Facing the Consequences of a Misinformation Pandemic

Photo of TR Contributor Kyle Serikawa

Kyle Serikawa

You know what it’s like, trying to keep up with information about SARS-CoV-2?

It’s like being aboard the Battlestar Galactica.

(H/T to @tvoti for surfacing this once again timely tweet)

In that episode of the famous sci-fi series, the Cylons, an alien, robot race bent on humanity’s destruction, attack the Battlestar Galactica, the last human warship, every 33 minutes. For days. Relentlessly. If you want to find out what happens, the series makes for great binge-watching material, especially if you should happen to be stuck inside for some reason.

If volume and rate were the only problems with the deluge of COVID19 information, maybe that could be tackled. Organized. Controlled. But it’s not just quantity. Quality is as scarce as yeast on the baking shelf of the supermarket.

Information (and not just about COVID19) has been tailored, weaponized, A-B tested, and imbued with the glow of truthiness, enticing so many of us (me at times, I’ll admit) to gravitate to the sources that don’t just inform but confirm and comfort. In normal times — that sepia-tinged time I like to call “before March” — this balkanization of attention mainly spawned a thousand irascible Op-Eds on the high-minded left and right. It gave people on both sides of the blue-red divide ample examples of how gullible, how insular, how trapped the other side is inside its own confirmation bias chamber. This fractured information ecosystem made a lot of money for certain media outlets more interested in entertainment and opinion than the (boring / low ratings) news. Many (most?) people would agree public discourse is the poorer for this, but no one’s done anything much about because, well, it’s just the way things are, right?

But now, our country’s inability to listen to experts and trust objective facts — our willingness to turn everything into a partisan, cynical infotainment battle — has real consequences. It’s deadly.

For those of us in biotech, in science, it’s been an especially hard time. We’ve seen how information has been twisted about the coronavirus. We’ve watched the pandemic roll over the world while at every point, including right now, the weight of epidemiological evidence and biomedical science has been screaming out warnings, warnings about what should be done to minimize harm to human health.

Over the past few months, the data showed that SARS-CoV-2 was not going to die out and diminish into a medical and historical footnote. But the warnings have been slow to take root, both with elected leaders and with many constituents, because they have been told to be skeptical, have been told it’s just a bunch of alarmist media hype. These messages came from outlets who regularly draw millions of listeners and viewers.

COVID19 news got caught up in that same confirmation bias heavy, targeted advertising-driven (give the people what they want!), processing machine I referred to above. Terry Pratchett, may his books be reprinted forever, described Stories, with a capital “S,” as almost free-living spirits, roaming the fantasy world he built and co-opting events in their service.

As Pratchett once wrote, “It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.” In a similar fashion, some popular entertainment outlets chose to take the emerging facts around the coronavirus and build them into their existing “Story” frameworks, the narratives that supported their view of the world, rather than taking the facts as the warning they were. The message was, “Look at how all these people, these experts, are over-reacting!” and not, “We need to prepare.” To be sure, most of the major news outlets in the US have performed admirably, reporting the facts and placing them in context. But that extraordinary public service created a predictable backlash. There has been an oppositional defiant reaction among many Americans who have been conditioned to distrust The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN and others.

(Quick interjection: some of the worst downplaying of the pandemic occurred at FOX, and a number of other conservative outlets, but the general phenomenon isn’t limited to them. Many anti-vaxxers on the far left can explain almost every piece of pro-vaccine science as a Big Pharma conspiracy to make windfall profits. But to paraphrase Prachett again, “this is here and it is now,” and the conservative media’s skepticism and denial of the COVID19 threat is the current most dangerous example of our broken information ecosystem.)

When these outlets co-opted the facts about SARS-CoV-2 in service of the narrative that, actually, this wasn’t such a big deal, they fostered a casual business-as-usual attitude that has contributed to the US now having the largest number of positive cases in the world. This narrative likely has and will continue to lead to loss of life, especially as it sweeps across the country in the weeks ahead. It’s not “just” a New York City problem.

So what should scientists do when information and data get hijacked and distorted? Especially when a new messenger twists the facts, or interprets them in a way that threatens human lives? Ironically enough, many of these media provocateur types aspired to “go viral” on the Internet, before that word returned to its more serious life-and-death connotations. What’s the R0 of a great tiktok? Maybe the first thing scientists need to learn is to recognize why some information spreads faster than other kinds, what modes of presentation foster infection, and why some particular stories, in the parlance of Chip and Dan Heath, are sticky.

It’s not hard to get the general outlines. Reams of books have been written and hundreds of business models have sprung up around the nuances of making information attractive. Jonah Peretti, the co-founder and CEO of Buzzfeed, and a co-founder of The Huffington Post, became a celebrity through his uncanny ability to make stories and memes “go viral” on the Internet. That work inspired many imitators. It brought in ad money, which was invested, to an extent, into some quality journalism. But at the end of the day, that’s not what captures attention and drives popular narratives on the Internet. A lot of it boils down to: does this story reinforce an existing worldview? Does it give people some kind of emotional jolt, making them feel better, smarter, outraged, angry? Does it make them feel empowered? Envious? Does it appeal to their tribal identify, however defined? Does it pose a threat to the individual, or to the tribe?

But deciphering those clues isn’t enough. Pointing out to someone that they’re being manipulated by the media they’re consuming is not an effective way to persuade them to consider other points of view. It would also be nice if the simple presentation of facts would serve as an antidote. It doesn’t. A pernicious effect of a ketogenic diet of high-fat, manipulated information is that it immunizes the consumer from data that contradicts the narrative. If you’re keto, you are impervious to veganist facts, to extend the analogy. At best, if you present vegan facts to a card-carrying ketogenic dieter, you might be met with a blank stare, more often with a defiant non-sequitur that is meant to refute.   

Still, I think scientists and others in our industry have to try. The business of biotech is based on data, facts, experiments and measurable, repeatable results. Fighting against the misuse of information is fighting for the knowledge we’re trying so hard to discover and engineer into cures and diagnostics. When figures in authority dismiss expertise as just a point of view, there’s an implicit dismissal of the value generated by biomedical research. Essentially, as presidential historian Jon Meacham has said, “the enlightenment is on trial.” Scientific reason is a big part of that. I know which side our industry is on.

Fortunately, scientists still enjoy a level of trust and reputation that some institutions in the US have lost. Even people who present as “anti-science” will listen to a set of facts, if it doesn’t directly attack a deeply held political belief. Watch how Tony Fauci communicates in this crisis, how he’s grounded in humanity and humility, and sticks firmly to the facts. Many people can receive a scientific message when it’s delivered in a way that allows them to come to the right conclusion, rather than hammers them over the head.

People look to us as scientists to be their trusted guides through the fog, like Dr. Fauci. Anecdotally, I have become the clearinghouse for internet facts of dubious provenance in my family. That gives me a chance to push back against the more questionable narratives. I’d bet many of you play the same role as well. When you combine trust and reputation with relationships—that can go a long way in unraveling an information cocoon.

And keep plugging away, even when you feel like a Cassandra. Persistence matters. Because the Cylons won’t stop coming.

Kyle Serikawa is a Program Manager at Adaptive Biotechnologies. All views or opinions expressed are his own and not of the company.

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