Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Science denial is a weapon

Reject social media disinformation
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/ Daily Collegian)

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].

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  • C

    ColeMar 6, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    Claiming that “science is settled” is a complete contradiction of the very idea of “science” as a process of discovery.

  • N

    NITZAKHONMar 6, 2019 at 6:47 am

    @Amy: I love you.

    The temperature records have been tampered with on a massive scale to lower past temperatures and raise present ones. This is provable, and has been shown by multiple researchers. Alteration of data is a fundamental science no-no.

    Another science fundamental is transparency. Researchers who are interested in the truth are willing to share their data and methodology for outside replication. Warmist “scientists” have not, and in fact have actively conspired to conceal those data and methods from anyone not of The Cause.

    Yet another violation of science is the lack of falsifiability. If it’s “climate change” when it’s warmer, colder, wetter, drier, stormier, or calmer, it can’t be disproven – which is a REQUIREMENT for any scientific theory.

    The “97% consensus” has been roundly disproven as outright fraud.

    Lastly, in the 1970’s, when everyone thought it was an impending ice age, the solution was to slow population growth, reduce standards of living, etc. Why, the same solution now.

  • N

    NITZAKHONMar 5, 2019 at 7:45 pm

    Climate change is NOT “settled science” – not by a long shot. You’d know that if you read something beside the New York Times-Traitor, the Very Fake News Network, etc.

    NASA / NOAA have outright faked data. The models are garbage. And there is no consensus.

    Peer-reviewed study reveals majority of scientists are skeptical of ‘global warming crisis’

    Scientists do not hide data. Warmists do not. Scientists do not fake data. Warmists do. Scientists do not conspire to get skeptics fired. Warmists do. And scientists share data and methods for independent verification… Warmists don’t.

    This is my biggest problem with you Collegian columnists; you THINK you’re informed when you only know one side of a topic. But then, I see a big future for you as a Democrat propagandist.

  • A

    amyMar 5, 2019 at 10:36 am

    This is from a liberal right? I am a science major, liberals understand almost nothing about science and just seek to use it to promote their political viewpoints. They also have diluted the science majors by lowering standards in the name of ‘diversity’.

    Science is fact and evidence based, the type of thinking social justice warriors promote is irrational, emotional and based on belief. That is the basis of it, for example words are ‘violent’ and its not what the truth is (AOC is famous for saying this) or the facts but what you feel is true or believe.

    Liberalism and social justice is actually one of the biggest anti-science threats to science since the Catholic Church.