Even if you reside under a rock, you’ve heard about the problem of online misinformation. While discussions around online misinformation went mainstream during the 2016 presidential election, they exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least for scientific misinformation, which is a reminder that we now have categories of misinformation…political, scientific, health…as if there is a Misinformation Curator out there whose main charge is to find the flavors of wrong.
Folks are panicked and scrambling to come up with ways to fight online misinformation. They’re trying debunking, prebunking, censoring, warning labels and blocking. They’ve publicly criticized social media sites for not being more responsible, created networks of fact-checkers who partner with major media outlets to tell us what’s true, false, and my favorite “misleading”, and they even teased us with a Disinformation Czar which, naturally, led to a backlash of over-used quotes from Orwell’s 1984, as if that is the only dystopian novel Americans read. (If sales for that book haven’t climbed, I’ll be shocked.)
The thing is…why in the world are we surprised by misinformation? That’s the question we should be asking ourselves. Since the advent of the internet, everyone and his brother, and his sister, and the weird dude in the basement can post online. Have ya looked around? Have ya seen some of the people out there?!? All the people in the world?? All those people now have instant access to a publishing tool that reaches millions of people. And we’re surprised? We, just now, think this is a major issue deserving of funds and manpower to create cyber armies and digital weapons to fight them. WE GAVE EVERYONE THE INTERNET. WHAT DID YOU THINK WOULD HAPPEN?
Health and federal organizations are calling the misinformation issue an infodemic. Like a pandemic of information. There are folks who use terms traditionally reserved for infectious diseases and apply them to misinformation. They say people get exposed to misinformation, can get infected and then spread it to others. They talk about tools we can use to “immunize” them and “stop the spread.” I mean…wait till they hear about organized religion. “Blasphemy, Erin!!! ” Ohhhh, calm your holy panties. I’m Catholic, went to Catholic school my whole life, and everyone knows the nuns are the Fact-Checkers. They stop us from getting infected with the Hell-Bounds from other religions, usually with whatever back-to-school objects are nearby.
Yes, misinformation is a problem. Shocking. There’s been a coordinated, dedicated effort to kick the misinformers off the internet. It works for a little while, until the Kicker-Offers realize that the Misinformers can easily set up a new site in cyberland, tarnishing the sweet stench of victory. And those sites will grow, and grow, and grow. Eventually the Misinformation Army will deploy to those sites. Even if they find a way to infiltrate and take down the new site, the Misinformers will just create another one. It’s an exhausting, costly strategy that won’t prevail in the long-term. It’s not the way to win the war, and who wants to get involved in a forever war that can’t be won? (No one is looking at you, America, no one.)
We also suck at dissecting the Dissenters from the Misinformers, and end up wanting them all kicked off the internet. This means a lot of Nerds got the boot from big websites. Do we really want to be pissing off Nerds? You’ve all seen Revenge of the Nerds, right? Just sayin’. Nerd revenge is no joke.
Sometimes it’s easy to spot a Misinformer, like the dude claiming COVID-19 is really snake venom or the dude saying pine-needle tea helps you “detox” from vaccines, but often times it’s not easy. What doesn’t help matters is that all the Misinformers think they are Dissenters and none of the Dissenters think they are Misinformers. What can I say except that self-awareness is a rare gem! And because life is complicated and humans are not as static as Social Media portrays us to be, there are the “Information Shape Shifters” who some of the time are Misinformers, other times, Dissenters, and then other times get it exactly right.
Given the scope of the issue, my two cents is that our focus should be on teaching people how to think. I don’t know if they started teaching thinking in schools, but it needs to happen somewhere. Part of the solution must include conventional health and government organizations’ acknowledgement of the reasons people don’t trust them and figuring out ways to build trust, which I’ll expand upon in a subsequent piece. For now, I wanted to share my cheat sheet for thinking. Particularly thinking when confronted with online information, and you are unsure if it is true, false or somewhere in the middle. The key is to pause, ask yourself questions and don’t immediately jump to answers. If you remember that pause, you’ll be okay.
For example, let’s say Joe Smith signs into one of his social media accounts and reads an article that his Aunt Mildred shared. Maybe it’s scary, shocking, upsetting, bizarre, etc. Joe isn’t 100% sure about what he read, but he’s considering sharing it on his feed. Ideally, Joe should ask some questions before he assumes the post is accurate and subsequently shares it. The questions below are just ideas. Feel free to tweak them, replace them or send ideas.
- The Author: Who is the author of the post? Is he/she an expert on the topic? What are his/her motives for writing it? Does he/she have any financial incentives tied to the post? Is he/she selling anything? Does he/she make money from someone clicking on the article? Does the author strike you as fair or someone who is consistently biased and more concerned about fueling faithful follwers or a particular narrative? Do you have a good reason to trust the author’s expertise and intentions?
- Who Else: Do other sites or people you trust agree with what the author is saying? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Understanding: If you don’t understand something in the article, before you share it, is there an expert you trust who you can ask? For example, say the post is about an environmental exposure that is potentially harmful to dogs. Is there a veterinarian or researcher who you could talk to about it?
- Statistics: Do you understand the statistics? Like, all of them? Most people don’t, because stats are hard. Ask for clarification from a stats person or at least a “nerdy” friend.
- Motivation: Why do you want to share the post? Do you find it interesting? Are you concerned about the topic covered? Or, maybe it supports something you already believe and want to post it to show you’re right? Is it for popularity, meaning you think the post has the potential to bring more followers to your page?
Critical to understanding your motivation is becoming aware of your internal biases. Many people are unaware of their internal biases or choose to ignore that they have them, even though we all have them. In a previous blog I wrote about truth-seeking, I revealed my process for learning my internal biases, which may or may not change over time. In essence, it’s asking yourself more questions and observing your reactions to and feelings about things. It’s becoming more aware of yourself.
If you go through the above exercise and decide to share the post, consider how you will present it to your audience. For example, if you don’t entirely understand it or remain uncertain about it, lead with that. Write a sentence saying, “I don’t know if this post is accurate, but I found it interesting and wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts on it.” Doing that is a responsible move and let’s your audience know that you aren’t sharing the post as Gospel and have questions about it.
Critical thinking, folks. It’s a winning long-term strategy, and unless we want to go full China, we should be investing in that.
In a subsequent post, I will address what I think conventional healthcare organizations and providers need to do to build trust, because what they are doing now is not working. What they are doing now is only fueling a wild-west scenario where anything goes and trusted sources are a thing of the past…, and that is not a good place to be.
Dr. Eeks 🙂
Thanks for reading. For more of my musings on public-health communication, check out my blog’s healthcomms section here.