denounced also by the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella Vecchio, C. (2021, December 20).Quirinale, l’affondo di Matterella: “Sui media forse troppo spazio ai No Vax”. La Repubblica. https://www.repubblica.it/politica/2021/12/20/news/mattarella_no_vax-330981629/.
 For an analysis of the ‘emotional capital’ of Conte government communication see De Blasio , E. & Selva D. (2021). Covid-19 in Italy: Performing Power and Emotions. Frontiers in Political Science. l https://doi.org/10.3389/fpos.2021.661378
 With ‘mainstream media outlet’, I refer to big editorial networks of the country. The private media network of Mediaset, owned by the tycoon and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has offered space to (right-wing liberal) critical visions on the vaccination campaign. However, as soon as Berlusconi was indicated as one potential future president of the Republic, the request of diminishing these critical positions on the Mediaset network became stronger.
 I am deeply grateful to Raili Marling for having underlined this point.
 The Five Star Movement emerged from the comedic activity of Beppe Grillo. His shows framed the initial agenda of the movement.
 Starr, D. (2020 January 2). This Italian scientist has become celebrity fighiting vaccine skeptics. Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/italian-scientist-has-become-celebrity-fighting-vaccine-skeptics.
 Muglia A. (2021, November 1). No Vax, quanti sono i non vaccinati (e che non hanno intenzione di farlo)? In Italia sono il 14% (meno che in Germania e Francia). Corriere della Sera. https://www.corriere.it/esteri/21_novembre_01/italia-14percento-abitanti-no-vax-meno-che-germania-francia-77e66ebe-3b05-11ec-b785-0d6e92ed304d.shtml.
 D’Ambrosio, C. & Menta G. (2021, August 28). Identikit dei no-vax. Lavoce.info https://www.lavoce.info/archives/89893/identikit-dei-no-vax/ ;
https://www.agi.it/blog-italia/youtrend/post/2021-09-24/chi-sono-no-vax-italiani-13971849/ ; Redazione (2021 15 August). Si fa presto a dire “no vax”. Il Post. https://www.ilpost.it/2021/08/15/persone-non-vaccinate/;
Magnani A, (2021, July 7). Chi sono no vax: dai complottisti ai medici obiettori di coscienza. Il Sole 24ore https://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/dai-complottisti-medici-obiettori-chi-sono-no-vax-italia-AEV5DvU
 All translations in the post are mine. [Questo mix di ribellismi assortiti, spesso ben fondati su posizioni politiche di rendita iperlocale (vedi Forza Nuova e gruppuscoli neofascisti), altre volte del tutto estemporanei, quasi figli della voglia di emergere dall’anonimato, deve terminare.] Cosimi, S. (2021, August 31). Non è più il momento di sottovalutare i no novax. Wired. https://www.wired.it/attualita/politica/2021/08/31/no-vax-green-pass-aggressioni//.
 Buccini, G, (2021, August 28). Chi sono i no-vax. Viaggio nei gruppi antivaccini tra miti ossessione fake news. Il Corriere della Sera.[Sia fascisti e lunatici, anarcoidi e adepti di QAnon, arruffapopoli o soltanto poveri cittadini confusi al punto da mischiare il lasciapassare verde con la gialla stella imposta agli ebrei] https://www.corriere.it/politica/21_agosto_28/chi-sono-no-vax-viaggio-gruppi-anti-vaccino-miti-ossessioni-fake-news-325106f2-076b-11ec-86ee-97d3784fba6d.shtml.
 [Chi sono? Persone in buona salute, istruite, socialmente consapevoli, attente all’ambiente, con un tocco new-age. Che non si vogliono vaccinare perché hanno più paura del vaccino che del virus intelligenti a sufficienza da crearsi una giustificazione, non abbastanza saggi da fidarsi di scienza, competenza ed evidenza]. Severgnini, B. (2021, August 21). Ho provato a entrare nella testa degli amici No vax. Corriere della sera . https://www.corriere.it/agosto /21_agosto_21/ho-provato-entrare-testa-amici-no-vax-b179b2fc-029e-11ec-8e26-190f86cd2b10.shtml.
 Cazzullo A (2021, November 22). Un paese al bivio, Corriere della Sera, https://www. corriere.it/editoriali/21_novembre_22/10-cultura-editorcorriere-web-sezioni-0c84de2a-4bc3-11ec-a7de-29504a6b0429.shtml.
 La 7 Attualità (2021) Andrea Crisanti “Questa caccia alle streghe sui No Vax distoglie dall’obiettivo principale,..”. [Video] Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I7fdFw_3SI&ab_channel=La7Attualit%C3%A0, 21 Novembre 2021; Rai (2021, Novembre 21). Belluno, farmacista no vax riapre l’attivita- La vita in diretta [Video] youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0JqtnQvGyo&ab_channel=Rai.
 Foucault M. (2007). Security, Population, Territories. Lectures at the College de France. Palgrave MacMillan.
 For a review of the concept of responsibilization in governmental studies see Juhila K., Raitakari S., Hall C. (Eds.). (2017). Responsibilisation at the Margins of Welfare Services. Routledge
 Nicoletta, G.C. (2020). The clash of technocracies. The pandemic’s episteme of the Italian Red Zone. Discourse-Net Collaborative Working Paper Series, no. 2/2, Special Issue: Discourse Studies Essays on the Corona Crisis. https://discourseanalysis.net/sites/default/files/2020-06/Nicoletta_2020_DNCWPS_2-2.pdf.
 Santelli F. (2021). La Cina non è una sola. Mondadori.
 An interesting analysis-narrative of the mechanism of responsabilization can be found in Hristov, T. (2020). Coronavirus and Responsabilization: An Italian Experience https://www.fsw.uzh.ch/foucaultblog/essays/259/coronavirus-and-responsibilization-an-italian-experience.
How to cite this blog post:
Nicoletta, Gerardo Costabile (2022), “A reversal mirror of the responsible subject. Chronicles of Italian mainstream representations of anti-vaxxers”, Crisis Discourse Blog (CriDis), URL = https://www.crisis-discourse.net/de/2022/06/a-reversal-mirror-of-the-responsible-subject-chronicles-of-italian-mainstream-media-outlets-representations-of-anti-vaxxers/.