Science denial is a weapon

Reject social media disinformation


(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

By Edridge D’Souza, Collegian Columnist

It’s a little disappointing that the biggest comeback of the past few years isn’t the Jonas Brothers, but instead preventable illness. Diseases like measles and polio were essentially eradicated in the Western world for the past half century, but the rise of anti-vaccine movements has caused a looming public health crisis.

While the best way to make people more pro-vaccine appears to be educating the public about the consequences of failing to vaccinate, they reflect a disturbing pattern of science denialism causing real-world consequences. While the best way to curb these problems appears to be educating the public about communicable diseases leading to more favorable attitudes toward vaccination, this becomes much more difficult in an age of information warfare in which the internet acts as a conduit for both facts and misinformation. It’s not even a fair fight, given that falsehoods spread more quickly than facts on social media.

 As we close the decade, one of the biggest problems we will have to face is the idea that bad actors know this and will exploit science denialism for their own purposes. Someone with enough money and bad intentions could spend their money influencing online media in order to push their agendas. This isn’t new — people will always try to make their opinions dominant in any mass media environment. However, what’s changed is the nature of the fight. Corporations and governments can now conduct information and biological warfare simply by astroturfing popular social media platforms. With the rise of anti-science attitudes spread by the internet, science denialism can be weaponized to sow discord and weaken social cohesion.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous example of the past two decades is climate change. There is no debate among the professionals about whether humans are causing the climate to change. Yet, social media has played a big role in maintaining the false perception that there is debate on both sides of this issue. Oil companies have a vested interest in ignoring the issue, and have set up organizations to spread misinformation to create the impression that there is a debate despite internally admitting that the scientific consensus is valid. Social media has fueled the spread of this false debate by tying this scientific issue to people’s political identities, making it more difficult to have discussions on the topic in good faith. Oil companies only need to plant a few seeds of disinformation before platforms like Facebook or Twitter amplify their voices like wildfire. The consequences are far reaching: Climate denialism has reached the White House, where the president has ordered a new panel of climate denialists to counter the findings of his original committee. To be perfectly clear, this is not how science works.

As if denying settled science couldn’t get more absurd, the “Flat Earth” conspiracy is also back. Since 2015, there has been a dramatic uptick in searches for the phrase “flat Earth,” fueled largely by YouTube’s video recommendation algorithm. Twenty-nine out of 30 people interviewed at a Flat Earther conference reported that YouTube conspiracy theory videos were responsible for convincing them of their views.

This makes sense; people who want to push this agenda have an incentive to aggressively create content and inundate YouTube’s recommendation algorithms. In contrast, scientists have very little incentive to aggressively make videos about things that, to them, are already obvious. While Flat Eartherism is a relatively innocuous belief, their mode of spreading reveals a structural flaw that can be exploited. People who believe in one conspiracy theory are more likely to support others, and someone who wants to weaponize disinformation could prop up Flat Earth videos to serve as a gateway to more dangerous beliefs like homeopathy. 

Perhaps the most imminent danger comes from the medical science deniers, who reject vaccines and turn to homeopathy and essential oils instead. Here lies the most obviously weaponizable application of disinformation biowarfare: The Russian government’s well-documented interference into American social media goes far beyond just politics. In fact, Russian bots have also been found spreading divisive anti-vax rhetoric online and colluding with the Organic Consumers Association to spread misinformation on vaccine science.

The result? Outbreaks of preventable diseases in the United States and the Western world. Based on current information, it may be a stretch to suggest that Russia is actively trying to kill off the American population by spreading anti-vax rhetoric, but it’s not difficult to see how such an infrastructure would make it easy for bad actors to weaken the U.S. and add fuel to the flames of a public health crisis. If a foreign government wanted to attack us, they could do it without anyone knowing and without deploying a single soldier.

Social media has, for better or for worse, fundamentally changed the rules of modern life. While it has a large potential for good, there are consequences that can’t be ignored. Platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and Twitter are largely responsible for the spread of misinformation and, specifically, the revival of science denial. From harmless Flat Earthers to dangerous anti-vaxxers, misinformation has the potential to be like a biological weapon and we can’t afford to ignore it any longer.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]