Misinformation behaves like a virus
To those who say that there is no such thing as harmless misinformation or false truths, do you recall the story of Adam and Eve, from the Old Testament’s Book of Genesis?
In the story, the snake convinces Eve and then Adam into eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, an act which led God to expel them from the Garden of Eden.
As illustrated in Genesis, trusting in a falsehood can have dire consequences. Even a seemingly slight distortion of the truth can have dangerous effects.
Just this week we all were witness to how misinformation behaves like a virus. False news stories spread faster, deeper and farther than true stories, cascading from host to host across the nation at the speed of light. Yes! Even on my 90-year old uncle Henley’s twitter account (See old people do know how to use a computer).
To make things worse, both of those fake truths were tenaciously persistent.
Like trying to unring a bell, misinformation sticks with people, once embedded into our brain, it becomes almost impossible to correct.
I recall watching “Wild Wild West” with a line that went “shoot first, shoot some more then ask questions.” It seems that today’s commentators are more like Jim West, they have to shoot first, shoot some more, then ask questions instead of fact-checking and debunking it.
So what can we do?
For decades, we have had an easy way to prevent diseases. Vaccines.
Most of us are familiar with how a vaccine works, it exposes us to weakened versions of a virus helping us to build antibodies against the real thing.
This common practice has all but extinguished some of the worst diseases of the 20th century, including measles and polio. Which brings me to wonder, could a vaccine be used for a non-medical virus? Could researchers develop a type of vaccination that could combat a new 21st-Century scourge: false truths?
I believe that no one can establish to what extent misinformation effects the outcome of any campaign, political party or candidate, but the tactics are clear:
The spread of misinformation is dependent on a combined pyramid and network strategy in which producers create malicious content and broadcast it to regional and local activists, who then spread the messages widely to public and private groups. From there, the message travels even further as they are forwarded on by believing individuals to their own contacts. My uncle Henley.
Once integrated into the public main stream, misinformation, like a virus, moves rapidly in our ever-changing environment and adapts quickly to new conditions. In other words, boosting my Uncle Henley’s mental defenses until the next election.
Truth is often complicated, messy and nuanced, whereas people who seek to spread false truths offer simple solutions to complex issues.
If we value the freedoms we currently enjoy, we should recognize that we are in an information battle which we simply cannot afford to lose.