Digital Vaccines for Misinformation

1802 caricature of a scene at the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras by British satirist James Gillray. The cartoon was inspired by the controversy over inoculating against the dreaded disease, smallpox. Opponents of vaccination had depicted cases of vaccinees developing bovine features and this is picked up and exaggerated by Gillray. Side Note: Smallpox no longer exists because the vaccine worked, and no, people did not turn into cows.

Embracing crazy ideas that are simply wrong does have consequences. One obvious and recent example is the claim that the COVID vaccine will turn you magnetic and also interface you to 5G towers. It sounds loopy because it is, yet serious supposedly intelligent people deeply embraced the idea. Elected Republican representatives in Ohio, eager to see an anti-vaccine bill passed, wheeled in a Conspiracy crackpot as their “expert witness” to testify on the basis of no credible evidence at all. I was writing about this one the other day under the title of “How Does the New Magnetic Superpower via vaccine work?

Another shocking example concerns a school in Miami. The New York Times reports that teachers at Centner Academy who had been vaccinated were told that they would be fired if they got vaccinated, and students were advised to keep clear of vaccinated parents….

A fifth-grade math and science teacher peddled a bogus conspiracy theory on Wednesday to students at Centner Academy, a private school in Miami, warning them that they should not hug parents who had been vaccinated against the coronavirus for more than five seconds because they might be exposed to harmful vaccine shedding.

“Hola Mami,” one student wrote in an email to her parents from school, saying that the teacher was “telling us to stay away from you guys.”

Nearly a week before, the school had threatened teachers’ employment if they got a coronavirus vaccine before the end of the school year.

What is truly shocking is not simply that some low IQ gullible fool embraced a weird idea, but that these highly intelligent professional educators had gone completely off the rails and disconnected from reality. This is not some small state school with poorly paid teachers, but instead is a private school where the fees are as much as $30,000 so the staff should in theory be the best of the best.

No doubt, as you can imagine, once the news got out, there was a total media shit-storm around it all.

How did parents react?

Some quite sensibly pulled their kids out, but the school also faced a rush of applications for both students and teaching positions from other equally delusional individuals. If you manage to read the NYT article that goes into all the details without your jaw hitting the floor or certain anglo-salon phrases being emitted, then you are clearly far more restrained than I could ever be.

(Vent-mode on)

Anglo-saxon phrases?

Well ok, those of a sensitive disposition should look away now; ignorant fuckwits, clueless gobshites, and much much more, quite naturally sprint into my mind, not as terms of abuse or insult, but rather as factual statements.

(Vent-mode back off)

What is going on within that school of conspiracy theories is not education. The problem there is that the lady who runs it is a conspiracy nut who buys into whatever whacky claim is currently doing the rounds. To illustrate that point, the NYT article also points out that she once remarked that children should be kept away from windows, for fear of radiation from 5G cell towers. She embraced that idea to such a degree that she had “shielding blockers,” installed to supposedly insulate them from 5G.

Why is it like this?

Why do normal smart intelligent people get successfully conned by whacky ideas and often end up deeply embracing them?

To lay it all out briefly, disinformation panders to our emotions by pressing hot-button topics and offers solace and comfort. Those that lean towards responding emotionally are easily manipulated.

We all have psychological needs. At times of high stress we naturally gravitate towards the voices that offer us hope and promise us something better. Misinformation panders to this and leverages our psychology.

Address those psychological needs with things of substance in meaningful ways and you will in effect neutralise the impact of those that are whispering lies. The offer of a hamburger over there is no longer tempting if you can stay at home and enjoy a steak. (Hat tip to anybody who recognises that reference).

Misinformation, Disinformation and the Big Lie

Misinformation is information that is wrong but implies no intent to deceive. Many who fall prey to it pass it on as “truth” because they have been successfully conned and not because there is any intent to deceive. Disinformation is the deliberate promotion of information that is known to be wrong. The intent is to deceive and the goal is to manipulate.

The 2020 election has delivered a classic example of disinformation – the big lie.

Trump’s stance regarding voter fraud is well known. His claims have no basis in fact, and he knows this. The deception is very deliberate.

Many leading Republicans have been forced into survival mode. Trump has riled up his base by pressing emotional buttons. Leading Republicans, with an eye on future elections, are operating in their own self interest. They know he is lying. To prevent Trump’s mob turning on them they need to pander to him, not because they wish to keep him on side, but because they need to keep voters on side.

What can we actually do?

The concept of a vaccine is generally well understood. You literally alter your immune system with it. When you next encounter the actual virus your immune system has been equipped with the anti-bodies and so it can fight back effectively.

Misinformation and disinformation behave like a virus of the mind. It can also potentially be tackled in a similar manner. Prep the human mind with a harmless version so that when it encounters the real thing, it is armed with a defence and resists.

What follows below are two games that have been designed to prebunk misinformation. The strategy in play here is that this works by priming people with misinformation and warns them about it before they buy into it. When they then encounter the real thing, they have a natural resistance.

Let’s now move on to the games.

Game 1- Go Viral

GO VIRAL! is a 5-minute game that helps protect you against COVID-19 misinformation. You’ll learn about some of the most common strategies used to spread false and misleading information about the virus.

Understanding these tricks allows you to resist them the next time you come across them online.

You can read more about how this works HERE.

Who is behind this game?

This game is the product of a collaboration between the SOCIAL DECISION-MAKING LAB at the  University of Cambridge, DROG, GUSMANSON, and the UK CABINET OFFICE.

You can find the most common myths about COVID-19 debunked HERE on the WHO website.

Game 2- Bad News

This second game is similar.

In Bad News, you take on the role of fake news-monger.

Drop all pretense of ethics and choose a path that builds your persona as an unscrupulous media magnate. But keep an eye on your ‘followers’ and ‘credibility’ meters. Your task is to get as many followers as you can while slowly building up fake credibility as a news site. But watch out: you lose if you tell obvious lies or disappoint your supporters!

Who is behind this game?

Yes, lots of overlap with the producers of the previous game. The game was produced by the Dutch media platform “DROG” in collaboration with the University of Cambridge. They developed the game to teach you how various tactics and methods are used to spread deceitful messages. They believe the best way to cultivate a sixth sense to recognise and expose disinformation is to create it yourself.

Final Questions

  • Did you have a go at any of the games, and if so, what did you think of them?
  • Have you ever in the past embraced a whacky crazy idea then later changed your mind about it?
  • If so, what persuaded you that you had been mistaken?
  • What do you think could be an effective way to help people already gripped by misinformation?
  • What else do you think could help prevent people from being conned by misinformation?

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