We’ve seen a lot of disinformation over the last three years shared by anti-science bad actors, usually with an agenda to disrupt and confuse.
Then there is misinformation, much more common and differing from disinformation with regard to intent.
Disinformation is intentional, think people like Tucker Carlson at Fox News or Ezra Levant closer to home, who are clearly spreading lies about environmental and social issues on purpose and with an ideological agenda.
The spread of misinformation lacks that intent. Think people waving flags on overpasses or holding signs that say “COVID is a hoax.”
These are the gullible people tricked by the Carlsons and Levants of the world.
But in times of crisis like, say, a global pandemic, all of our vulnerability to misinformation is heightened, which explains why we’ve seen so much of it in recent years.
A report released last month outlined estimates on the extreme costs of COVID-19 misinformation, both human and financial.
Fault Lines: Expert Panel on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation from the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) released on Jan. 23 comes with some troubling statistics.
If everyone who believed that COVID-19 was a hoax actually got vaccinated when their age group became eligible, more than 2.3 million additional people in Canada would have received the shot.
Well, the CCA report concludes that would have resulted “in roughly 198,000 fewer cases, 13,000 fewer hospitalizations, and 2,800 fewer deaths from COVID-19 between March 1 and Nov. 30, 2021. The cost of hospitalizations, including ICU visits associated with these cases, was conservatively estimated at $300 million.”
As I wrote in this space nearly three years ago, just one month into the pandemic, what we had already seen was a deluge of lies, damn lies, and pure nonsense.
The promise of the internet was one of more information, but that quickly became too much information. This is what the World Health Organization refers to as an “infodemic.”
Canadian social media researchers Philip Mai and Anotoliy Gruzd monitored COVID-19 misinformation from January 2020, when the first Canadian case was detected. What they found was that the false narratives, often made into memes wittingly and unwittingly shared on Twitter and Facebook, come in different themes: fake cures; speculation on the origin; diminishment of the seriousness; race-baiting, and more.
In his 2021 book How to Talk to a Science Denier: Conversations with Flat Earthers, Climate Deniers, and Others who Defy Reason, author Lee McIntyre points out the parallels in the COVID-is-a-hoax campaigns and the longstanding climate change deniers.
“For both the coronarvirus and global warming, the denialist position has followed these steps:
“• It’s not happening
“• It’s not our fault
“• It’s not as bad as everyone says
“• It would cost too much to fix it
“• We can’t do anything about it anyway.”
But McIntyre is an optimist, and instead of the polarization that comes when those who tell the truth just complain that disinformation bad actors are lying, he tries to engage them.
“Better, I think, is to try to bring science deniers back into the fold and show them how useful science can be,” McIntyre writes adding, very importantly to my mind: “And how nice would it be for expertise to mean something again?”
I’ve been banging this drum for three years now. In September 2021, I wrote about the seeming death of expertise quoting from a book written four years before that, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters by Tom Nichols.
“These are dangerous times,” Nichols wrote, three years before the pandemic, illustrating how our current condition is not particularly new. “Never have so many people had access to so much knowledge, and yet been so resistant to learning anything.”
Coming back to the CCA report issued last month, misinformation isn’t just frustrating to academics and journalists, it’s deadly and expensive.
“The impacts of misinformation are complex and not always easy to quantify directly, but they have the potential to undermine the advances made to date in science and health,” CCA president and CEO Eric M. Meslin said.
We can’t afford to let it continue.
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