Achieving herd immunity against pseudoscience in the age of the filter bubble and the social news revolution

Last night Ben Goldacre appeared on BBC Newsnight (viewable from UK ip addesses or portals only, for the next 7 days) discussing the ongoing havoc caused by the MMR scare in the form of a major outbreak in the UK of a disease that was on its way to being eradicated. Ben Goldacre once again described the intriguing fact that anti-vaccine fears are traditionally (thankfully) localised within local and cultural boundaries.

I sincerely hope this continues to be the case but I am afraid I doubt outbreaks of anti-vaxxer hysteria will continue to remain quite so localised. Last year I described how cranks and misinformation machines such as Donald Trump, Natural News and The Daily Mail have very recently wielded a terrifying reach online with their misinformation about vaccine dangers transmitted quite literally into the palms of the hands of millions of people who naturally, are unlikely to be sceptics – if they were sceptics they probably wouldn’t follow Donald Trump on Twitter, nor would they read Natural News or The Daily Mail. To illustrate the point, Donald Trump last year tweeted to millions not to vaccinate their children and told millions more the same on TV. This is the same Donald Trump whose antics the year before last ABC, CBS, NBC & FOX spent twice as much time covering as they spent on climate change. Yes, you read that right, numerous major US news broadcasters spent more time covering the rants of a single deluded crackpot than they did covering a global crisis of truly biblical proportions.

With the advent of the social news revolution and Google becoming ever better at placing you within a filter bubble, I fear that in future, like viruses, misinformation based movements may spread far wider, far more quickly than ever before. Worse still, sceptics may be completely oblivious to the scale of this because we follow different people and track different feeds to less sceptical types. This is unlike perhaps just half a decade ago when we may just have read different newspapers. This isn’t to say that social news is a bad thing, it has done wonders for the free flow of information, but it is easy to think that because we are all connected we are all in the same bubble, when in reality we most certainly are not, now so perhaps more than ever before.

I’d argue therefore, that now more than ever we must remain vigilant – and if that means debunking pseudoscience on your deluded aunt or your long lost school chum’s Facebook wall, then so be it. It’s now all of our responsibilities to debunk dangerous misinformation that is being passed around our social worlds because if you don’t do it, the rationality of your nearest and dearest risks being lost amongst the charlatans and the lolcats.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Irina Zavodchikova

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