Disinformation? There are Remedies for That

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Efforts are underway to design and advance solutions to disinformation.

COMMENTARY

Climate change denial, COVID-19 denial, radicalization creating the January 6th Capitol insurrection, and Russian misinformation over the Ukraine invasion. If humanity’s susceptibility to mis- and disinformation has you on the brink of despair—take heart! Solutions are on the way. Two sciences—one young, the other embryonic—have begun to deliver actionable insights. Even better, an emerging shift in perspective could rebalance our relationship with the vectors of cognitive contagion.

Infodemiology

The first—infodemiology—is the science of “infodemics.”1 It is the study of how bad information spreads through populations, duping and disordering minds.2 Infodemiologists take biological concepts and apply them to the infosphere. They examine salient phenomena—viral memes, moral panics, outbreaks of extremism—and learn how they work. It turns out that infodemics and epidemics happen for similar reasons. Infodemiologists develop a rich understanding of misinformation outbreaks and identify ways to disrupt the transmission of problematic content.

Infodemics are not just a 21st-century phenomenon. They have plagued humanity for thousands of years. Time and again, infectious ideologies have proliferated, polarizing peaceful societies. They have sustained oppressive orthodoxies, too, and toppled magnificent civilizations. Paul P. Harris—the founder of Rotary International—put it well: “Ideas have unhinged the gates of empires.”

The history of infodemics took a strange turn, though, in the early 2000s. Almost overnight, smartphones and social media became ubiquitous. They hyperconnected our minds, leaving us newly susceptible. Ever since, delusional mindsets have found novel ways to infect and unhinge us.

In 2002, a young public health researcher named Gunther Eysenbach sensed the need for a new discipline.3 He coined the term “infodemiology” and called for its development. Scholars with backgrounds in psychology, epidemiology, and network analysis responded. Together, they fashioned a lens that brings our post-truth predicament into stunning focus.

Misinformation and Disinformation

It is hard to view the world through this lens and not be troubled. Not long ago, social media companies built apps that were actually designed to mesmerize us.4 They successfully captured a huge swath of human attention (many billions of person-hours a day) and learned how to monetize that capture. Largely unregulated, they became giant, multinational corporations. Facebook conducted a huge mood-manipulation experiment on its users: It adjusted the algorithms that curate content on the platform and found that it could boost “engagement.” And profits. These changes amplified misinformation.5

Fake news and inflammatory posts proved adept at propagating.6 Misinformation “super-spreaders” carved out lucrative niches in the attention economy. Foreign actors weaponized disinformation to polarize and weaken democratic societies.7 Duped by intemperate content, many of us became cynical—literally addicted to grievance and outrage.8 In some countries, demagogic politicians emerged and began to radicalize the disaffected. Today, a polluted information environment confuses individuals, destabilizes democracies, and, in some cases, unleashes genocidalfuries.9

The iPhone debuted just 15 years ago. Think about that: It means that what scientists call “information disorder syndrome” has advanced with stunning rapidity.10 It is like we are sleepwalking toward a precipice. It is time we woke up.

In 2020, the World Health Organization raised the alarm. It labeled infodemics a serious public health hazard. The international body mobilized a substantial response to COVID misinformation and urged immediate action to address our vulnerability to other information pathogens.11 It identified pressing needs for infodemic research and infodemic management. We applaud these efforts. We need to disinfect the information commons. We need to monitor for dangerous disinformation outbreaks and develop our capacity to respond.12

NATO has concluded that international alliances must counter disinformation to remain resilient.13 The United Kingdom has launched a Rapid Response Unit to combat fake news.14 Sweden has set up a Psychological Defense Agency.15 Counter-influence campaigns in western countries have begun to “pre-bunk” (or inoculate against) weaponized disinformation, in one case by “tell(ing) the public to anticipate false narratives, but not listen to them.” We need to replicate such programs worldwide.

Yes, the tools of infodemic management can be abused—that danger should not be overlooked—but a world without them will likely turn dystopian fast.

Inoculating the Mind

Interfering with the supply of misinformation can easily tread on speech rights, so it is often best to address the problem at the demand end. This is where the second science—the embryonic one—enters the picture. We call it “cognitive immunology.”16 It is the study of immunity to misinformation. Cognitive immunologists ask why some minds become robustly resistant to (say) divisive ideologies, while others remain more vulnerable.

Since the 1960s, inoculation theorists have been studying the mind’s information-filtration system. William McGuire discovered that it functions like the body’s immune system. The body’s defenses mobilize antibodies to fight infectious microbes; the mind’s defenses mobilize cognitive antibodies—doubts, questions, evidence, and the like—to fight infectious ideas. And exposure to the right inoculant can boost resistance. Cognitive immunologists take the idea of mental immune health seriously; they study the mind’s immune system and find ways to boost its functioning.

Decades ago, enterprising scientists rolled up their sleeves and delivered astonishingly effective protections against biological contagion. The fruits of their efforts—germ theory, hand-hygiene, vaccines—now protect our bodies from hundreds of debilitating diseases.

Cognitive immunologists want to afford our minds comparable protections. They study how well-functioning minds spot and remove falsehoods. They catalog types of mental immune disorder and model mental immune collapse. They have tested inoculants for extremism, propaganda, and conspiracy thinking, and are working on more systematic ways to strengthen the mind’s defenses.17,18

Mind Parasites

At the beginning of this article, we alluded to a potentially game-changing shift in perspective. To grasp it, consider this possibility: Mis- and disinformation are actually parasites of the mind.

Sounds like the premise of a creepy, low-budget horror flick, right? But here’s the thing: Scientists are taking the idea seriously. Some have analyzed the spread of witchcraft beliefs in early modern Europe and concluded that mind-parasites really do exist.19 Others have concluded that infectious and destructive messages should be thought of as “infobugs”—entities that can behave as agents with their own agendas.20

At some level, the claim is unsurprising: Misconceptions, misunderstandings, and false beliefs have always infected minds. Infobugs are not discrete chunks of matter, but they are patterns capable of replicating and causing harm. They are significant entities, and each of us harbors thousands of them.

But isn’t this all just metaphor? Not at all. Metaphorical language frequently morphs into new, literal usages. Not long ago, a meme was just an analogy—a made-up word. But it quickly proved useful: We realized that it designates a phenomenon worth naming, so we dropped the scare quotes. Today, memes are part of the ontology of science—we know them to be real. Infobugs and mental immune systems are destined to join them.

Now ask this: What if the infobug hypothesis came to be accepted as fact? What if all of us came to grips with it and embraced the consequent epistemic humility? Might this not transform our troubled relationship with information pathogens? A hundred generations of Socratic questioning—a practice known to enhance awareness of ideas’ problematic properties—suggest that the answer may be yes.

Concluding Thoughts

Care to boost your immunity? Let these truths sink in: False narratives are everywhere. Some are invasive and proliferate like weeds. They can overrun minds and sink deep roots. And even small concessions to wishful thinking can plant the seeds of delusion.

Grasp this, too: Each of us is blind to our own mind-infections. We need the help of others to spot them. But how do you react when others draw attention to yours? Do you get defensive? Many do. Identify with your beliefs, and corrective information will feel especially threatening: Your mind’s immune system will overreact and prevent you from learning. Belief-based identities create learning traps.

A mind’s defenses can underreact—fail to generate the right doubts—but they can also overreact—generate too many of the wrong doubts. If you think the “lamestream press” is run by a global cabal that brainwashes nearly everyone but you, you suffer from the autoimmune disorder we call conspiracy thinking. Mental immune disorders are very real and come in many forms.

Critical thinking is the art of neutralizing cognitive germs. It is a fine thing, so far as it goes. The concept, though, is essentially a black box. Cognitive immunologists are prying the lid off this box. They are giving us a scientific understanding of why some minds fight off mind-infections—and why others fail to. They are learning what healthy mental immune response looks like and discovering ways to strengthen mental immune systems.

A new approach to developing critical thinking faculties might center on questions like these: Of the ideas that shape my outlook, which are legit—and which are mere infobugs? Do I really know the difference? How? Am I listening to those who are better positioned to spot my mind infections? Do I fight down the urge to react defensively when my viewpoint is challenged? Do I rely on objectively reliable sources? Do I make a habit of shedding outmoded beliefs?

We think familiarity with these questions can fortify mental defenses. The conjecture merits empirical study.

Cognitive immunology remains embryonic. Many of its practical implications remain untested. But the germ theory of cognitive contagion has arrived: Ideologies really are mind-parasites. Infobugs really do frustrate human aspirations. And with internet connectivity, they can derange populations with alarming speed.

Our forebears wiped out smallpox, diphtheria, and polio, sparing us unimaginable suffering. Let’s bestow a comparable gift on our descendants. What would herd immunity to the worst forms of cognitive contagion look like? Let’s find out!

Dr Norman is a cognitive immunologist and the author of Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind-Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think. Dr Eyre is co-lead of the OECD-PRODEO Institute Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative (NIPI) supported by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. He holds adjunct or advisory roles with IMPACT (Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation) at Deakin University, the Heka Fund (pro bono), Brain Health Nexus at Cohen Veterans Bioscience, the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) at the University of California at San Francisco, Baylor College of Medicine, Latin American Brain Health (BrainLat), Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Chile, University of Texas Health Sciences Center at Houston, and the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative. Dr Hynes is head of the New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) Unit at the OECD, senior advisor to the Secretary General of the OECD, and co-lead of the OECD NIPI.

References

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