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.
Anti-vaxx organizations earn social media platforms $1B<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="51ab3fcffe1e8cf05a8f0e1610f0d61a"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/RLh_sYoQcOo?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>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. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"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."</p><p>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 <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/meet-the-new-york-couple-donating-millions-to-the-anti-vax-movement/2019/06/18/9d791bcc-8e28-11e9-b08e-cfd89bd36d4e_story.html" target="_blank">three-fourths</a> of the money that supports the Informed Action Consent Network. </p><p>Mercola is easy: he uses fear-mongering to sell supplements, which has put <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/2019/10/15/fdc01078-c29c-11e9-b5e4-54aa56d5b7ce_story.html" target="_blank">over $100 million</a> into his bank account. Since the start of the pandemic, Mercola has <a href="https://cspinet.org/news/fda-and-ftc-urged-bring-enforcement-proceedings-against-joseph-mercola-false-covid-19-health" target="_blank">claimed</a> 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 <a href="https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/February-2012/Dr-Joseph-Mercola-Visionary-or-Quack/" target="_blank">alters the chemistry</a> of food, mobile phones <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/19/style/could-wearable-computers-be-as-harmful-as-cigarettes.html?_r=0" target="_blank">cause cancer</a>, and pasteurized milk <a href="https://www.huffpost.com/entry/dairy-free-avoid-this-pop_b_558447?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9lbi53aWtpcGVkaWEub3JnLw&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAAKYhB9iAA7Z_l2vMSqfdiwu42fiyF6r9asuq5lPTmvIbKgFYfC2NRCEip0JkogItFeBfX24HT5qV-BehIpkIwSrHVLzAlSBUtKnyUeW_MXJSTQDk_hMU1xtt8aexggDmH7gFnMa-ItiTD35ndBo1EVU1GIeuZgD5cOWfZlPRkWr" target="_blank">causes negative health effects</a>.</p><p>Selz is harder to <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/meet-the-new-york-couple-donating-millions-to-the-anti-vax-movement/2019/06/18/9d791bcc-8e28-11e9-b08e-cfd89bd36d4e_story.html" target="_blank">figure out</a>. 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. </p><p>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. </p><p>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.</p>
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<p>Vaccine hesitancy in the UK is around 30 percent, according to Ahmed. In the U.S., he pegs it at 40 percent, though <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/just-50-americans-plan-get-covid-19-vaccine-here-s-how-win-over-rest" target="_blank">one poll</a> 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.<br></p><p>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.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"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." </p><p>Change agents target weak points, such as advertisers. Ahmed suggests a ruthless, sustained push, similar to the <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/01/tech/facebook-top-advertisers/index.html" target="_blank">orchestrated effort</a> that resulted in hundreds of brands pulling advertising from Facebook and Instagram. This month-long boycott is over unenforced hate speech policies. </p><p>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." </p><p>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.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Elitism has come under fire since the recent wave of populist politics. But when we don't listen to experts, we end up listening to politicians' lies, says Richard Dawkins.
You want expert pilots to fly your planes, top doctors to perform your surgeries, the finest musicians in your orchestra, and for the same reason, you should want experts leading the nation, says Richard Dawkins. There has been a backlash against expert knowledge amid the rising wave of populist politics, but Dawkins doesn't think elitism is the dirty word that people are implying. He contends that not all opinions are equal, and that the leaders of the UK were profoundly misguided in allowing a referendum on Brexit to occur. No average citizen—not even Dawkins himself—was fit to decide on whether to leave a federation of states with so much economic and political importance, and decades of complex history attached to it. And much like the 2016 US presidential election, it was a political movement fueled by misinformation. A representative democracy is one thing, where citizens entrust experts to make national and local decisions, but a referendum democracy seems to Dawkins extremely ill-advised, particularly given that the top Google search in the UK the day after the Brexit vote was 'What is the European Union?'. Dawkins isn't shy: he's an elitist, but a rational one. He affirms he would never want a world where your IQ determines how many votes you get, but he sees the clear benefit of making political decisions based on knowledge rather than emotion or misinformation, deliberate or otherwise. Richard Dawkins' newest book is Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.
Your brain stops at the most comforting thought. The truth is somewhere beyond that. Using scientific skepticism as a guide, astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss outlines the questions that critical thinkers ask themselves.
Strange answers aren’t inherently wrong, and satisfying answers aren’t inherently right, says Lawrence Krauss in this critical thinking crash course. The astrophysicist explains how principles of scientific skepticism can be applied beyond the laboratory; it can be a filter for the nonsense and misinformation we encounter each and every day. Here, he establishes a handful of core questions that critical thinkers ask themselves, which can be used to challenge your misconceptions and sense of comfort, question inconsistency, and think past your brain's evolved biases. Piece by piece, you can systematically remove nonsense from your life. Lawrence Krauss' most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- So Far: Why Are We Here?
Can democracy remain vibrant if the public, and especially children, don't have the tools to distinguish sense from nonsense?
"You can get more information in your cell phone now than you can in any school, but you can also get more misinformation," says American-Canadian theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. And he's right: we're in an era where any human can access a previously unimaginable wealth of knowledge. This access has grown faster than our ability to process it critically, however, and what we lack is any decent filter to weed out erroneous or partisan information. Children are the most susceptible to this, and Krauss argues that teaching children how to question information—essentially, how to make children skeptics—may save humanity from a dumbing-down. Lawrence Krauss' most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told -- So Far: Why Are We Here?
Is misinformation causing outbreaks of diseases long thought curable? A recent study found that just a simple "heads up" about fake news can help save thousands of lives.