Insights from dealing with the pandemic, for dealing with the infodemic
As a thought experiment, consider misinformation as a virus.
Like a virus, misinformation is undesirable. At least at first sight. Like a person who is contaminated with a virus, a person contaminated with misinformation can end up being less functional than usual in navigating the world. Also because misinformation is somewhat contagious, she can be a risk to other people she is in contact with.
There are several ways to deal with viruses. Depending on the evolution of the epidemic, the state of the world and the particular virus, all tactics won’t necessarily be equally relevant. Some of them can be complementary. But nothing is obvious. Some solutions might be unsustainable and others deleterious. We need to check. The infodemic is serious. Before we rush into anything, I propose we think our options through carefully and push our imaginations and our reasoning past the knee-jerk reactions to misinformation and the righteous wishful thinking. We are probably not going to solve the infodemic with some people’s opinions on other people’s opinions.
One way to deal with a biological virus is sanitisation.
Of course, in case of an epidemic, if we’re only counting on sanitisation then it’s very heavy duty mass sanistisation that is required. Like what some countries tried last year to fight the coronavirus.
That certainly wasn’t a definite solution.
Similarly, in case of an infodemic we can put heavy-duty fact-checking in place to get rid of all the tiny little misinformation viral particles lying around on our information spaces…
It’s good to have hope.
It’s smart to have alternatives.
Another option is lock-down.
You thought lock-down was tough? The informational analog of lock-down would probably be something else…
There’s no reason to go there now. We haven’t considered all our options. Precisely, I’m writing this post to suggest that we methodically consider our options before we rush into one approach, or resign ourselves to one for lack of foresight. Some approaches will certainly be more efficient, more ethical and more pleasant than others. Many solutions are presently being discussed and proposed to address the problem of infodemic. We might not understand the full ramifications of each one of them yet. Some solutions might seem logical at first sight, quick fixes with possible deleterious effects if we somehow let ourselves get used to them.
Another option is social distancing.
In battling misinformation, an equivalent of social-distancing might be limiting digital contact between people (in some or in all circumstances), to limit informational closeness between them and reduce the risk of informational exchange. In this day and age marked by digital networking, this approach would certainly struggle from going directly against the tide. It would also be a dramatic step back in the overall history of humanity. And certainly, just like social distancing, it wouldn’t be sustainable. But unlike social distancing, we might lack instincts to notice it soon enough and to resist it. Anything that looks like the informational equivalent of social-distancing should therefore be considered with circumspection.
Another option is wearing masks.
The interesting thing about masks (other than FFP2) is that a mask protects you less against the virus outside of you than it protects others from the virus inside of you. It’s a solidarity based solution. One of the most efficient, remarkably.
Interestingly, coronavirus particles aren’t all equally dangerous. The millions of ones that have been sitting on the door handle of your building since last Thursday probably aren’t as dangerous as the millions of ones that your sick boss coughed into your salad. Viral particles don’t ‘live’ forever. They can decay. And they decay more or less quickly depending on where they are — eg what surface (plastic, metal, your skin) they are sitting on. Probably the temperature, humidity, exposure to sunlight of the room factor in as well.
Also, probabilities have a role to play here. Your sick neighbour touching the building door handle last Thursday was a one time event. The millions of viral particles he left have been decaying ever since Thursday, not reproducing.
Now take a 3 hour flight with 3 contaminated passengers and that’s another story. The odds are turning against you now. You are breathing an air that is being fed by 3 virus-factories.
Similarly, not all misinformation is equally dangerous. It might be time to start nuancing our understanding of the risk misinformation represents. Like coronavirus particles, pieces of misinformation don’t necessarily present that much risk unless they are “in the air”. Certainly, dealing with misinformation, is not a simple black or white situation.
What is the equivalent of masks for information? You tell me…
In any case, face masks are not a sustainable solution. At some point we have to start spitting on each other’s salads again. We need our immunity stimulated. We need to be infected sometimes so we don’t become asepticised infirms, who are only functional under very limited conditions. The same goes for censorship. It’s not sustainable and it’s not even safe in the long term. It will eventually come back to bite us.
Another option is to treat the symptoms of COVID-19. Some people will react more or less well to a treatment. Different treatments might be possible.
Of course that’s just a local solution. It can stop your personal lungs and other organs from shutting down and you from dying. But it does nothing against the epidemic.
I’m not sure what exactly is the informational equivalent of local symptomatic treatment. Perhaps individual education against misinformation?
Locally, treatment of symptoms can be absolutely necessary.
The local problem of COVID-19 symptoms and the global coronavirus pandemic, are however not the same problem exactly. And solutions to the local problem are not exactly solutions to the global problem. To keep everyone safe, it is essential to distinguish between the two and make sure we do also have solutions to the global problem.
Systematic palliative measures are not to be confused with sustainable measures. Fighting against death and sickness is not exactly fighting for health and immunity. Similarly, fighting against misinformation is not exactly fighting for information.
There is a last option and it is very different from the ones listed above.
As I’m writing this text, my civilisation is coming out victorious, albeit severely worn out, from an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic. In 2 years, 2020-2021, my civilisation, using science to its advantage, has curved the course of history. What could have been billions of deaths was limited to millions (billions and millions both sound synonymous of “a lot” but the difference is pretty huge). We are now almost ready to get back to normal life, having added COVID-19 to the list of colds we’re going to be catching once in a while. This was made possible because of the set of measures that were implemented (albeit in tragically chaotic and discordant ways at times). The key setting us free from lock-downs etc being vaccination.
Why is vaccination such a special kind of solution against the viral inconveniences?
- Vaccination doesn’t address the cause of the problem (the virus). Instead it makes us insensitive to it’s consequences so that we can co-exist with it.
- Vaccination doesn’t treat the undesirable symptoms (of COVID-19). And people don’t have to wait until they are sick to get vaccinated.
- Vaccination works based on a collaboration with the natural immunity of individuals. The vaccine boosts the vaccinated individual’s capacity to know-how to deal with a viral attack. And it decreases their capacity to participate to the pandemic by multiplying and relaying the virus. The vaccine prepares individuals’ organisms to act quick and resist acting as powerful ‘virus factories’ for days on end. It’s like a motivation making human organisms mettle and consequently less contagious.
- Vaccination is a global solution. When the vaccine is massively inoculated to the population, it may favour herd immunity, or relieve congestion in hospitals. This benefits not only the vaccinated but also the unvaccinated, and changes the course of human history.
- Vaccination turns a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. The vaccination solution is special also because of the new relationship it favours with what used to be the cause of the problem (the virus). Once vaccinated and safe(r) from getting killed by the virus, the population and each individual have in their best interests to be regularly exposed to the virus.
All other measures than vaccination are either local or punctual or both. They are therefore not sustainable solutions. Vaccination is a sustainable global solution, other than letting everybody getting sick.
We need an informational vaccine which satisfies the exact same properties listed above for the viral vaccine.
NB: An informational vaccine will certainly look nothing like a biological vaccine, other than it satisfying the properties listed above. Obviously, at some point, the biological/informational analogy must be dropped.
We’re almost done with it, but not quite yet…
If we have a vaccine, then we also need a vaccination plan.
Recent vaccination against coronavirus benefited from fear. People who were afraid of being sick or getting their loved ones sick got themselves vaccinated.
The vaccination campaign also benefited from the political strong-arming of the population.
Not everybody loved being told what to do with their own bodies.
Likewise, not everybody loves being told what to do with their minds.
Who can blame them?
This time around, let’s try something else…
There is a difference between biological viruses and misinformation. We can use it to our advantage when implementing an informational vaccination campaign.
Most people don’t have much emotional attachment to knowledge of how immunity operates inside their bodies. Whereas, fear of getting (someone) sick comes easy. With information, the situation is reversed. Most people are very attached to what goes on inside their minds. And they have limited intuition of what suffering from misinformation feels like.
Locally, people don’t think of misinformation as a dangerous virus. They often simply confuse it with information. Infection with misinformation doesn’t feel like sickness. So surely, not all strategies that work against biological viruses are going to work as well against misinformation. We need to think this over. It could be easier than we think to devise an informational vaccine and a vaccination plan (it could also be harder than we think, especially if we think good intentions and trendy tech can cut it). It is worth noting that people aren’t that afraid of misinformation and they already have a clear interest in the thoughts happening in their own minds. So to get people informationally vaccinated, there is no reason to resort to fear any more than to force.
If there is anything to take away from social media, it’s the ambition to resort to fun and benefit instead — and the ambition to influence our civilisation’s informational habits to a determinative extent, within much less than a generation, using humanmade systems that amplify existing human tendencies and capabilities, appealing to what humans already love to do, can do, and are doing.