ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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And What We Can Do to Help

The Dangers of Misinformation

The most valuable tool that we have against misinformation—and those that seek to actively misinform—is a critically thinking population.

As I lay in bed a few weeks ago wondering how bad the COVID-19 booster side effects would be, I involuntarily did exactly what doctors tell you not to do: I googled it. As I scrolled through a Reddit thread, I came across a curious comment that linked to an article by a certain Robert Malone that supposedly exposed the “real facts” about the Pfizer vaccine. That set off my “spidey senses”—Spiderman’s superpower to sense danger before it can be perceived by other senses. As a physicist, my research has taught me to critically examine any and every claim and assumption. I decided to proceed with caution.

A cursory look at Malone’s bio indicated that he was a well-qualified medical professional. Reading his article, I was taken aback. I am used to hearing false claims about the vaccines that are easy for even a non-medical expert such as myself to debunk, but what surprised me about the article was that it came across as a scientifically legitimate argument against Pfizer’s vaccine safety data. While reasonably fluent in discussions of legitimacy and biases of data sets in general, I’m no expert in medical sciences, and so it was hard for me to argue with what was a well-crafted and seemingly professional critique. What do I know?

That’s when a different part of the physicist in me kicked in: valuing peer review and consensus over one person’s (professional?) opinion. I sat up and decided to do what all academics have a love–hate relationship with—a good old literature review. I was curious to see what the scientific literature and medical experts had to say about Malone’s claims. For example, the article linked a recent rise in athlete deaths due to myocarditis to the vaccines and the spike protein in the vaccines to serious side effects. Upon further reading, I learnt that evidence, in fact, suggested that neither of those claims was true: most athlete cases of myocarditis were determined to be because of the virus itself and not the vaccine. After a couple of hours reading scientific papers and articles by medical doctors, I finally concluded that almost every claim the article made was untrue.

The moral of this story for me was that no matter how well-informed I like to think I am, I am as susceptible to falling for misinformation as anyone else. Malone has been widely criticised by the medical community for promoting lies about the vaccines, but that didn’t change how believable his article must seem to the vast majority of readers.

The paradox of the information age that we live in is that misinformation is as easily available as information itself. This simple fact could have profound and potentially devastating consequences for open societies across the world. We’re already seeing this in play, evidenced by the renewed rise in anti-science tendencies and increasingly polarised sociopolitical landscapes. It has become incredibly easy to circulate factually incorrect material—often with a veneer of authority and authenticity—to propagate an agenda or to sow discord that can then be exploited for political gains. We, in India, are no strangers to the latter. Indian society is hardly immune to misinformation or pseudoscience either. A recent international multilingual study indicated that during the pandemic, India has been the biggest source of misinformation among all countries. From cow urine drinking parties organised by elected officials to WhatsApp claims about turmeric milk’s COVID-19-killing abilities, evidence of a massive misinformation problem is ample.

What can we do about all this? How do we save our societies from this slippery slope? Some governments are beginning to take action. In a recent landmark piece of legislation, the European Union has set a new standard for regulating social media platforms. The coming years might see Western governments attempt to tackle this important issue. While regulation will have an important role to play, it is my view that the most valuable tool that we have against misinformation—and those that seek to actively misinform—is a critically thinking population. The scientific community will continue to lead the fight, but that fight will only get anywhere when all of us come together and do our part.

As was my experience with Malone’s claims, it is difficult for the layperson to tell a legitimate professional disagreement apart from a deliberate piece of misinformation. Had I failed to fact-check, I might have continued to carry in my head a little seed of doubt regarding the vaccines. A good first step to avoid such a thing, therefore, is to take a step back and ask some basic questions:

Is the claim supported by peer-reviewed science? Do experts seem to agree? Experts/scientists may disagree with one another on technicalities and interpretation, but in many cases, a general consensus emerges through that debate. When you are attempting to figure out what is not true, it often helps to know what experts think is true.

Do other news outlets report the same story? If you see a contentious news piece that only one outlet seems to be reporting on, it is worth asking why others aren’t. Unless a story is made up, many outlets will report on it even if with their own biases and viewpoints.

Do they go straight to social media? A hallmark of misinforma­tion is that it is often propagated directly through social media and messaging/email networks. This is as true of Malone’s methods as it is for that Instagram celebrity trying to peddle weight loss “solutions” that are not based in any real evidence.

Do they primarily use anecdotal evidence? Remember that friend whose aunt’s diabetes got cured thanks to homoeopathy? It is well established that homoeopathy is at best placebo, but its clinics continue to stay in business because anecdotal evidence is a powerful marketing strategy.

Sometimes the ones spreading misinformation are politicians that want you to blame Muslims for all that’s wrong in the country. At other times, it is a self-proclaimed spiritual leader who has made a business out of uttering complete nonsense in polished English. And finally, it is us, even if completely unintentionally. No one is immune to misinformation. In my experience, it is helpful to approach the complex world that we live in—and the conversations that we have with one another—with a sense of humility and an open mind. As we continue to learn to respect expert advice, practising critical thinking ourselves is an important first step in keeping misinformation and propaganda in check. Learning to ask simple but important questions can make all the difference in the world.

Sai Kanth Dacha (saikanth.dacha@gmail.com) received his PhD in physics at the University of Maryland. In addition to his research in photonics, he is passionate about writing, science and technology policy, and science advocacy.

 

 

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Updated On : 31st Jul, 2022
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