“To science, hang in there.” That’s how Timothy Caulfield begins his newest book on combating misinformation, Relax, Dammit: A user’s guide to the age of anxiety.
While the fight to promote facts isn’t going to be easy, we mustn’t surrender to misinformation, says the research chair of Canada, professor of law and research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta.
Not only does misinformation lead to poor health and decision-making, it also creates anxiety, making even everyday decisions unnecessarily stressful, says Caulfield.
We are not hyper-rational beings who make decisions based on facts, he says. Instead, we too often fall prey to misinformation from innumerable cultural, social and psychological forces that shape the decisions we make.
“In a world where information is increasingly twisted for commercial, ideological and personal gain, finding a path to the objective truth on any topic, from toothpaste to toilet seats, can be difficult. But the path does exist and finding it can be liberating,” he writes.
A well-known health myth-buster with a long list of bestsellers and a Netflix show on the topic, not to mention Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant funding to study the spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, Caulfield says there has been a culture shift in which people are beginning to feel hopeless toward the misinformation takeover.
“(But) we’re starting to get a little pushback … the idea that (fighting misinformation) is futile, that it doesn’t work and that’s wrong,” says Caulfield. “We’re not going to solve problems overnight but it’s really something we need to do. Just think what it would be like if (true) information wasn’t out there, if it was only misinformation. That’s the alternative. This is a fight worth fighting.”
Caulfield has studied misinformation in one form or another for decades “and we often think about it in the context of big things, like the election or climate change or vaccination hesitancy, when in reality, some of the same social forces impact the little decisions that we make throughout the day.”
So he explores the evidence for everyday decisions, such as what we choose to eat for breakfast, how we brush our teeth, whether to drink coffee or let our kids walk to school. “And for some of them, it’s just misinformation …. The science is twisted. It’s also a lot of fear mongering and leveraging of fear and leveraging of misperception of risk in order to sell a product or to push a particular ideology,” Caulfield says.
“And then we all have our own cognitive biases; the way that we’re hardwired has an impact on how we interpret the science.”
To explain the flood of misinformation, Caulfield outlines six social trends presented by Kelly Greenhill, professor of political science at Tufts University and research fellow at Harvard University, during a panel discussion, Combating Fake News, at Harvard in 2017.
Greenhill identified six social trends that explain this era of misinformation:
High levels of anxiety. Times of heightened stress – COVID-19, civic unrest, rising inequity, climate and economic crises – make us more susceptible to untruths, Greenhill says. People and organizations can exploit misinformation to create fear or anger, short-circuiting our prefrontal cortex – known as the high-road of our brain – which allows for reflective, rational and empathic thinking. Instead, when in a state of high emotion, our brains rely on the fast, reactive limbic system – the low road – which is eager to blindly accept misinformation as truth.
Low levels of trust. Caulfield says trust is essential if independent science is to be valuable. “One of the problems is that there are these forces that are trying to get people not to trust entities and you can’t really stop that. These external agendas are very effective at creating doubt and creating mistrust,” Caulfield says.
Polarizing discourse. “Social media is a polarizing machine,” Caulfield says. “There’s a lot of research that shows that what gets shared the most are extreme views and the middle is lost.” Polarization leads to fear and anger, short-circuiting our rational brains.
Disruptive communication technologies. The Internet and social media platforms fuel misinformation and ties in with …
The rise of new gatekeepers. Social media platforms have algorithms tailored to the individual to create echo chambers that are moulded “to their already pre-existing universe and perceptions,” Caulfield says. His recent study on COVID-19 misinformation on the Internet showed that there were hundreds of pages on “immune boosting” – with 85.5 per cent of them inaccurately portraying immune boosting as something that could cure or treat COVID-19. Fewer than 10 per cent had any kind of critique and even fewer an accurate critique. “So it’s probably 5 per cent of the websites that had anything that’s scientifically accurate.” On Instagram, “I didn’t see a single one that was accurate.”
Finally, the presence of many actors willing to circulate bunk, hype and fear. Analytics firm Zignal Labs found that misinformation about election fraud decreased by 73 per cent after numerous social media sites suspended former U.S. president Donald Trump’s accounts this month, the Washington Post reported.
To combat misinformation, “if we can look past the popular culture noise, marketing pressures and ideologically motivated spin, we can often find a science-informed, and less stressful, way forward,” Caulfield says.
Hate is becoming an increasingly common occurrence for academics, scientists, politicians and doctors. B.C.’s public health officer, Bonnie Henry, praised for her kind, calm and effective leadership – the New York Times headlined her as “The Top Doctor Who Aced the Coronavirus Test” – last September was the subject of headlines again, but this time for receiving death threats and needing security at her home. Caulfield was the target himself after an appearance on CBC radio’s The Current last month on the science of supplements. “I got death threats over that. It’s just incredible,” he says.
“The institutions – the universities, governments, professional associations – really need to support their members so they feel safe fighting misinformation,” says Caulfield. “We need people to feel confident that there’s a community that’s going to support them… that there are institutions that have their backs.”
Greenhill says that to combat the illusory truth effect – how we come to believe false information is true because it’s repeated over and over – it is essential to have non-threatening, compassionate conversations, a technique she calls “engage and defang” to encourage high-road reasoning over the threat response of fast, low-road reactivity.
She suggests asking people what their beliefs or skepticisms are based on, the potential motivations of the sources of their beliefs and what kind of evidence (if any) would change their minds. The very act of listening and engaging can be effective to get their rational brains back online, Greenhill says.
The counter-narratives need to be repeated continually, ideally by a variety of authoritative (to the audience) sources, she says. Debunking should avoid repeating the misinformation, which can unintentionally further cement it because of the illusory truth effect.
“One of the things we need to do is not get sucked into the polarization discourse,” says Caulfield. Remember that the general public is your audience, not the divisive, hardcore denialists, he says. When someone is spouting misinformation, don’t attack but use the moment to offer what science says on the topic, he says.
Misinformation causes anxiety, Caulfield says, and that anxiety also increases the likelihood of believing misinformation. To break the cycle, we can arm ourselves with critical thinking tools and focus on the fundamentals.
“Despite all the arguing and all the noise … (about COVID), we know how to stop this. You wear a mask. You physical distance. You are responsible when you have symptoms. You wash your hands and you get a vaccine when it’s available.
“I think recognizing that there is no magic is liberating. It allows us to focus on those things and maybe not get so uptight about the other stuff.”