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Are You Foolproof? Resisting the Spread of Disinformation

"Smile in men's faces, smooth, deceive, and cog." —Richard III

Key points

  • Disinformation is misinformation combined with ulterior motives.
  • Propaganda is disinformation in furtherance of a cause or political agenda.
  • Cherry-picking, fake experts, and fearmongering are common disinformation tactics.

Today’s headlines bring news of the death of Danny Lemoi, an “ivermectin influencer.” The 50-year-old Rhode Island man reportedly took veterinary-grade ivermectin, a dewormer for horses and cattle, every day for the past decade. On the morning of March 3, 2023, he posted on social media, “HAPPY FRIDAY ALL YOU POISONOUS HORSE PASTE EATING SURVIVORS !!!” [capitals in the original]. He died a few hours later from an enlarged heart.

Heart damage is one of many side effects attributed to ingestion of ivermectin in large doses intended for livestock. Lemoi recommended high-dose ivermectin to his followers on social media and instructed them on how to treat children with the drug. His qualifications for giving medical advice were apparently limited to his expertise as “a heavy equipment operator.” According to Vice, many of his followers now suffer from ivermectin's side effects.

Misinformation, Disinformation, and Propaganda

In Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, Sander van der Linden provides a well-researched analysis of the psychology behind the spread of misinformation and disinformation. The author, a social psychologist and the director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, offers practical strategies for countering these misleading influences. This book comes at a time when the spread of false and distorted information across many fronts is corroding the social and political fabric in the United States and other Western countries.

The difference between misinformation and disinformation, van der Linden says, is that disinformation “is misinformation coupled with some psychological intention to deceive or harm others.” When disinformation is used to further some cause or political objective, it becomes propaganda. The author identifies several tactics commonly used to spread disinformation, including cherry-picking, fake experts, and fear-mongering. These tactics sow doubt and confusion in people's minds and erode trust in institutions and experts. One example of this is the spread of fake news about COVID-19 vaccines, which led to vaccine hesitancy and impeded the global vaccination effort.

Think or Someone Else Will Do It for You

To combat the spread of misinformation and disinformation, van der Linden advocates building immunity through critical thinking, fact-checking, and exposure to diverse perspectives. He also provides specific strategies for countering misinformation, such as the "inoculation" approach, which involves exposing people to weakened forms of misinformation to build up their resistance to it. This approach has been used successfully to combat climate change denial, among other issues. The chapter on conspiracy theories is especially informative, delving into the psychology of true believers and providing a framework for evaluating such theories.

Unfortunately, disinformation continues to be a problem globally. For example, after the 2020 US presidential election, false claims of voter fraud and irregularities circulated widely on social media. The misinformation was amplified by politicians and media personalities, leading to the assault on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Other examples include the many disinformation campaigns during the pandemic that disputed the efficacy of vaccines and public health measures. This led to vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus's origins and the motives of governments and health organizations. One notable example of such misinformation is the absurd and unsubstantiated claim that the COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips to track individuals.

Disinformation campaigns have also been used to incite violence and unrest in several countries worldwide. In Myanmar, for example, disinformation spread through social media fomented hatred and violence against the Rohingya people, leading to one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election, Russian operatives used disinformation campaigns to spread discord and animosity among the electorate.

Van der Linden's book provides a foundation for understanding why disinformation campaigns work and how we can combat them. The need for critical thinking, media literacy, and fact-checking has never been greater. By providing practical strategies, such as the "inoculation" approach, van der Linden's book offers a blueprint for developing immunity against disinformation and protecting the truth.

However, as van der Linden acknowledges, combating disinformation is an ongoing challenge that requires a concerted effort by all stakeholders, including governments, social media platforms, and individuals. Governments can enact policies that promote transparency and accountability in media, and social media platforms can implement measures that limit the spread of false information. Ultimately, individuals must take responsibility for fact-checking information and using their higher-order thinking skills.

In conclusion, Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity is a must-read for those of us interested in resisting the spread of disinformation. It highlights the need for vigilance and the importance of developing immunity against it. With disinformation inevitable and pervasive, van der Linden's book is a timely and valuable resource.

Fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again.” —George W. Bush

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.

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