Journalists, doctors, and others you should know.
- While social media is often a source of disinformation, some thought leaders are using their platforms as a force for good.
- Social networks offer an opportunity for readers to learn science-backed advice from top professionals in their fields.
- From journalists covering disinformation to a doctor giving the best physical therapy advice around, these influential voices deserve wide audiences.
In her 2017 book, "What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear," NYU associate professor of medicine Danielle Offri offers startling data on communication problems between doctors and patients. For example, the total amount of time that patients get to discuss their problems? Ninety-two seconds. Patients often get interrupted within seconds of speaking, which results in non-compliance rates of up to 75 percent. Doctors shake their head in disbelief that their patients don't follow directions, yet patients rarely feel heard—an essential component of healing, as Offri writes.
One positive trend over recent years—especially since the pandemic began—is the increasing number of medical professionals using social media as an educational tool. Some take time to regularly reply to questions; others offer videos, livestreams, and studies. While nothing beats in-person conversations, watching fruitful interactions with doctors and researchers during a time when so much negativity has been pushed forward on social networks has proven valuable.
The list below is not entirely comprised of health professionals, though every person listed uses their platform as a force for good, be it by calling out abuses of power or offering science-backed tips on remaining healthy during lockdowns. The Internet isn't always the right place to source information, yet that also depends on who's providing it. These eight individuals are doing their best to make social media a place for growth, both for individuals and as a society. While platforms can often feel like a one-way bullhorn, they invite you to join a bigger conversation.
When the Washington Post recently revealed that over $850,000 in PPP loans were doled out to anti-vax groups by the Trump Administration, the paper had the U.K.'s Center for Countering Digital Hate to thank. The organization's founder, Imran Ahmed, was appointed to the Steering Committee of the U.K. Government's Commission on Countering Extremism Pilot Task Force in 2020. Early last summer, Ahmed released a report that found social media platforms earned nearly $1 billion from anti-vax groups in a year's time—and he thinks they were lowballing that sum, as he told Big Think. In an era of disinformation gone wild, Ahmed believes the most powerful tool we currently have at our disposal is deplatforming. His organization is working hard at exposing players worthy of such attention.
There's a wave of doctors using social media to both educate the public and demystify the scientific process. Cardiologist Danielle Belardo is one of the best, using her popular Instagram feed to present science-based evidence for nutrition, vaccines, and more. The director of cardiology and co-director of research and education at IOPBM in Newport Beach, Belardo's social media presence focuses both on combating pseudoscience as well as providing excellent nutrition advice, recipes, and tips for good heart health—and, on occasion, epic California sunsets.
Dr. Aaron Horschig's runs one of Instagram's best fitness handles, Squat University. A former Olympic athlete and coach, Horschig discusses technique, form, and recovery in the wide world of weightlifting, from novice to elite levels. Though you might catch a strongman squatting 600+ pounds on his feed, one of the most refreshing aspects of Horschig's messages is the simplicity of his advice: work on form, not personal records; don't fall for marketing hype, but stick to the basics: hydration, sleep, and good nutrition; and you're never too young or old to lift weights. His new book, "Rebuilding Milo," further cements his role as one of the nation's top physical therapists and performance coaches. Bonus: his excellent blog offers deeper insights and science-backed research, such as why the popular RICE protocol should be abandoned.
Anna MerlanVice senior staff reporter Anna Merlan has been covering the conspiracy theory beat for years, culminating in some of the best QAnon-related coverage around. Her 2019 book, "Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power," tracked the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the Trump era well before QAnon became the juggernaut that it is. She's deftly exposed contradictions in thought processes by the ex-president's most loyal devotees. Given the continued doubling down by key players, media pundits, and a handful of congresspeople since Biden's inauguration, Merlan is going to have plenty of stories to cover for the foreseeable future.
Heather Cox Richardson
Boston College's history professor Heather Cox Richardson's daily Substack posts are one of the best additions to your inbox imaginable. The author of a number of books, most recently "How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America," Richardson gives you a rundown of the top stories in the news alongside insights into the historical processes that created the conditions for our current predicament. If you want to grapple with our present moment in a holistic fashion, subscribe to "Letters from an American." You won't be disappointed.
One of the most enlightening Twitter feeds of 2020 was Facebook's Top 10, which tracks the 10 highest-performing links on the social network. Spearhead by NY Times tech columnist Kevin Roose, the feed makes you reconsider the term "mainstream media." If information is judged by eyeballs—and many eyeballs continue to source news on Facebook—then Ben Shapiro, Dan Bongino, and various Trump groups are the most mainstream outlets around, as they regularly outperform the NY Times, NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. Roose's work covering QAnon and disinformation has also been invaluable, offering a framework for understanding the dangers of cult indoctrination.
Conspirituality 17: Interview with Jared Yates Sexton
Jared Yates Sexton
Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" offered an honest look at America's shameful historical record. It took 40 years for another book to penetrate a nation's conscience. When political analyst and associate professor Jared Yates Sexton published "American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," we finally had another opportunity to reflect—and, hopefully, progress. Sexton wants to dismantle the romanticized myth of American exceptionalism and replace it with something more valuable, as he told Big Think last year: "Once we disabuse ourselves of the myth of American exceptionalism, and we start looking at American history and say it's really problematic and inspirational at other times, it allows us to build something new."
Dan WilsonMolecular biologist Dan Wilson makes visiting YouTube a necessity. His channel, Debunk the Funk with Dr. Wilson, takes on quack medicine and conspiracy theorists, breaking down disinformation in digestible segments while providing you with plenty of ammunition to combat the COVID denialists in your life. While his area of expertise is how cells build ribosomes, Wilson recently offered a three-part takedown of hydroxychloroquine peddler Simone Gold, an insightful look into Christiane Northrup's COVID vaccine misinformation, and Joe Rogan's failure to fact check Alex Jones.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Fear-mongering is now a billion-dollar industry.
- The Center for Countering Digital Hate found that anti-vaxx groups reach 58 million users on social media, earning the platforms roughly $1B in revenue.
- The Center's founder, Imran Ahmed, says giving anti-vaxxers attention feeds the algorithms, further perpetuating the noise.
- In this interview with Big Think, Ahmed says the best thing we can do is offer credible information to change the algorithms.
Disinformation is rampant. On Monday, a group named "America's Frontline Doctors" held a press conference outside of the U.S. Supreme Court to tout the miracles of hydroxychloroquine, despite contrary evidence. Videos from the event are flooding social media, with the expectable "these doctors are being silenced" rhetoric. This "conspiracy" was boosted when Twitter restricted Donald Trump Jr's account after he shared the doctors claim that masks are unnecessary for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Who are these doctors wearing branded white coats?
The founder of this group is Simone Gold, a Burbank-based physician with ties to rightwing groups such as ALEC, FreedomWorks Foundation, and Tea Party Patriots (which backed this event). The group's website was launched 12 days ago and has since been taken down. There's Stella Immanuel, a Houston doctor that believes in world leaders are secretly lizards and having sex with witches and demons, and that dreaming has negative consequences. James Todaro also spoke, who, despite claiming to be on the frontline, hasn't seen a patient since 2018. An event of this magnitude wouldn't be complete without one of the Bakersfield doctors, Daniel Erickson.
The follow-up question: How do you even begin to counter such disinformation?
"If you see misinformation, ignore it, because engaging with it helps the platforms accomplish the goal of further spreading it," says Imran Ahmed, founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. "Block the person that sent it, then find some good information and share it to try to balance out the algorithmic logic that underpins it."
Ahmed knows the dangers of internet rabbit holes. He founded the CCDH in 2017 to study the proliferation of identity-based hate in digital spaces, though he recently told me they began to focus solely on the coronavirus in early March. The stakes during a pandemic are too high to ignore.
The first result of that effort is the publication of a 34-page report, "The Anti-Vaxx Industry: Big Tech powers and profits from vaccine misinformation." After months of investigation, the team discovered anti-vaxx organizations reach 58 million people on social media. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have earned nearly $1 billion in revenue from these groups—and Ahmed was lowballing that sum.
"If we were wrong and our calculations were bad, they would have gone after us. I suspect that because we're incredibly conservative, we may have underestimated it. If they challenged it, they would have to give a real number, and that real number could be substantially higher."
Anti-vaxx organizations earn social media platforms $1B
When I ask Ahmed why these groups spend so much money promoting anti-vaxx disinformation, he laughs while claiming he's not a psychologist. Though he attended medical school, he focuses on the dangers that platforms pose to society. Right now, Big Tech has found a strange bedfellow in the anti-vaxx movement.
"These platforms were not designed for free speech. The timeline is not about reading the most recent thing. It's an algorithmic list of content which prioritizes that information which is most engaging."
The report does reveal interesting clues on the men behind these efforts. The most influential anti-vaxx organizations are funded by osteopath Joseph Mercola, who runs a dietary supplement and medical device company and gives financial support to the National Vaccine Information Center and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as by fund manager Bernard Selz, who ponies up three-fourths of the money that supports the Informed Action Consent Network.
Mercola is easy: he uses fear-mongering to sell supplements, which has put over $100 million into his bank account. Since the start of the pandemic, Mercola has claimed at least 22 vitamins and supplements prevent or cure COVID-19. Vaccines misinformation is just one of his techniques. Previously, he's stated that microwaves alters the chemistry of food, mobile phones cause cancer, and pasteurized milk causes negative health effects.
Selz is harder to figure out. His philanthropic work is extensive thanks to his management of a $500 million fund. His anti-vaxx efforts, including $1.6 million given to discredited physician Andrew Wakefield, which he used to fund the movement's opus, "Vaxxed," appear to be a passion project. Since the Selz family avoids media contact, other reasons may be obscured.
Anti-vaxx sentiment is not new, but social media has given it steroids. As Ahmed notes, anti-vaxxers use the same tactics as other hate groups: don't trust authorities; disseminate conspiracy theories to create confusion; claim to be the sole authority on a topic.
Shortly after quarantine began, health misinformation actors merged with a hardcore group of committed anti-vaxxers to create what Ahmed calls "a coalition of chaos." Over the preceding months, this coalition has tested out a number of ideas: 5G causes COVID-19, which had a moment and then faded; track and trace is part of a global effort to microchip you, which never really caught on; and coronavirus vaccines are part of an elite capitalist conspiracy. The latter is persistent and having real-world consequences.
Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), holds up a model of COVID-19, known as coronavirus, during a US Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the plan to research, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed, July 2, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images
Vaccine hesitancy in the UK is around 30 percent, according to Ahmed. In the U.S., he pegs it at 40 percent, though one poll found that only half of Americans are confident that they'll get a vaccine (if one is created). Enter the danger: herd immunity is different for every virus, though certainly over 50 percent. Ahmed says that confusion over a COVID-19 vaccine could result in the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
As more people turn to social media for medical advice, Ahmed reminds us that platforms are part of the problem. You might think you're doing a public service by debating your anti-vaxxer friend. In reality, you're confirming algorithmic bias.
"The biggest mistake we've made is thinking that public opinion will change their views. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Google don't care about your opinion, because you're not their customer. You're their product."
Change agents target weak points, such as advertisers. Ahmed suggests a ruthless, sustained push, similar to the orchestrated effort that resulted in hundreds of brands pulling advertising from Facebook and Instagram. This month-long boycott is over unenforced hate speech policies.
Far from bucking the system, anti-vaxxers are fueling the capitalist greed they claim to decry. Discussing anti-vaxx sentiments, Eula Biss writes in "On Immunity" that, "wealthier nations have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford." She compares vaccine refusal as a form of civil disobedience to the trappings of capitalism: anti-vaxxers are more like the 1 percent than the 99 percent. They're looking out for their own self-interest instead of the good of the herd, relying on propaganda promoted by wealthy donors with vested interests as their "research."
This coalition of chaos, in cahoots with the platforms they fund, is capitalizing on vaccine disinformation. The farther from science they lead us, the better. The more enraged we become, the more attention they capture, which is where this new economy thrives.
Pope Francis’ 2018 World Communications Day message explains the dangers of fake news and what journalists and the public must do to combat it.
In his message for 2018 World Communications Day, Pope Francis rallied to the defense of journalism—if not the news media—comparing fake news to the snake in the Garden of Eden for its misleading, destructive power. This is a valuable, clear-eyed message for anyone, regardless of belief system. And to be clear, the pope’s not talking about fake news as defined in White House press briefings or presidential tweets. He has something very different—nearly the opposite—in mind:
“In general, it refers to the spreading of disinformation online or in the traditional media. It has to do with false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions, and serve economic interests.”
The Pontiff’s annual message is in honor of the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists, in whom the Pope sees our best defense. “A weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission.” He also recognizes the pressures that may cause news outlets to fail, reminding journalists that “they must remember that the heart of information is not the speed with which it is reported or its audience impact.”
Separating truth from lies, however, can be hard for journalists — and anyone else — says the Pope, since fake news uses “deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms.” He points out that its use of goes way back to the Garden of Eden when the Snake provokes Eve by asserting something only partly true: "Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" Though Eve corrects him, saying God spoke of only the Tree of Knowledge, she’s nonetheless taken in by the appeal inherent in his subterfuge, clinging to his words, “You will not die!” before taking her fateful bite. After all, the Pope warns, disinformation can so subtly work in listeners’ minds “that even authoritative denials fail to contain the damage.”
Francis’ message describes a diabolical foe dependent on a human weakness that allows it to multiply quickly, and its horrible cost:
“What is at stake is our greed. Fake news often goes viral, spreading so fast that it is hard to stop, not because of the sense of sharing that inspires the social media, but because it appeals to the insatiable greed so easily aroused in human beings. The economic and manipulative aims that feed disinformation are rooted in a thirst for power, a desire to possess and enjoy, which ultimately makes us victims of something much more tragic: the deceptive power of evil that moves from one lie to another in order to rob us of our interior freedom."
Fake news works so well thanks to two attributes in particular, says the Pope:
And our own personally curated social media filter bubbles unfortunately do more than simply block out people we don’t agree with, according to the Pontiff:
“Disinformation thus thrives on the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue; instead, it risks turning people into unwilling accomplices in spreading biased and baseless ideas. The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict. Fake news is a sign of intolerant and hypersensitive attitudes, and leads only to the spread of arrogance and hatred. That is the end result of untruth.”
While lauding educational efforts to help people identify disinformation, and the drafting of new regulations to combat it, the Pope has praise for “the work being done by tech and media companies in coming up with new criteria for verifying the personal identities concealed behind millions of digital profiles.”
Pope Francis, then, proposes a “journalism of peace”: “By that, I do not mean the saccharine kind of journalism that refuses to acknowledge the existence of serious problems or smacks of sentimentalism. On the contrary, I mean a journalism that is truthful and opposed to falsehoods, rhetorical slogans, and sensational headlines.”
The message closes with a poetic — and genuinely useful — checklist of behaviors that can help any of us stop fake news in its tracks, regardless of our religious beliefs or non-beliefs:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion.
Help us to remove the venom from our judgements.
Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters.
You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world:
where there is shouting, let us practise listening;
where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony;
where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity;
where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity;
where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety;
where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions;
where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust;
where there is hostility, let us bring respect;
where there is falsehood, let us bring truth.