That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
Many Americans—influenced by political leaders and even some health providers—chose to downplay or ignore science-based recommendations from infectious-disease experts to get vaccinated, wear masks, and practice physical distancing. At the same time, unproven, even “dangerous anti-science beliefs and behaviors” spread, gaining traction with some. As a result, notes Scientific American, “more people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19 than in any other country, and our nation has one of the highest per capita death rates in the world.”
Featuring Dr. Seema Yasmin, Director of Research and Education, Stanford University Health Communication Initiative; John Gregory, Health Editor for NewsGuard, and Meredith Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Emergent Risk International
I’m not putting this mask on. There's so much research that says that we actually are in danger of having this mask. I'm breathing my own CO2. Do you understand that? No, I'm not endangering you because I'm a healthy person.
At the height of the pandemic, this shopper made her views clear about masks — she didn't like them. Her view was based on what she claimed was “research.” It was baffling she continued that no one else in the store was as smart as she was.
Look at all of these sheep that are here, all wearing this mask that's actually dangerous for them, and it's doing nothing for them. A 99% survival rate and you're all wearing masks like sheep, like sheep. Seriously, it's ridiculous. You guys share this, this is what we're dealing with in America. This cannot be the new normal.
Or could it be that one quarter into the 21st century, the new normal is actually when legions of people consume information on a topic that validates, reinforces what they wish to believe.
Information that is misleading, perhaps even deliberately false, there's a word for this: disinformation.
I'm Paul Brandus and welcome to this series, it's called simply, Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, Founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International, and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit America like a freight train, flattening the economy, wiping out 22 million jobs in February in March 2020 alone.
It was disruption on a grand scale with words and phrases like masks, vaccines, social distancing, Zoom, working from home and more, dominating the lexicon. This was new territory for all of us, and thus, fertile ground for false information.
I think probably, the hardest and perhaps, the saddest thing about it is that it quite likely made it significantly worse for people whose family members died.
Meredith Wilson is Chief Executive Officer of Emergent Risk International.
People who may or may not have had the correct information about the pandemic, about what caused it, and about vaccines and things like that in particular.
One reason lots of people did not have correct information was, as I mentioned, because the pandemic seemingly, came out of nowhere, and while scientists worldwide race to get a handle on it, inaccurate information spread like wildfire.
Dr. Seema Yasmin:
Disinformation really fueled the spread of COVID-19. So, we were never just dealing with this new Coronavirus.
Dr. Seema Yasmin is Director of the Research and Education Center at the Stanford University's Health Communication Initiative. Previously, she served as an officer in the Epidemic Intelligent Service at the Centers for Disease, Control and Prevention. She earned her medical degree at Cambridge University.
Dr. Seema Yasmin:
We were always dealing with this pandemic of an infection, and a concurrent mis infodemic; this contagious spread of viral misinformation and disinformation that was spreading in parallel to the infection and had all kinds of debilitating and deathly consequences.
When Dr. Yasmin says “viral disinformation,” there's actually some data to back this up. John Gregory is Health Editor of NewsGuard, a company that tracks disinformation online.
Using nine journalistic criteria. It assesses basic practices of credibility and transparency, and assigns ratings and scores to those sites.
Our Coronavirus misinformation tracking center catalogs all the websites that NewsGuard has rated where we found false claims about COVID-19. At this moment is 632. That's in the U.S., the UK, France, Germany, and Italy, and also, some in Canada where NewsGuard launched last year.
And these include any false claims about the COVID-19 viruses’ origins, treatments that don't work, to making up most of the false claims, frankly, in the past two years or so. False claims about COVID-19 vaccines. So, it's any website that has shared misinformation on those subjects. Anything related to COVID-19.
So, all sorts of information. Why is this happening? Why are they doing it? And what's in it for them?
Well, I think it started happening because it was the story that was affecting all of our lives, and even misinformation sites have to go, kind of meet their audience where they're at in their own lives. And if that's affecting your day-to-day activities, it's affecting you going to work, seeing your family. That's going to be the subject they talk about.
And their role is typically to whatever the reliable general news media is saying, they need to tell you why their narrative is wrong and counter it. And that usually means sharing false claims, misleading claims. And because this was dominating everybody's life at the time, that's where they went.
Why on earth would they do that? I mean, you have a leading news organization, as you say, that's making its best effort to get the truth or accuracy, life and death facts out. Why on earth would they want to counter that with stuff that's not true?
The motives vary from site to site, I would expect. You can never discount one, that they really believe this stuff. They really believe there's these big conspiracies, these big incorrect narratives pushed by reliable news sources, government sources, and whatnot. The pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, doctors — you can't discount the fact that they believe in those sort of vast conspiracies.
Second is a profit motive. They want to get clicks. They want people to come to their websites and then click ads that drive revenue to them. Or in some cases, the misinformation is the product. By sharing what they see as the secret, real information to their audience, they may get them to pay 5, 10, 15 bucks or subscription for donations by merch. All those sort of more direct revenue generators besides ads.
In other words, disinformation is a business model. There's a buck to be made from tapping into an audience that wants to believe things that most folks would classify as rubbish.
Throughout this podcast series, we keep asking a central question, why? Why do people believe certain things? In the case of the pandemic, Dr. Yasmin of Stanford wrote a book called What the Fact, where she traced the origins of disinformation. She says that sheer velocity of the pandemic helped false narratives take root.
Dr. Seema Yasmin:
In my book, What the Fact, trace back some of the Facebook posts, some of the tweets or the TikToks to find out where did they come from, but also, what havoc did they cause?
And you can literally find people who said, “I didn't wear a mask because I heard about this new pandemic, and I just thought it was a hoax.” “Okay, well, why did you think that?” “Because Facebook said so.” “Well, who on Facebook said so?” “Oh, I'm not sure. It was so many people on Facebook that I was seeing on my timeline saying it's not real.”
And then those people ended up in the ICU and some of them died. Some of them made it out alive, but very unwell. Some of them disabled for a long time.
So, we can never dismiss the fact that when you have a public health emergency, when you have a crisis, there's a vacuum of information, especially early on. People are seeking answers for which scientists just don't have the answers yet, because it's early, because it's a novel virus, because these things are being figured out.
Into that vacuum, come the snake oil salesman and women who purport to have all the cures and all the answers were left very vulnerable at times of crisis to being susceptible to the lies.
Healthcare disinformation is hardly new, of course, it's also a worldwide phenomenon. And as we'll see, can latch onto any event. We'll discuss this after this short break.
This series on disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent Risk International, we build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in a world of risk.
Welcome back. Deadly as the pandemic has been in America, it has been utterly devastating. Elsewhere, in Romania, for example, the per capita death rate has been reported as seven times higher than the United States.
One reason for that has been a low vaccination rate fueled by politicians like that lady, a new member of the Romanian parliament who took to the streets to urge citizens not to get a shot.
It was all maddening for that country's health experts who were attacked as quacks and profiteers.
One of the targets for this vitriol, one of the most prominent health officials in Romania, is Dr. Raed Arafat, who spoke with me at a disinformation conference in Brussels.
Dr. Raed Arafat:
We had a new parliament member, a new very vocal lady who was usually called on TVs to bring on more rating for a certain period, and she was really drawing everybody to watch, and she just said things against what we were doing, against vaccination.
In return for sharing his medical insights in an attempt to save lives, Dr. Arafat was subjected to personal attacks from politicians and the recipient of threats from citizens — sounds familiar.
Something else sounds familiar too, if you recall in episode two of this podcast series, we talked about how the Soviet Union back in the 1980s planted a story that wound up spreading around the world that said that CIA was responsible for the AIDS virus.
Something similar appears to have happened with COVID-19. Some Europeans, including two in five Romanians, according to one survey, think the virus was an American-made bioweapon.
Disinformation in the healthcare space is everywhere. We've been hearing for years about how the basic shot for MMR, that's short for Measles, Mumps, and Rubella causes autism. It's simply not true — repeat not true. But as we've established in prior episodes of this series, people believe what they want to believe (experts, authoritative institutions, and fact checkers be damned).
In the case of autism, much of the disinformation appears to be linked to a study dating back to 1998. After it was debunked, the doctor who wrote it lost his medical license. And the medical journal that published it acknowledged the error and retracted the article.
But actions like these long after the fact, often go unnoticed. And today, a quarter century later, millions of parents remain skeptical of vaccines in general.
In January 2020, for example, on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Gallop poll said that only 45% of Americans believed that vaccines do not cause autism in children. The data shows a correlation between education levels of the parents and their belief in the efficiency of vaccines.
Conspiracy theorists are everywhere and will latch onto anything as they search high and low for their beliefs to be validated.
Medical personnel have been working on bill's safety. Damar Hamlin for the last nine minutes, Hamlin made a hit, he got up, took a couple of …
Even the collapse of an NFL player earlier this month has been twisted by some who claimed that his cardiac arrest was somehow linked to the COVID vaccine. Doctors call this claim ludicrous, but as John Gregory reminds us, we know how these things work.
Big prominent sources of misinformation, were tying it without basis to the vaccine. I really think that anything new in terms of a medical event, any new outbreak of disease is going to be blamed on COVID vaccines because that's the narrative that these misinformation sites have decided to go with, no matter the lack of evidence behind that.
There will be future pandemics, of course, with variables like migration, climate change, and ease of global travel acting as possible accelerants. Meredith Wilson warns of another accelerant: disinformation.
There is a sort of at some point, a reckoning where people … and I think this has really definitely happened within American society, where people have just said, “Okay, you do you” but don't say you weren't warned, because at some point, there's only so much you can do.
People are going to do what they're going to do. The concern though is always, is there a way to ensure that they actually are getting the best information available, and that they’re at least aware before making decisions that some of this information may be false, and that's probably the hardest thing that we will have to tackle going forward.
As we continue to sort of swim through this environment of massive flows of information and less and less availability of sort of truly trusted and agreed upon institutions within our government, within the world. I think that will probably be one of the hardest things that we have to contend with.
If you like this show and this series, I hope you'll go to the Apple or Spotify page or wherever you're listening to this, and give us a review.
Thanks to Dr. Seema Yasmin, Dr. Raed Arafat, and John Gregory for their insights, sound clip from ESPN. Our sound designer and editor, Noah Foutz, audio engineer Nathan Corson, executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.
And on behalf of Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International, I'm Paul Brandus, thanks so much for listening.