Among the pernicious toxins to which we are vulnerable, misinformation stands out. Resistant to inconveniences of truth, it actively propagates the greatest plagues of human history, and inspires most heinous transgressions of our collective character.
In recent years, its ramifications have been ubiquitous. The Arab Spring was made possible by democratisation of information. But it was followed not by summer, but rather by the tyrannies of winter in all of its reasons for discontent-aided and abetted by democratisation of misinformation, preferentially directed to divide and radicalise.
The surprise of Brexit was borne along to England’s now more isolated shores in just such currents. So, too, the restive flood waters that recently soiled and divided America’s democracy.
A quintessential case of a cure far worse than the “disease”, scientific misinformation has gone along way toward killing expertise as most non-scientists simply don’t have the knowledge or experience to adequately judge what the media reports about science and health.
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Although the internet is subject to few and uncertain laws, it has never been immune to the law of unintended consequences. It proves to be an ideal purveyor of misinformation, whether born of willful demagoguery and propaganda, or the relative innocence of misdirected passions.
Increasingly, everyone knows everything — but much of it is wrong. The result is a world where a former Playboy model is put up against scientists and doctors as if she’s equally qualified — a dangerous symptom of false equivalency in reporting.
Clinical care, outcomes, and the doctor-patient relationship, are all too often the worse for it. Examples relevant to the broad expanse of clinical medicine, public health practice, and health promotion abound.
In cyberspace, immunisation is not one among the great advances in the history of public health, not the relief of immeasurable misery; but rather the cause of autism. This is not merely false, but robustly debunked — and yet the insidious meme of it refuses to die.
In 2015, for example, the University of Wollongong awarded a PhD for a thesis, “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy” which sought to inform public health policy in contradiction of the World Health Organisation (WHO) vaccination guidelines.
However, in a review, different authors reprimanded it for falsifying facts. Also, for decades, the internet conspiracy theories have falsely claimed that the HIV epidemic was initiated intentionally by “government”, and that the CDC is complicit in genocide-fomenting anti-government passions.
Applications of diet to health are an extreme case, subject to a bizarre balkanisation owning much the same zealous hostility as religious wars. Yet, usually, on and on, the disgruntled get tempted to embrace “alternative” therapies proven not to work, based merely on “internet anecdotes”.
Every radical voice finds the echo chamber in which it reverberates to greatest effect, populating cyberspace with so many spider webs for unwitting flies. Every opinion, amplified by the like-minded in cyberspace, can masquerade as expert opinion, and impersonate truth.
Perhaps the greatest and most concerning illustration of all is the one that pertains to Covid-19, leading the WHO to characterise the situation as a “public health infodemic”, referring to the profusion of both accurate and inaccurate information that makes it hard for people to “find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.
In May this year, a now-deleted YouTube video promoting wild conspiracy theories about the pandemic and asserting (without evidence) that vaccines would “kill millions” received more than 8 million views.
In the wake of the outbreak, the filter-free broadcasting of misinformation about the origin of the virus propagated a volume of noise in which even the global consensus of experts was initially invited to drown.
That was, however, later debunked by several studies, which plausibly concluded that the coronavirus was not “purposefully manipulated” and that the suspected sources remained pangolin and bats.
Will the new Covid vaccines be immune from this conundrum? While severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), Ebola and Zika viruses all caused a global scare, they didn’t cause as much fear as that around Covid-19.
In May, in an editorial in the journal Nature, researchers were stunned by the scale of misinformation; warning that “a small but fervent anti-vaccination movement maybe marshalling against the development of Covid vaccines”, by seeding outlandish narratives: they falsely say coronavirus vaccines will be used to implant microchips into people, for instance, and falsely claim that a woman who took part in a UK vaccine trial died.
In April, a group of anti-vaxxers carried placards with anti-vaccine slogans at rallies in California to protest against the lockdown.
And whereas Google has been trying to rank websites based on the quality of their science, the internet continues to prove to be the dispensary for the worst of all medicines for the worst of all social diseases. The pharmacy is, irrevocably, open — and no prescriptions are required.
At this time, governments should work closely with the WHO to fight misinformation; the sheer volume of which is likely to weaken the resolve to achieve high coverage and equity in vaccination.
-The writer is a Global Impact Fellow at MWI.