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So where do rumours come from?

So where do rumours come from?

Not a day goes by that we are not all subjected to a daily dollop of untruths, writes Paul Allen

While waiting for a coffee to be served the other morning. The very helpful waitress served up the very latest news of the Omicron variant of Covid 19.

She was helped by the other customers, who had more startling information, most of which was wrong. Much of the information came from websites and backed up a lot of the misinformation that has been going around for nearly two years.

The state of doubt is further fuelled by the recent remarks made by Moderna boss Stéphane Bancel. The executive in charge of the US drugmaker predicted that the existing vaccines will be less effective in fighting off the new strain than the earlier variants. He went on to say pharmaceutical companies would take months to develop a new vaccine to tackle the new strain.

The impact of people’s minds being infected by untruths and falsehoods is very powerful as we have witnessed in Covid and a political sense in the US over the past five years.

Back in the early 1960s. two noted mathematicians, DG Kendall and DJ Daley, wrote a concise overview of the perils of misinformation. Epidemics and Rumour focused on the similarity between the spreading of an infectious disease and the dissemination of information. It highlighted that some people were susceptible to a rumour and those already infected were then able to spread the rumour.

Cast your mind back to 2020 when the World Health Organisation warned of a potential infodemic or, in this case a misinfodemic, occurring.  In their statement, it highlighted that an infodemic is too much information including false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak. It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviours that can harm health.

It also leads to mistrust in health authorities and undermines the public health response. An infodemic can intensify or lengthen outbreaks when people are unsure about what they need to do to protect their health and the health of people around them.

With growing digitisation – an expansion of social media and internet use – information can spread more rapidly. This can help to more quickly fill voids of information but can also easily amplify harmful messages.

More recently, Facebook whistle blower Frances Haugen accused Facebook of fanning the flames of hatred and misinformation, using algorithms, where it continuously chose profit over people. “Facebook could be made safer without using content moderators,” she stated. “Its not about picking good or bad ideas it’s about making the distribution of ideas safer.”

If the two mathematicians were to conduct their study on the perils of misinformation today, they would find that we have a brand new tool, social media, for spreading lies and fear. Not only does social media give a platform to anyone with a keyboard and a conspiracy theory, it deliberately forces these views on people who are most likely to believe them, while hiding them from people who won’t.

In this ‘post-truth’ era, Governments, institutions and responsible citizens must be much quicker and proactive in challenging the online misinformation and providing the facts to a cynical public.

Paul

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