Misinformation pandemic will endure longer than Delta

4:48 pm on 4 September 2021

Analysis: There are two deadly viruses working their way around the world right now. One is Covid-19, and the other is misinformation. Unfortunately, there's only a vaccine for one of them.

FRANKFORT, KY - AUGUST 28: People display anti-COVID-19 mandate signs during the Kentucky Freedom Rally at the capitol building on August 28, 2021 in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Protesters gather at an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally in Frankfort, Kentucky, last month. Photo: 2021 Getty Images

This week's escape from quarantine by a Covid-19 patient is a prime example of what can happen when misinformation infects someone. The man's social media is filled with dodgy theories about vaccination and he apparently live-streamed his arrest.

Like a lot of people, I felt angry at this bloke. And I'm angry about misinformation. It's splitting up friendships and families these days, as people argue about everything from vaccines to who actually won an election.

But I also want to be empathetic, to try and understand why people believe what they do. I'm not good at it. It's hard, especially if you have family or friends who have gone down deep rabbit holes and transformed into complete strangers as a result. Misinformation often latches on to those who don't feel they have a voice, onto the disadvantaged and the frustrated.

New Zealand hasn't been quite as swamped by this second pandemic as badly as other countries like the United States, but it's definitely here as well. Several prominent conspiracy theorists have been arrested recently in New Zealand after breaking lockdown restrictions.

Advance NZ co-leader Billy Te Kahika outside the High Court at Auckland.

Former Public Party leader Billy Te Kahika has pleaded not guilty to breaching alert level 4 lockdown restrictions after a protest in Auckland last month. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

One of the reasons people grab onto misinformation is that they're hurting. They want answers. The world has felt like it has become a terrifyingly random, scary place in the past two years. We all want a villain to blame. And the truth has become an increasingly flexible commodity in finding one.

FRANKFORT, KY - AUGUST 28: A man holds a group of anti-mask and anti-tyranny signs during the Kentucky Freedom Rally at the capitol building on August 28, 2021 in Frankfort, Kentucky.

People are hurting and want answers in a world that has become a scary place, Nik Dirga writes. Photo: 2021 Getty Images

Like a breeze trying to withstand a hurricane

I've been working as a fact-checking journalist for nearly two years now for the Australian Associated Press, which runs the internationally accredited AAP Factcheck covering New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific. I've written dozens of fact checks aimed at debunking just some of the viral misinformation doing the rounds online.

At times, it feels like a quixotic quest, as the flood of misinformation just never, ever stops. But I do feel the work helps, even if it's just a breeze pushing back against a hurricane.

I've done an awful lot of coronavirus-related factchecking pushing back against social media posts, from claims the testing swab will penetrate your brain (there's an awful lot of solid bone preventing that happening) or that the vaccines are manipulating your genes (mRNA vaccines don't interact with your DNA at all).

These stories are read and re-read by multiple editors who double-check every citation - a rarity in today's journalism, I've got to admit - and only posted when they feel the conclusions are rock solid.

This kind of forensic examination of viral claims is an important job that journalists like David Farrier have found can be deeply weird.

One recent fact check I did dove deep into the murky world of QAnon conspiracies with viral posts that claimed to show an "adrenochrome factory" where children's blood is extracted as some kind of deep-state Satanic sacrifice for the elites. It's part of that whole "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory you might've heard about.

In this particular case, a London art student in 2018 had an exhibit at a college show called Adrenochrome, which featured adrenochrome-labelled barrels and other laboratory paraphernalia. The artist said the work "seeks to employ the dream logic of the conspiracy theory". Then it became part of one.

The photos of this student's art were hijacked, the context stripped away and repurposed for all kinds of conspiratorial musings. I could show you a dozen other posts where an image is manipulated, or a quote taken out of context to create a lie.

It's an entire industry these days, with a lot of grifters and trolls preying on people's general unease and fear.

In fact checking, I talk to medical experts from places like Yale and Johns Hopkins University, who have spent years learning their profession.

My advice to anybody before they click that "share" button online is to consider the source. A chiropractor in Montana or a podcaster and ex-sitcom star are not experts. They'll make themselves sound more credible with professional-sounding names, like "Voices for Freedom." But are they really experts?

Consider the source.

Rally goers hold signs protesting vaccines at the "World Wide Rally for Freedom", an anti-mask and anti-vaccine rally, at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, May 15, 2021.

People protest about the Covid-19 vaccine in Concord, New Hampshire in May. Photo: AFP

So what do we do about it? I don't think there's any value to be had in arguing with strangers online. You won't change a single mind yelling back at someone on the internet, I fear. But if it's somebody closer to home, it's a lot harder to avoid engagement.

Journalist Russell Brown said that when a friend of his fell into anti-vaccine theories, he saw the friend's world view soon shrink as a result.

"What I found troubling is that as his friends got tired of remonstrating with him and drifted away, he was being backed up by a different group of people with more hardened ideas," Brown said. "I did find it hard to be civil with those people."

If we abandon those who fall into misinformation, they often just end up consuming still more of it.

Most of us don't want confrontation. It's better to approach from the perspective of asking them why they believe what they believe, rather than starting off shouting that you can't believe they're posting that nonsense.

Misinformation is actually killing people, and that makes it feel a lot more urgent than people claiming the moon landing was faked. Soaring rates of Covid-19 cases in America are now being driven largely by the unvaccinated.

A Covid-positive case escaping quarantine is bad, but taking horse de-wormer and dying from it because someone on a Facebook group told you it was a miracle cure is a lot worse.

People are dying because they don't trust anything authority has to tell them. The notion of the common good has gradually shrunk in America, where big swathes of the country now view each other as the enemy.

Several prominent anti-vaccine radio hosts and online pundits have died of coronavirus recently. Their deaths get cruelly mocked on the internet. I understand that impulse, but it won't convert anyone to mock a dead man or his family. It won't stop the spread of the misinformation virus. It just furthers the division between "us" and "them."

A study recently showed that just a dozen or so "superspreaders" are responsible for as much as 73 percent of the anti-vaccine content posted on Facebook. If someone you care about is going into that bubble, find out where they got their information from.

Push back, gently, if you can. It's not a cure. But it might be a start.

The misinformation pandemic is going to be with us a lot longer than Delta. And no jab will easily cure it.

* Nik Dirga is an RNZ digital journalist and a fact-checker for AAP.

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