Once again, the Covid-19 pandemic is surging through the American population. Even though being fully vaccinated is the best way to stay out of the hospital and off the ventilator, more than half of us are exhibiting vaccine hesitancy. Now we’re facing a two-headed monster, the virus and the mis- and dis-information campaigns against it on social media.
Our Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, calls misinformation “an urgent threat…Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users…”like” buttons reward us for sharing emotionally charged content; inaccurate content. And their algorithms show us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation.”
As a society, we are struggling mightily to find a solution to a problem we shouldn’t even have. Dr. Murthy went on to say that no matter how tempting it is, we must empathize with—not shame—those who believe various inaccuracies about the vaccine, chief among them is that it was rushed to market before we knew enough about its long term effects. While plausible—only time will tell—with over 600,000 Americans already dead, the risk of infection is a much larger immediate problem than taking the shots.
When you take science out of the equation, you’re left with authoritative-sounding speculation that masquerades as fact online. The Surgeon General recognizes that shaming people for emotionally held beliefs rarely elicits a “Thank you for pointing that out” response. What you get instead is defensiveness and hostility; preordained results when a matter of science becomes politicized. No one likes to be challenged, or made to feel stupid. Everything we know about how the brain is wired for persuasion agrees with his assessment that shaming people only makes them dig in deeper.
Abundant rumors and conspiracy theories, aided by talk radio and cable “news,” but primarily birthed and grown on social media, are holding vaccine adoption at dangerously low levels. So much so that the current surge is being referred to as the “Pandemic of the Unvaccinated.”
These rumors include some whoppers that would be funny were it not a deadly serious topic. You may have heard that the vaccine supposedly “magnetizes” us (no one is exactly sure what that’s supposed mean); that it renders us infertile; that Bill Gates inserted microchips into each dose (for unknown but apparently nefarious reasons); that Big Pharma is pulling a fast one to further enrich itself; and that the nation’s leading infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci are in league with the vaccine manufacturers and personally profit from each dose. All of these preposterous and easily disproved assertions were conceived and fed by social media and amplified by TV hosts until they grew into what far too many of us believe to be real concerns.
I know I sound like a broken record (you may need to ask your grandparents what a record is) when I repeat that social media is the Trojan Horse of democracy. We invited it into our lives. It seemed harmless. In fact, we thought it would enhance our existence and revolutionize interpersonal communication. It was to be the “Democratized Media” where every voice would be heard. Those things certainly happened, but at the huge cost of empowering the uninformed, and worse, those among us who would leverage its power to bully and cajole.
The law of unintended consequences has rarely been displayed so vividly.
Conspiracy theories that start online, primarily on Face Book, get picked up, amplified, and given the illusion of respectability by radio and television pundits (primarily Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on Fox). Misinformation becomes disinformation, and society suffers for the lost opportunity to get everyone on the same page.
The White House press office has this to say: “There’s about 12 people who are producing 65 percent of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. All of them remain active on Facebook, despite some even being banned on other platforms, including Facebook.” They cite the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s study, “The Disinformation Dozen.”
Popular pundit Bob Lefsetz, who is demonstratively less patient than I am, made this observation about misinformation and expertise: “Misinformation. It’s why people are not getting vaccinated. I know, not because I read about it, but because my inbox is full of people e-mailing me false reports. All you have to do is Google to find out these bloviators and their opinions have been debunked. But if you get a vaccine you’re acceding to the power of the government, whereas if you believe some bozo anti-vax philosophy you’re in control. Let me ask you, do you want to be in control of the airplane? How come expertise is meaningless in today’s society?”
Words to consider as we surge again.