SOTN 2021 03 When Words Can Kill: The COVID-19 Infodemic's Impact IRL: Biden and the 117th Congress Need A Unified Strategy
4:12PM Jan 26, 2021
mountain safe for this panel, Devi Alba, who is in your times technology reporter who has been focusing a lot on disinformation. I will let her introduce our panelists today. Thank you. Hey, everyone,
thanks so much for joining. We have a fantastic slate of experts that I myself and my work have been, are are in constant contact with throughout my reporting. And I am excited to introduce you
all to them.
We have Anna Santos Richmond, a health law and policy scholar on Biden's COVID-19 innovation committee. We've got Jovan Donovan, the research director of Harvard's Shorenstein center. And we've got Renee de resta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. Thanks so much for being here all. I wanted to start off with a little bit of table setting. In the last year we saw as representative, as she said, just an info demmick that has affected really all of the information that we're getting about the Coronavirus, but I don't believe that has started just last year with the onset of Coronavirus does that right? And can you give us a little bit of background on the networks that were already in place? When Coronavirus became an emerging news item? JOHN, why don't we start with you?
Everyone really excited to be in conversation. And Davey, just very, very thankful for you getting the word out. Every day on the disinformation beat I know it's a it's a total grind. And it's really it's sometimes you really feel like you're, you know, shouting at the wall when you're saying how could life get this big. But when we think about medical misinformation in particular, as an object of research, you know, we've got a century of anti vaxxer history to look through, you know, going back to the early 1900s, where people wanted to have laws about getting people vaccinated, because vaccines are a different kind of medicine entirely in the sense that I get a vaccine, of course to protect myself, but it only really works as a tool to protect society if everybody gets it because they're going to be people who cannot get vaccines because of other medical conditions and whatnot. But when we talk about older forms of, you know, medical misinformation, we might call it snake oil or quackery. So we've always had people that are imposters, in some sense, pretending to be doctors or pretending to have some kind of knowledge about the body that they don't this, you know, supplement industry that has grown up alongside pharmacology as a way to deal with different kinds of medical ailments. And you know, so we have we've had, we've been through some of this in the past, right. And so the public agencies, public health agencies, in particular, public health schools, do a really good job of figuring out, you know, what communities are resistant to vaccine information or hesitant towards vaccine information. skeptical of the medical establishment, some of this is a result of being harmed by, you know, different experiments that have been run, particularly the dusky experiment. But we talk about, like medical misinformation online, we're talking about something entirely similar in content, but really different in the mechanics of it. That is the scale by which it spreads, the tactics used by anti vaccination, anti vaxxer groups and spokes people, the news industry that's kind of built up around it to give it this veneer of scientism. And then and this will be my last point is when you have all of that going on which in the midst of a pandemic becomes a very fertile ground for sowing distrust in medicine and science. Then when you layer in the political dimensions, and the ways in which this pandemic has affected our economy, and our politic, the pandemic itself becomes a kind of political, cultural, and medical misinformation then becomes a tool or, you know, some would say, even a weapon in information operations and so happy to get into that as we develop the conversation. But from my perspective, the the way in which social media enables medical misinformation at scale is really something that we have to address head on.
Thanks for that, Joan. And, Renee, I wanted to turn it over to you. And, you know, we've established that this has been a problem even before kind of the coronavirus pandemic emerged. What can you say about the online communities and the networked sort of communities that exist online? And there's the state of things as we saw this Coronavirus, becoming a bigger problem.
Yeah. Well, thanks for thanks for moderating. It's great to be here with everyone. So the metaphor of morality when we talk about viral content on the internet, that metaphor comes from epidemiology. So I think it's really interesting to look at that, that phenomenon in this case, so you have vulnerable communities infected by a disease that spread to other communities via person to person transmission, often quickly, and depending on the disease potentially exponentially, right? And so you see online is that same dynamic is happening. So you have a piece of content or some claim, in this case about Coronavirus. And these communities have been established for a very long time, the anti vaccine movement established a foothold on social media. The earliest largest organizations as far back as 2009, the most politically active, the most well networked in 2015, actually, in response to fighting California's vaccine bill, SB 277, which was the law that removed the voluntary opt out for from the childhood immunization schedule and public schools. And in the course of doing that, the anti vaccine movement, which while very well, coordinated online is not as large and particularly in 2015 was not as large as people may think. And what it had to do was it had to connect with other communities and it had to network with other communities. And so at the time, in 2015, it leaned into the Tea Party, and the idea of vaccination as government tyranny, or vaccination is vast government overreach, was really laid down, those claims are really laid down. As Joel mentioned, we have these narratives that date back to the era of smallpox, very elation. But what you see in 2015, is you see that real incorporation of not only the toxins and autism and health concerns narratives, as as the kind of stereotypical anti vaccine canards, you start to see the the Tea Party narratives that say that this is government tyranny and overreach. And that really resonated at the time with people who were members of those communities. So all of a sudden, you had anti vaccine hashtags, and anti vaccine content being pushed into second amendment hashtags and content and top conservative on Twitter. And they even went so far as to try to get them into black lives matter. communities by way of these hashtags, again, that idea of virality and spreading it from one community to another community, in this case, by way of means and hash tags.
And as a member of this administration, what challenges are ahead of you, and what challenges have been sort of keyed up, I guess, given the last four years?
Well, thank you for having me, it's a privilege to be part of this panel with these amazing researchers and women. Just a quick framing note, I was an advisor to the campaign, I'm not an advisor to the administration to the current administration, which in many ways the work you have to do not knowing what might be happening as vaccines are set to receive, you know, authorization from the FDA, and we don't quite know what the plans to roll them out might be what the discourse about them. Now, availability of vaccines might be debt, made the campaign have to contemplate a lot of scenarios, some have not come to pass and some were facing them right now. So I can speak a little bit to dad and then I can you know, as a scholar, and as a policy, and law person, I can talk about some of the present challenges we're now seeing surface here. Part of it goes to some of the issues that we've already touched on the idea that there's a preceding epidemic, so there's the virus at the root of COVID-19. But vaccine misinformation and disinformation precedes that epidemic and just before COVID, we were seeing attrition in the rights of vaccination in the US and elsewhere. Where we're also seeing I think, as that epidemic grew and grew, even before COVID, we were seeing something that I think is positive. And I know that members of the campaign and the administration are aware of, which is the fact that we now have very granular data on what acts and misinformation now looks like. Part of it because of the work of people like john wick explained it to was part of it, because of what you just mentioned, that we understand the anti vaccine or vaccine questioning networks operate, we know that COVID has maximize the reach of those networks, we know exactly how many accounts that have been labeled as anti Vax, for instance, have been added by each one of the mainstream networks, we even suspect or have some pretty reliable math on, for instance, monetization of anti vaccine content associated with accounts that tend to thrive on different types of health misinformation, complicating things, having a look at different pathways towards the dissemination of anti vaccine content. So we have all these data to build on. And I think that's a tool that we were not as aware of before, up until 2018. And this is information that the administration certainly works on up until 2018. We had very little information on for instance, Russia centered efforts to promote vaccine misinformation, it turns out, they send accurate and inaccurate information our way at the same time just to increase devices. Now, it doesn't really matter to the senders that it's vaccine specific. It's just a tool, it's been instrumentalized. So the problem is bigger. The tools that we have, and particularly the data that we now have, and this is an administration that relies on science and on data are much better. So you've seen specific proposals, House Democrats have proposed a multi agency commission, for instance, or task force, that would look broadly at misinformation issues, and certainly COVID-19 related misinformation issues would be at the center of that. This strikes me as a really good, good idea. And I have two points to make. One is related to this. And it's this idea that we may be talking about vaccine misinformation. But it's not an environment that's restricted to vaccines, things that have happened elsewhere, in the COVID pandemic, for instance, involving the FDA, and some of this horses that were made about emergency use authorizations of products that have nothing to do with vaccines, but there was some overstating of data. So some things that damage some institutional reputation, that the current administration is now seeking to repair. I think this points to extensive damage. And I think the idea of understanding vaccine misinformation is being about health misinformation. And about even more than that is crucial. And then on the other hand, again, not taking off my advisory hat, but the legal scholar one and me, I would just, you know, conclude this person's revention by saying, from a legal perspective, from a policy perspective, there's a number of things we can do. And they can range from nudging certain behaviors being more better at communicating at different levels from federal level to local level. And then there are what I would call a nuclear nuclear option, say we want to regulate this very stringently and strictly, and they might be on the table, the administration is aware of some of those options, but just because we can be extremely stringent, it doesn't necessarily mean we should, sometimes reaching for some form of compromise and be being more dialectic, I think, is a better option than, again, posing certain acts that will be construed as paternalistic, or government or government influenced and influenced and ultimately might backfire in addressing.
Thanks so much for that. And I'm, I'm curious, you know, this this situation, this global pandemic that has made us all sort of, you know, be anchored to our houses or apartments or homes for the last year. It's really unprecedented. We haven't seen a pandemic on this scale in, you know, a century. So I guess I'm curious, you know, thinking about how complicated this, this even is from an education perspective, and the flow of information about how this all came to pass with the state of things are all of this. I'm curious to get a little more context on that. And I want to latch on to a little bit of what you said about sort of the way other countries have also. You know, figured out how to communicate or maybe seen this as an opportunity to muddy the waters. Perhaps Renee, I know that you've done a lot of research on sort of Russia disinformation, even in in in sort of the 2016 elections and are familiar with these networks. Can you give us a little bit of context on on this like global misinformation problem and how the pandemic hooks into that? Yeah, I love this question.
So we started looking in January, we started noticing of last year, so a full year ago, our anti vaccine activists in the US talking about this disease in China, and and already kind of laying the dark, the dark groundwork for this idea that it was going to become a way for the the elites to mass vaccinate the planet. So this is a very common, very, very common conspiracy. We see it every time there's an Ebola outbreak, Zika, you name it, it pops up Bill Gates right in there from day one. But what was really fascinating about COVID, as it unfolded was that it did become a pandemic, and it became a global pandemic. And that's very unique, because in past epidemics like Ebola, or Zika, they're largely geographically confined. And that means that the people who were paying attention to them even in the online environment, which is borderless, are still largely to some extent geographically, you know, they're the people who are in the the geographic
area of, of
infections. What we saw with COVID, though, was we saw
this remarkable effort as it began to hit other countries of damage controlled by China. So we saw some remarkable activity from Chinese state media. There is a there are certain types of governments where the messaging that they're putting out to the world is different than the messaging that they put out to their people, where they have dedicated information channels that speak one message to an outside audience while speaking a different message internally. So that dynamic was taking shape. So we were looking at ways in which Coronavirus was being messaged to people in China versus two versus what China was saying to the world. It's public diplomacy in the information space. You know, it has numerous Facebook pages with over 100 million followers. And it began to run ads actually began to run boosted content boosting state media assessments from China in the Chinese state government messaging around what Coronavirus was casting doubt on where it had originated, and framing China as what came to be called mask diplomacy. This provider of masks and PPP and general benevolence and aid to countries, particularly Italy was seriously impacted as one of the early countries in the epidemic. And so you started to see ways in which countries that had state media used it in that context. And Russia in particular, again, the messaging internally versus externally is is is really remarkable. They have RT and of course some other sort of flagship state media English language properties. They also have an Arabic and a Latin American inflections for those channels. And the Arabic content was these very dark conspiracies about the United States being this the true source of Coronavirus, whereas what they were putting out on RT to English language audiences was they were inviting anti vaxxers on to be guests on their program to talk about how this was all no big deal. And then now meaning of the while at the same time telling their own people that this was in fact a very big deal and something to take quite seriously. What we see now today, I'll just end with this thought is vaccine diplomacy. So the same way there were these narratives about who had what mask and who was giving what mask to whom, what you're seeing is the same conversation playing out in the context of the vaccine. There's a lot of denigration of Pfizer and Madonna and talking up of Sputnik vaccine or sinovac, again, depending on which countries media is producing the content. They're putting it out to a global audience, mostly in English, but again, inflected for some regional markets. And right now you're seeing this battle play out about whose vaccine has more side effects whose vaccine is more efficacious, and whose vaccine is is the one that people should be taking. So it's this same again, the same state focus, but now the topic is is the vaccine rollout.
That's really important for sort of global context. I'm curious, john, if you can jump in here with some domestic context, obviously, the way the vaccine and Coronavirus information has been conveyed to our own population, their unique challenges in in the way that these platforms have allowed influencers to gain traction. People who have you know, made this sort of their brand. I'm curious what you're seeing on the domestic side and whether you've actually seen a rise in in in all of this misinformation and because of the corona virus pandemic about vaccines and the Coronavirus itself. Yeah.
So we've been tracking a few different efforts, looking at specifically, how people's questions about COVID its origins, its spread the symptoms, what the Vax what's in the vaccine, how those questions produce what Dana Boyd calls data voids, which essentially are missing information. Right? We don't know. For instance, the sort of big back and forth happening this week is, should pregnant women get Coco the COVID vaccine? a logical question, but when you start poking around online, it becomes a space where different groups are very receptive to discussing it while also piggybacking medical misinformation into the conversation. But domestically, the biggest one by far has been a cloaked science operation run by Steve Bannon, around COVID. Being a bio weapon he went he he's received reportedly $100 million from a exiled Chinese billionaire. The New York Times has written about this, where they use that to found this rule of law foundation. And without getting into the specifics of the conspiracy and the dark money elements. Essentially, Bannon and this billionaire flew a whistleblower from Hong Kong to the United States, and then paraded her around different media outlets saying that this is information you're not allowed to hear it. And then one thing that they did though, is they exploited our open science system. So we have communities of scientists online that no, it takes two years to get an academic article out. So they use these things called preprint servers, they put their their paper up, usually the paper has been accepted for publication, pending, like final review. But these open servers are places now where missin formers will put out any old kind of idea about how we should deal with COVID. But what Bannon did was he put out a paper that looked like science written by this whistleblower, which became known on the internet as the Yon report, and it has nearly a million engagements on zenodo, which is a an open science platform. And so xanatos rows role here is basically one where, you know, a really hot scientific paper might get 1000 you know, views like that's a big paper. But this one is different. This Yon report, and when it didn't get picked up in the mainstream media, they put out a second one, which had a very plain title, like COVID is a bio weapon, rather than trying to cloak it in science. And then they even use the nodo for 30 on report to say, hey, people are spreading disinformation about us and their quote, unquote, muddying the waters, right. And so it's got banned and written all over it. And it was very similar to tactics he used when he was at Breitbart. But that's all to say that the domestic aspects of the disinformation around COVID in particular, really work on a feature of the design of our search systems, which is ask a question get an answer. You don't actually know where that answer comes from. Usually, you don't know if it's a verifiable or reputable source and, and if it does look reputable. You have to also try to assess, well, how open is this platform? Could I upload anything to this platform on my own and then get, you know, get the same kind of legitimacy, it's like going into a museum and, and hanging up something you drew in the kitchen and then calling it art, you know, when you put a fake science paper up on one of these preprint servers, it gets all the aura of being legitimate, but it's really not.
we have a question in the chat, and I want to open it up to everyone and then go back to talking about platforms, because that is absolutely a crucial aspect of the info demmick and sort of the responsibility. But, you know, really important question here. We've talked a lot about sort of info demmick and sort of the networks and things like that. But what is the real world magnitude of this problem? disinformation is one thing, but how, what percentage of Americans will actually refuse to accept the COVID vaccine Because they're misinformed. Have you all seen, you know, real life stories and evidence of this? In your work in your research? In your encounters with people, you know, what, what are the vulnerable points here, and anyone who wants to jump in, please, please do. One of the
things that's challenging with a vaccine, and and i believe somebody who has more medical knowledge can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the estimation for achieving kind of herd immunity thresholds here is 85%. So one of the challenges with a vaccine is that, while a majority of people taking it is, is something that we would still expect to see what matters are kind of pockets where the vaccine can start with the disease can continue to spread in under vaccinated portions of the population geographically, for example, that then make it harder for it to be truly contained. And this has been the challenge with when we talk about MMR hesitancy, it's the same dynamic, right? It's, there are measles outbreaks, because there are well, in aggregate across the state 85 to 90% of people miss will be vaccinating their kids, if there are pockets of hesitancy where it's at 30%. That's where a disease where an epidemic outbreak can can take hold, and then can begin to spread to people who have had their immunizations wear off over time, or who did not produce antibodies in response to the immunization. And so one of the challenges is understanding whether that hesitancy is distributed across the country or confined to certain parts, you know, certain certain geographical regions of the public.
So I was
just going to add to that, that, you know, in the middle of the pandemic, the causality between, you know, vaccine misinformation, and in vaccine hesitancy, it's pretty hard to establish. So we have broad numbers very general on the number of people have indicated they might get the vaccine, if one is made available free of charge, we can get some hints from previous outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases. So the MMR example, we now have some studies linking exposure to misinformation specifically to these recent outbreaks, 2019 measles within within certain regional or local communities. So can we say for sure that we know there's this causality relationship and put a number to it? Very hard, but can we predict that something along those lines will happen? I think it's an informed guess at this point that gets one of the likely outcomes.
Is there any way you can contextualize what percentage of folks who are exposed to the misinformation actually follow through with not getting vaccinated? is there is there anything that the research tells us about about the volume of that?
I will just, you know, quickly defer to other experts, the only studies I've seen, showed that increased exposure to misinformation makes you more likely to keep challenging and even more strongly, your beliefs surrounding misinformation or science on vaccines, I should say, I haven't seen anything that's COVID. Specific, again, that would give us a solid number to work with. One of the ways you might approach this is to look at vaccine hesitancy and refusal among health care workers. Because that's where you know, that's where the data is, right? Because you have to, you can have a very large proportion of the population be skeptical about any kind of treatment. But until they're faced with, you're in line, you can you're eligible, you can get this vaccine, and then they say no, that's really where we're actually going to be able to understand more about those dynamics. One of the things that I've been reading up on are these health care workers that are are refusing and and some of the time they just say, Well, I read some things online, or they believe that because they've already had COVID, because they've been exposed repeatedly, that they're already protected. And so we have to be careful also to just kind of look more closely for the data that we have. And then what is it that they are refusing based on? It's kind of like trying to assess the impact of misinformation on voting, which is, there's usually a constellation of concerns. It's never you know, one specific bit of information leads to one determinant outcome, right. And so, there is some qualitative research that will have to be done to flesh out like what are the main reasons that people would would turn down and available and free vaccine, right, which is also an important part here because sometimes people refuse medical treatment simply because the cost is too high.
I love this question in the chat. And it speaks to the data, Boyd's situation that you described. JOHN earlier earlier in our conversation, how will it be possible to fill information voids? When the answer is we don't know. You know, there's ongoing research about the vaccines and even the nature of the Coronavirus and how it spread. And, and all of this, people are searching for certainty and authoritative answer explaining uncertainty isn't going to be well received or propagated. How do you combat? You know, sort of this this problem when the best answer is like, we don't have the information yet. open to anyone.
So it's not when someone clicks that they're going to answer the question, does that mean anything? It just said that, and that is going to answer this question. Wow.
No, it does. Okay, feel free to jump
in. I think the only thing that I would add is that this is actually science. Right? Science is slow and methodical, and gets it accuracy through investigation. And so it's always going to be it's always going to be way behind when it comes to truth. And I mean, comms making the truth is actually going to be way behind disinformation, which is why you got to have a kind of block and tackle defense of misinformation narratives as they start to grow, and grow and grow. And that's, that's something that's really confounding our field has been, I don't know how many convenings Renee and I have been at where people are just like, Hey, listen, I can't combat this info with also spreading the meme, right? Like it, there's this relationship where you can actually do more damage. And so, for instance, like headlines are so important for getting people to understand what it is that they're about to read. And there was an interesting debate that played out, I think, yesterday around NPR headlines related to the the COVID vaccine being effective or as effective against these new variants. And so I think one thing that we can do better, write better headlines that are much more pointed and directed at the facts rather than speculative or open, that kind of play on people's emotions so that they click through. I would have just one last thing, which is we saw this play out with masks, right. And I feel like masks in the early stages of the pandemic are a cautionary tale for communication by institutions and authorities that we don't want to repeat. And I feel very strongly about this. The what we saw there was guidance that the CDC had from 2012 from SARS, where it said masks are not going to do material, you know, making material impact stopping transmission. And that may have been relevant for SARS. But they used verbatim the same guidance from that old, that old material on their site. And at the time, we didn't know very much about Coronavirus. But what you had was people on the internet who had very strong opinions about masks. That turned out to be correct, right. They did some investigation, they found some things. And so there was some pocket of people that turned out to be correct. Meanwhile, media was writing headlines kind of saying what the CDC and institutions were saying which were again, until they were sure that they should change their guidance, they did not change their guidance. And they didn't cast it in the context of you know, we're X percent sure that this is the truth, or we just don't know yet. This is what our best guesses. And so these very authoritative sounding headlines went out but all turned out to be wrong. And that turned that became really a crisis of confidence. And it was used by people who wanted to erode confidence in the media to opportunistically kind of point back and say, Look, all of these outlets got it wrong. But But my random guy over here got it right, you know, and so the wall not all authority resides within institutions. The challenge became How do you surface authoritative information, recognizing that maybe the institutions weren't the ones who were putting it out as quickly as possible, but also being in the context where with these data voids, the person who creates the most compelling content, the fastest is often the person whose results are returned. So if the institutions aren't communicating and aren't even putting out something that says we're 25% sure right now, give us some more time. The people you know, the the Internet experts who are saying that they're sure whether they turn out to be right or wrong, that kind of content is what's going to go viral on social media. And it's what's going to be returned in search results. And so institutions have to adapt their communication style at this point, the new administration has to adapt its communication style at this point, recognizing that this is the dynamics of the kind of, you know, search and sense making environment that we all live in today. And, uh,
can you jump in here, in terms of, you know, when you were advising the Biden campaign, given all that Renee said, What were you thinking of it in terms in terms of like strategy and getting the message, the correct message, the accurate message out the best knowing the sort of incentives of platforms and algorithms and how compelling content rises to the top? And how missin farmers game, the algorithms, what was your advice, about getting good information out there on the platforms.
So the team as a whole felt dead, a couple of things were necessary that were missing. from, you know, the experience in the past four years, and particularly during the pandemic, the campaign was in touch with scientists, experts on technical fields, policymakers, lawmakers, and it really felt that it was incredibly important to have as many voices of experts in into fields and get all that content, and, you know, bring it all the way up to the ladder for the people in charge of making the decision to to to consider so just give them just getting the decision makers as many scientifically or technically accurate options and unfair those with legal and policy tools. And once the people above me my decisions, which instruments they thought were the ones that would make, you know, the 100 day list, for instance, of goals to achieve and other things that the campaign would try to accomplish pretty quickly to respond to the pandemic. The message was one be extremely clear, adopt a modeling role that we've seen within the President's past with regard to vaccination, Jefferson was instrumental in making it a public health school in the US. And you know, President Biden went on TV when he did this. So clear communication, the modeling role, because if there's an informational vacuum, seeing repeatedly, people in certain decision making positions subject themselves to what might be portraying as something that's counterproductive to your own health, that's a powerful message. And then perhaps even more importantly, in all of this, one of the things that it's very idiosyncratic, I think, to the COVID pandemic, in the West, and to the kind of response we had is that our agencies didn't really coordinate with one another particularly well, this happened in regulatory manners. But it also happened in matters of sheer communication. We were seeing, for instance, FDA and CDC not perfectly aligned, and there were some delays that were attributable to those miscommunications. and eliminating debt was a priority and I think remains a priority, which is why making sure that we have different representation within government and the administration looking at these issues, I think remains a priority for the current administration, because that ecosystem proved to be especially damaging for some of the types of claims that were circulating just because the instrumentalisation of those delays of that miscommunication about health issues in general, was allowed to occur. So that was sort of the approach.
this is a question from the chat, but it really sort of jumps off of Anna's response and revenue representative issues statement that kicked us off? How can algorithms favor truth over emotion, as representative as she was calling for help? Once we start looking for truth, we're grappling with layers of subjectivity. Do you have any thoughts or recommendations?
Yeah, you know, I'm no philosopher, but I took a university class here and there. So the truth, though, for me is very simple in the sense that I think what we need to deliver is timely, local, relevant and accurate information. But that's really boring. That's the kind of stuff that gets you to turn the channel on the TV gets you to move the dial on the radio. And so you actually have to produce in algorithms a forcing function that requires what we would call a public interest obligation which you so you turn on the radio and you're like, Man, this song is awesome. I love this. And then the host, you know chimes in with, it's going to be 67 and sunny today, and there's a city council meeting happening later. And you're like, Can we just get back to the tunes, right? Like, I just want to hear my music. But that's a law. They don't do that, because they want to they do that because they have to. And so we haven't really thought about, and there's been a lot of lobbying that has happened to make us not think about the public interest obligations of technology companies. And this extends throughout the entire tech stack, not just social media. But you know, what would the public interest obligations be of internet service providers of you know, other web been built? businesses? What kind of, you know, what could we imagine differently if we thought about our digital tools and our devices as things that had to make room for timely, local, relevant, accurate information, a pandemic produces this need, or at least reveals this need, because of the way in which isolation has forced us into places where it's really hard to get that kind of information, we also have, you know, local news has been just decimated by platform companies and Google taking over advertising markets. And you know, what we have also cord cutters that are moving away from just being able to have you know, you can't just get the antenna up on your television and get access to your local news anymore. There's a couple other steps involved. And so the internet and social media in particular, have become so much more pronounced really important in our lives. And so when we think about algorithms, and we think about recommendation systems, the truth is not something that is viral. It's not that interesting. And so we have to think differently about the design. And then we have to create a standard by which new companies as well as the companies operate in the same manner, so that we don't end up developing some other kind of monstrous, horrid system, you know, that like tries to circumvent something that should be relatively simple and produces broad public value, especially when it comes to medical misinformation. It which is a little bit different from the political disinformation, like if we had, you know, 12 weeks and three hours, I could give you my course on that. But it's like, you know, there are different kinds of buckets of information that we're dealing with medical misinformation, inciting content, political disinformation, harassment, you know, we all have, we have to deal with each of these in a different manner, of course, and so, but right now, everything is so intertwined and intermixed and displayed and ranked and sorted in the same way as that we're just not getting the value that we need, the public value that we need from this technology. I just
wanted to note that we are also joined by Diana Greg crispy. She is an associate professor at Brown University School of Public Health Departments of Behavioral and Social Sciences and epidemiology. And Diana, thanks for joining us. I know that you had some conductivity issues in the beginning.
to throw it to you for our closing remarks and just you know, sort of bring home the the the true stakes of Coronavirus, misinformation and viral Coronavirus misinformation, which I'm sure you're familiar with in your work and practice. What is the ultimate toll that this sort of disinformation create on society and, you know, our, our, our communities, our families and friends?
Well, sorry that I missed most of the conversation, so maybe some of what I say will be repetitive. But I think that one of the challenges with COVID-19 was that it was a perfect storm from this information. You had a new virus that you know, where the information was constantly changing in terms of what we knew about the virus ever made mentioned earlier. You know, the whole idea of the mask recommendations that impression, we're told Well, you don't need to wear a mask.
I think we are experiencing technical difficulties again, hopefully we can get Diana back.
you know, sort of, I guess, one one another good way to close this is just sort of parting thoughts from all of you. And, you know, obviously, there's, there's so much here to discuss. There's the fact that this is an unprecedented situation, the fact that we're all at home, you know, sort of our only connection to the world is the internet these days, the responsibility of the platforms, the different incentives that people have. Muslim farmers have to sort of try to game the algorithms,
you know, the responsibility of public health officials. I know that's a that's a tall order to sort of roll all together in a parting in a parting thought. But I'm going to try to ask you guys to give it a shot Renae, why don't we start with you? What's your takeaway from the situation and a little give us a little bit of a look ahead for what we should be thinking of with regards to this Coronavirus pandemic and info depth.
So I would say two things. One, you know, I think that thinking about how platforms curate and what their responsibility is. And the situation is, you know, we're at a real turning point, I think an opportunity to think about those things much more strategically now in the context of the pandemic. And and I believe that that is a critical area of recognizing that the same system is used for political mis, and disinformation, economic misinformation, health myths, and disinformation to just thinking about the systems that we want, and the way that we can potentially get there. And then the other thing I would say, though, is that in this particular case, people play a very, very significant and participatory role in spreading information today. And this is why when the content is compelling, people share it. And so thinking about both for institutions and authority figures, the idea of making content that's compelling to the public so that people do feel that they're that they're spreading a message that they're spreading accurate information that they've been given that's both accurate, as well as, you know, interesting enough to them to make them play that role in spreading good information to their communities. So I think that's the other area that that we need to see. brought to bear a little bit more directly in the pandemic times
that we're in today.
Can I throw it over to you?
I'm sure. So I would build on this idea that the pandemic is actually an opportunity for us to do things that were perhaps overdue, and I would probably borrow from another concept in epidemiology, that's a preparedness, we should have been better prepared, even pre COVID to deal with vaccine misinformation and health misinformation in general, the data had been coming in for years at at that point. So this is definitely a wake up call. I think it's going to inform very specific discussions. For instance, on the last side of things, discussions of how to reform section 230, for instance, people will have COVID in the back of their minds, vaccine, misinformation might not have been their primary concern, absent the pandemic. So in a very twisted way, this is an opportunity to build a better system and I sincerely hope that we build from there and become better at you know, the wide variety of things we need to do to curb the effects of vaccine and health misinformation.
JOHN, your parting thoughts? And if you're willing, can you give us a little bit of advice on you know, a personal level, what individuals can do to reach out to people in their lives, friends and relatives who not only believe vaccine misinformation, but continued to circulate it?
What What can What can we do? What can we do? So one of the strategies I thought was kind of brilliant comes from Taiwan, where they employ a strategy of humor over rumor. And I just thought this was really funny and cute way for people to engage with medical misinformation and to when, you know, have a few memes on deck that when people are posting things that you're just like, I don't know, brah like this don't seem true. Like just have some things that you can use in response that don't necessarily come at someone personally, or maybe don't make them feel very self conscious. But make them aware that you're, you're checking the facts. I think that that's one way that we can deal with some of the the pettiness and the burden that misinformation places on all of us because a lot of people individuals share, we've talked a lot about dis informers and the business of it. But a lot of people share misinformation, because they're sharing it just in case they're afraid of something else happening, especially when you see these forwards these mass forwards that say, you know, martial laws coming, you better go get your toilet paper. And so treat people with fairness and kindness and like try to raise awareness about what they should be doing and what they could be circulating instead. And then, you know, do your part and sharing, I was just getting a bunch of links together about vaccine information in Massachusetts that I'm going to share within my own local networks, because we're heading into phase two next week. And so the idea that you could share some of the boring stuff, make sure it gets out there to your personal networks, you know, maybe you maybe you're friends with 5060 or 500 people and let them know, you know, just like get the information out there. Because it's not always obvious to people, how they would access medical care, and then do it in a way that is repetitive and redundant. So much of our disinformation landscape plays on this long tail of like, you see it everywhere you see it every day. And so then it starts to have this feeling of truth. And so we have to also employ similar tactics around repetition and redundancy that can really, you know, bring some people into a different kind of understanding. And so I thank you, Davey, though, for the great questions. And the fun, fun panel, I know it's not the brightest of
now, I know you're back with us, short and sweet, if you will, you know, sort of let's go back into the stakes of this, and then we'll wrap up this panel. And yeah, thank you for everyone coming.
Danna? Well, I think from certainly from a public health perspective, is exciting to have a panel like this, with people working in media, as well as people in public health, because I think we have to have these interdisciplinary collaborations in terms of being able to effectively track the Miss information, and also be able to counter it in real time. And so I think it's important that we are all on the same page in terms of the messaging, there is Claire's, Joanne talked about that is timely. And that we do need to do some education of the public in terms of understanding the scientific process of the research process, that some of this information will change over time, as we learn more about the virus, whether that's been changes in the mass mandate, or even now with vaccines, people not understanding that you need two shots to be fully vaccinated. And so people will Oh, well, somebody got the virus, but they had already had a shot and say, well, they weren't fully vaccinated. So I really thinking more about working with across different groups, where the media, making sure we have accurate stories in the media, making sure that we work with people in computer science to help us track the misinformation online and working with people in public health and medicine, to make sure that we're all on the same page in terms of the messaging that we're, you know, that we're that we're putting out there. And I think now that we have a new administration, at least we won't have everyone doing something different. Hopefully, we'll have a more coordinated effort with respect to the message that's being put out there.
I try to make it sure I love that. Oh, yeah,
absolutely. Thank you so much for that input. You know, I'll leave it there. Thank you to everyone who attended the panel, and thanks so much to our experts for their time. We really appreciate it and the work continues.
Thank you. All right. Take care
everyone. And for
tuning in. Today, I'll be sharing a Slack channel where you can network and discuss the panels in the chat and we'll be breaking for lunch, but please tune back in at 1255 right here for our next panel on the solar winds of cybersecurity. Thanks