How Do You Know
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.
The Pandemic - Lessons Learned
The COVID-19 pandemic has faded, but health experts warm that future pandemics could occur. In terms of disinformation, what lessons have we learned from the past that can be applied to the future? Featuring Center for Countering Digital Hate CEO Imran Ahmed, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, and CEO of Emergent Risk International Meredith Wilson.
Supposing we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just very powerful light. And I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but you're going to test it. And then I said, supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way.
At the height of the pandemic, when deaths were mounting and fear spreading, well like a virus, there were all sorts of theories about how to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.
You just heard then President Trump suggesting that somehow, bright light under the skin just might do the trick. In that same White House appearance, it was April 23rd, 2020, he had another idea as well.
And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous …
Now, the so-called remedies were not true and in the case of his suggestion that disinfectants might help, they were downright dangerous. In the week after he touted disinfectants, the number of accidental poisonings around the country from common household disinfectants, more than doubled from the same period the year before.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coincidence or correlation, who knows. What is known however, is that false information, particularly when spread in a time of uncertainty and unease can be powerful and harmful.
Since the pandemic began, we've learned a few things about how false information spreads, and you may be surprised at what we found. Welcome to another episode of our series on disinformation.
I'm Paul Brandus and that's the name of 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.
Millions of Americans think that the COVID-19 vaccine is more dangerous than COVID itself. That's according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. What makes people think this? Well, disinformation and their eagerness to lap it up for one.
One thing that might surprise you about disinformation during the pandemic was that the bulk of it, about two thirds, was generated by a surprisingly small number of sources, about a dozen people. That's according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a Washington-based nonprofit. It's run by Imran Ahmed.
At the very start of the pandemic, we realized that a vast amount of disinformation was flowing in the absence of good information. Disinformation, it's particularly powerful when science is struggling to catch up by taking its time to work out what the facts are. And so, lots and lots of conspiracy theories and lies were spread in that period.
But we saw anti-vaxxers as being particularly influential because they have had a long record of producing misinformation about vaccines, about diseases, about whether or not we can trust doctors.
And we were tracking them for quite some period of time. What we realized over time was that the vast majority of the disinformation we were seeing being shared online actually came from a very small number of sources.
And when we sought to systematize our analysis of that, we found that 12 people were responsible for two-thirds of the disinformation shared online. So, they were producing the content that was then being spread online to disinform people.
A couple of thanks here: Ahmed notes that in the early stages of the pandemic scientists said few answers, it takes time to do research, but that created an information vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum and while scientists were carefully, methodically looking for those answers, that information vacuum was filled by false narratives, crazy theories, and all the rest.
In our analysis, what we did is we looked across tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of posts online. We looked for what was the link that they were seeking to spread. So, quite often, people won't say, “I think X,” they will say, “Look at this, which says X.”
And that's why the super producers of content are really important because they're the ones who are producing links that can be shared on social media. And we then really quite manually systematically went through, ensured it was disinformation, and found that 12 people were responsible for the vast majority, the two-thirds of all the disinformation shares online.
Just who are these people, the people Ahmed calls the disinformation dozen? And what might it say about other topics around which disinformation can flourish? More on that 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, we just mentioned that a dozen people, just a dozen are linked to about two thirds of disinformation about the pandemic. Now, there's one name I'll get to in a minute, but to give you a flavor as to what the so-called disinformation dozen said about the pandemic, I picked one name at random from the list, Sherri Tenpenny, a 64-year-old doctor, an osteopath in Ohio.
In testimony before Ohio lawmakers in June, 2021, she claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine was turning people into human magnets.
Because right now, we're all kind of hypothesizing. I mean, what is it that's actually being transmitted that's causing all of these things? Is it a combination of the protein, which now we're finding has a metal attached to it? I'm sure you've seen the pictures all over the internet of people who've had these shots and now they're magnetized.
They put a key on their forehead, it sticks. They can put spoons and forks all over them and they can stick because now, we think that there's a metal piece to that. There's been people who've long suspected that there was some sort of an interface yet to be defined — an interface between what's being injected in these shots and all of the 5G towers.
Not proven yet, but we're trying to figure out what is it that's being transmitted to these unvaccinated people that are causing health problems.
Spoons, forks, and keys sticking to us, since that testimony was two years ago, I decided to call Tenpenny to see if she's sticking by that testimony.
You were talking about 5G towers and people possibly being magnetized with what dining utensils and so forth, that was two years ago. Do you have any further research on that to further support your hypothesis by chance?
There is, one of the things is graphene oxide in combination with hydrogen creates a magnetic charge and there's entire textbooks written about it. It's so interesting that if people are still reporting on a testimony I did two years ago, that means I'm not speaking enough.
Actually, some people think she's spoken too much and point out that her theories about humans being magnetized are just downright bizarre.
Meantime, Dr. Tenpenny seems to have taken a liking to the limelight, making media appearances with the likes of Sandy Hook School shooting denier, Alex Jones, and Mike Lindell the so-called pillow guy who insists that the election of 2020 was stolen from President Trump.
Again, Tenpenny is just one name I plucked at random from the list of the so-called disinformation dozen. Now, here, let me point out something we've mentioned before in this series, namely that social media is an accelerant for disinformation.
Dr. Tenpenny says something to a group of lawmakers, gets picked up by others and amplified. And because I'm talking about her and her theories, now, I suppose you could say that I'm helping to spread them in a way.
Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International says this dynamic, which applies to other things like the 2020 election is a dilemma for reputable media.
You know what a lot of people have said and what some of the reports have said is that actually the biggest arbiter or spreaders of disinformation related to the election and the claims that it was fraudulent was actually the media. And not just the right-wing media, but the mainstream media.
And not because they intended to, but because they were reporting on the story. And the more they reported the story, the more it got ingrained into sort of everything. But are they going to not report it? No, probably not. So, it's tricky and could you apply that to … yeah, you can apply that to pretty much anything.
But again, outlier theories that humans have been magnetized by vaccines and that the 2020 election was stolen, these have been discredited, and yet people continue to believe. Why? Here again, Imran Ahmed.
There's a really strong correlation between conspiracism and what's called epistemic anxiety. So, epistemic anxiety is not being sure what's true or not, it's not being sure how to even find out what's true or not, it's this deep yearning for certainty that we feel.
And you can imagine that during a pandemic with a novel pathogen, a new disease that science was struggling to catch up with, to understand that sort of in that gap, in that massive chasm of certainty, that actually conspiracy theories were able to fill the gap.
They were able to provide some on the surface, fairly simple explanations for some of the craziness that we were seeing around us. But the problem with conspiracy theories are that they are like junk food, that they satisfy for a moment, but then you're hungry afterwards. Because of course, what they can never do is actually provide certainty, conspiracy theories are just that they’re theories.
And so, people start looking for more and more conspiracy theories to fill the gaps within the existing conspiracy theories to provide them with corroboration of that conspiracy theory itself. And that from the outside, we would call that rabbit-holing, people going down the rabbit hole conceiving more and more and more conspiracies.
But really, it's that psychological drive for it. Why was it so extreme during the pandemic? Well, exactly, because all of us simultaneously, billions of people around the world were feeling the same thing, and I absolutely was, which is fear.
We were all scared and we were all isolated, and we were having to make extraordinary moves. I spent two years of my life not seeing the people I love the most, and that was incredibly difficult. And of course, people were reaching for answers in the absence of satisfying answers from elsewhere.
There's something else also, I mentioned that you've probably never heard of Sherri Tenpenny, but one person, one disinformation spreader, perhaps you have heard of, it's Robert F. Kennedy Jr, son of the late senator and nephew of the late president.
In fact, now, at age 69, a presidential candidate himself. Because of his family pedigree, his views on vaccines have gotten a great deal of attention. Those views include blaming childhood vaccines for autism, a theory that has been fully debunked by more than a dozen peer-reviewed scientific studies worldwide.
At the height of the pandemic, Kennedy suggested that Americans facing vaccination mandates had, get this, less freedom than Jews in Nazi Germany.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.:
Even in Hitler, Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland, you can hide in an attic like Anne Frank did. I visited in 1962 East Germany with my father and met people who had climbed the wall and escaped. So, it was possible. Many died, truly but it was possible.
The problem is that things that just aren't true can carry extra weight when spoken by a prominent person like Donald Trump's theories about disinfectants or RFK Junior’s.
Once again, Meredith Wilson.
When you have influencers and super influencers, it's very easy for that to happen. And when you have influencers and super influencers who also happen to be in a position of power, it's even more likely to happen.
Because there will be a subset of people following those people who won't question it because they have placed their trust in them, and they really believe what they're telling them. It happens on both sides of the political divide, but you do get this where people will say things that seem completely outlandish, but they will spread everywhere.
They will spread from the people who believe them, but it will also spread from the people that don't believe them because, hey, look at this crazy thing that so-and-so said.
So, it makes sense and the interesting thing about technology now is that we can sometimes make those linkages and go back to the original source of the information and trace it backwards and see how social media in particular has made this possible for it to be only a handful of people that are actually creating a global pandemic of disinformation, if you will.
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. And if you have questions, comments, or ideas, or an example of disinformation, you'd like us to check out, my email, [email protected]
Thanks to in Imran Ahmed and Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, our sound designer and editor, Noah Foutz; audio engineer Nathan Corson; executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.
And on behalf of Meredith Wilson, I'm Paul Brandus, thanks so much for listening.
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