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The Cancer of Social Media

Source: https://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/09/how_to_spread_misinformation.html
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“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” – Mark Twain

The internet, a marvel of the twenty-first century and the object of growing pride for humanity, has had a profound effect upon the modern lifestyle. In the postmodern era, it is often overlooked how central the internet has become to daily life. With the dawn of social media, society has shifted the paradigm, evolving into a society where internet success is given high precedence. The increase in the value of social media within people’s everyday lives has resulted in its growing influence. Unfortunately, this has the adverse effect of it often being equated to the truth, despite contrary evidence. With this, the spread of misinformation has become a growing problem as postmodern society evolves to where popularity and truth are falsely equated. This rising problem is not due to any inherent flaws with the concept of social media, rather it is aggravated by misinformation within social media. However, in contextualizing the term misinformation, it is essential to segregate it from disinformation. As defined in a report,

“Misinformation is false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive. Disinformation is false information that is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organization to a rival power or the media.” (Krishna Kumar et al.)

This is an important distinction to make as the growing movements spread misinformation, often supporting ulterior motives other than politics. While social media activists may argue that their assertions are representations of the truth and their free will permit them to spread their beliefs, the lack of evidence and logic in these arguments subverts these claims. Current efforts to combat this spread of misinformation are lacking, with attempts made at encouraging greater social media awareness among scientists falling short of achieving the social media presence necessary to mitigate the growing issue. The negligence of social media companies in the matter of misinformation is disconcerting as they are the vectors of propagation for this issue. With the spread of misinformation in the scientific community perpetuated by unqualified individuals, social media platforms must mandate the implementation of accountability and verification factors to prevent the distribution of incorrect information.

The spread of misinformation by unqualified individuals is often caused by a multitude of factors including reckless disregard for society and malicious intent. Social media has drastically altered the speed of information propagation, as information is produced in high volume with little oversight regarding verification. This issue, known as ‘Big Data’, makes credible information difficult to find due to large amounts of possibly false data. While the general populace must assume some blame, the ‘Big Data’ problem is aggravated by the apathy of the social media companies. Social media companies capitalize upon human interactions with few resources dedicated to verifying the information they are willfully propagating. This, combined with the inability of companies to act against false information, has created a major problem of misinformation which has festered in the ideal conditions created by ‘Big Data’ allowing misinformation to be hidden and difficult to find and thus spread easily.

However, the growing problem of misinformation has another major cause, the increased susceptibility of the population to fake facts upon the internet. The growing nature of the internet is one that can be blindly trusted, without accounting for source credibility or reliability of the information found. The lack of source credibility is most prominent in one of the largest movements of false information, the anti-vaccination movement. Built entirely off unqualified individuals who claim to conduct research and assert non-peer reviewed claims that are unsubstantiated, the anti-vaccination movement is one of the most concerning examples of social media misinformation. A primary argument from the movement is citing an article published in The Lancelet by Andrew Wakefield. This paper “received wide publicity, and MMR vaccine rates began to drop because parents were concerned about the risk of autism after vaccination”. (T. S. Rao and C. Andrade) Despite the public refutation of this paper, and The Lancelet retracting the article, acknowledging several flaws with the claims, it is still cited as a source for many anti-vaccination arguments displaying the lack of consideration for source credibility.

The lack of source credibility and ‘Big Data’ are not the only causes of scientific misinformation, as the general populous is also at fault. In spring 2005, a community-wide convenience survey was distributed in a regional hub city in Ohio, USA. The results demonstrated that source credibility did not have a significant effect on consumers’ evaluations of the quality of the information. (Benjamin R. Bates et al., 45 – 52) This reveals another major issue with the social media campaigns and misinformation, personal prejudices often take greater priority than source credibility. The ideology that humanity can make objective, unbiased decisions is inherently false, as personal prejudices always influence beliefs and ideas. Furthermore, the historical racial prejudices have had drastic effects upon false claims, shown in a study that found, “people who reject the link between HIV and AIDS generally believe that AIDS was actually created by the U.S. Government to control the African American population”. (Bessi A. et al., 2) This revelation brings to light the possible motives behind this purposeful distribution of incorrect information, with a possible racial motive due to prejudices and tensions unrelated to this information.

Another root cause for social media misinformation is personal motivations, a factor common in most social media misinformation companies. The increase in organizations promoting anti-vaccination show signs of creation for personal benefits as Kaufman argues, “many leaders of these organizations are ‘irregular physicians’ (including homeopaths), whose right to practice could be threatened by state intervention in health care”. (Stuart Blume) He later argues the other potential benefits to alternate pharmaceutical companies. Nevertheless, the basis of misinformation is not always a propagation of prejudices or unreliable sources but can also be purposeful for personal gain. Another example of this would be the misinformation regarding climate change. Climate change has had a troubled reaction with the public, and despite the irrefutable evidence of its existence it continues to be a topic of debate, rejected by politicians and social media groups. A primary cause of this is corporate greed, with oil and energy companies heavily influencing politicians and thus influencing people through social media. Thus, the causes of social media misinformation are primarily, ‘Big Data’, the lack of proper source credibility, and personal prejudices.

Social media movements, caused by misinformation in the scientific community, must be reduced due to the danger they possess both to individuals and humanity. The dangers posed by the spread of misinformation are tangible concerns, endangering lives and livelihoods around the globe. One major example of the dangers posed by social media is the recent increase in disease incident rates. A major global mission for the past decade has been to eradicate dangerous diseases, a primary focus being polio and measles. This mission, saving millions of lives was upon the brink of success, taking one step closer to an era of longevity. Central to the eradication efforts are vaccination programs, which have singlehandedly almost eradicated polio, but “paradoxically, the effectiveness of vaccination has led to the reemergence of anti-vaccination sentiments. Vaccines may be unnecessary or dangerous because incidence rates of VPDs [vaccine preventable diseases] have plummeted”. (Anna Kata) This article continues to describe the negative effects and possible reactions to vaccines as becoming more prominent due to small sample sizes. This presents a major effect of the anti-vaccination campaign, preventing the eradication on VPDs by reversing the progress of the last decade. These sentiments are quite apparent in the satirical comics illustrating the movement, describing them as pro-disease or advocates for higher infant mortality rates. The reality of the situation is far worse, measles is a perfect example. In 2000 measles was eliminated from the US and most countries across the globe. However, the careless actions of some refusing to vaccinate is causing an upward increase in the disease incident rates, reversing the progress made in the last decade, to the point where even measles has come back from the brink of eradication sweeping across the US.

Social media misinformation not only sets back the progress of science but also endangers human lives. A common misconception with the anti-vaccination movement itself is the belief of a phenomenon known as herd immunity. Herd immunity is where there is a reduction in the probability of infection to a population due to their being a significant proportion of the population being immune. Simply, herd immunity states that individuals surrounded by immune individuals reduce the probability of infection for both themselves and the population itself. This is a principle upon which the modern public health systems vaccination programs are based off. The very nature of herd immunity requires vaccination, and it helps to increase the effectivity of the vaccines as well as protect individuals who are immunocompromised. An individual who is immunocompromised has an immune system is suppressed or destroyed, common with radiation or immunosuppressive. Not only does this allow immunocompromised individuals such as cancer and transplant patients to live normal lives without fear, but it also helps protect the young and protects those with immunosenescence. Immunosenescence is the gradual deterioration of the immune system with age, common in all elderly as an evolutionary characteristic of humans. However, these individuals are being endangered by the reckless actions of the anti-vaccination movement. The anti-vaccination movement has had innumerable effects upon society, with studies finding that, “drops in vaccination rates due to this movement in the UK, Japan, Sweden, Russia, Ireland, Italy, the former West Germany, and Australia have resulted in Pertussis incidence 10-100 times higher than in countries where high vaccination coverage is maintained”. (Vaccine Vol 21 Thomas May et al., 1049) The article later describes the population necessary for herd immunity to remain effective, between 83 – 94%, a percentage that once was easily maintained now shows signs of threat. The fundamental requirement for herd immunity to remain effective is the vaccination of the majority of the population, and the anti-vaccination movement caused directly by social media misinformation, is endangering the lives of millions. The endangerment of multiple lives is not a trend solely characteristic of the anti-vaccination movement, but a constant result of scientific misinformation through social media.

Human lives are not all that is at stake with the spread of misinformation, it has adverse effects upon livelihood and the economy. Politicians using social media to promote their own ideas are also common, like President Trump promoting ideas of racism as well as climate change. These ideas have some underlying personal benefits both in financial endeavors as well as the following he amasses due to his radical concepts. Another example of social media movement affecting the livelihood of many is the anti-vaccination campaign. According to a study by UNC, “vaccine-preventable diseases among adults cost the U.S. economy $8.95 billion – and unvaccinated individuals are responsible for 80%”. (Kristin Myers, UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy) The anti-vaccination movement is not only deadly but also costly, adding the national debt and coming out of tax dollars. Lack of action shall only cause this number to grow, costing more people as well as the economy. In addition, the increase in measles cases is on the verge of an epidemic, which in and of itself is very costly for the government due to isolation and quarantine costs, as well as the economy due to high sick leave. The effects of misinformation upon the economy must be resolved to preserve the country’s economic integrity.

The arguments that are presented by these movements inspired by misinformation on social media are inherently flawed and lack proper scientific evidence. Most of the social media misinformation campaigns rely upon false evidence, thus making their arguments easy to refute. The major issue when confronting any of these activists is their refusal to acknowledge any contrary evidence. Instead, they cite studies that may not be the most credible sources. One major argument that members of most social media misinformation campaigns make, specifically anti-vaccinations, is that the issue is created as a front by the government or some other body with the purpose of monetary gain or physical harm. Now, these arguments are inherently flawed, as they do not complete the burden of proof insisting that others cite evidence to argue against their claim, where they cite no evidence. In addition, the anti-vaccine campaign argues that pharmaceutical companies make vaccines solely for monetary gain which is entirely unfounded, as the eradication of multiple diseases due to vaccines such as smallpox and the near eradication of polio and measles demonstrate the vaccines’ efficacy. Furthermore, the negative correlation between vaccination rates and incident rates of diseases historically further proves that vaccines indeed work and are not a placebo. The argument that the government intentionally wishes to harm kids with vaccines or that they have understated the dangers is unsubstantiated. Currently, according to Section 351 of the Public Health Service Act, the FDA requires all potential vaccine candidates to not only have thousands of successful pre-marketing clinical trials in a monitored environment but also pass a panel of multidisciplinary reviewers and a full cost-benefit analysis as well as a facility check. But even after a vaccine is given initial approval it is still monitored and must provide accurate labeling of all potential risks as well as subject to routine facility inspections. (FDA Vaccine Approval Process) This makes vaccines some of the highest regulated products on the market, subjected to more rigorous testing, even with fast track tests. The final major argument that most social media misinformation’s promote is using claims backed up by unreliable evidence. The most well-known example is the use of Andrew Wakefield’s study in the Lancelet suggesting a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. Andrew Wakefield’s article is a perfect example of an unreliable source receiving media attention and being blown out of proportion. Not only did 10 of 12 of the co-authors publicly refute it, but the Lancelet also refuted it, thus undermining the credibility. According to a study later done on this article,

“According to the retraction, “no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient”. This was accompanied by an admission by the Lancet that Wakefield et al. had failed to disclose financial interests (e.g., Wakefield had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine- producing companies) … Wakefield et al. were held guilty of ethical violations (they had conducted invasive investigations on the children without obtaining the necessary ethical clearances) and scientific misrepresentation (they reported that their sampling was consecutive when, in fact, it was selective). The final episode in the saga is the revelation that Wakefield et al. were guilty of deliberate fraud (they picked and chose data that suited their case; they falsified facts).” (T. S. Rao et al., 2)

This article found and revealed that the Andrew Wakefield article was not only false but also a case of fraud and deliberate deception. Despite these revelations, this article is cited to date by individuals as a credible source despite its discreditation and use it to misinform people by not properly disclosing the source and its biases.

The trends that are presented in the anti-vaccination campaign apply in a much broader sense to the issue of social media misinformation. With commonalities in causes, methods and effects, the anti-vaccination movement is merely one type of cancer afflicting social media. Common social media misinformation campaigns, such as anti-vaccination, flat earth, climate change, creationism, and many more, all have drastic effects upon society and science. The similarities between these movements is not a causal link, but definitive proof of underlying root causes, ones that can be alleviated by combating social media misinformation as a whole.

Social media companies must take accountability for misinformation propagated through their services and act to prevent such occurrences by the implementation of accountability and verification factors. Social media companies are a capitalist endeavor, and solely exist with the purpose to make a profit off human connections and interactivity. A critical service that must be mandated immediately is the creation of fact checking services and the removal of potentially damaging posts containing misinformation. The reality of social media is the depiction of the most popular information regardless of veracity. The spread of viral information is often poisonous in nature, replicating in the ignorant, and polluting the world’s information. The spread of false sources, pursued by some ulterior agenda, is a cancer within itself, together endangering humanity to descending into chaos. The lack of respect given by the public for the scientific community and the popular culture promotion of the lack of respect for education must be reversed and faulty reasoning must be countered. The increase in response to these faulty reasonings shall allow social media to rid itself of its horrendous reputation as nothing but a toxin to humanity and allow it to regain its usefulness to the general population. In addition, scientists must become more social media friendly, promoting journals and findings in layman’s terms in order to ensure the correct and truthful information reaches the public. However, the most important action for social media companies to mandate is the correct and accurate citation of correct sources. These social media misinformation movements often neglect explaining biases of the sources they cite if not lacking any citation at all. The increasing prevalence of AI also presents possible third-party solutions for social media companies to outsource the issue and mitigate the business impact upon themselves. Testing of algorithms that analyze structure and length as well as cross reference information, could prove invaluable to this issue. The technology that is necessary for companie to tackle this threat to the public in the form of social media misinformation is developed and easily accessible in the modern world. The only problem resides in the lack of implementation. The internet has reached a state where arguments that are not easily dismissible. Without action taken to mitigate the situation, degradation and future harm to society is inevitable. To prevent the propagation of misinformation, social media companies must take accountability and act to prevent such occurrences by implementing accountability and verification factors.

The 20th century has seen a rise in the transfer of information through the internet. However, the increase in communications and databases upon the internet has led to an increase in misinformation. With the spread of misinformation in the scientific community perpetuated by unqualified individuals, social media platforms must mandate the implementation of accountability and verification factors to prevent the distribution of incorrect information. Misinformation and falsehoods should not be condoned, yet each side of the debate labeling the other as “wrong” – as has been the status quo – is ineffectual. Social media, while a valuable tool, without factors in place to prevent misinformation causes more harm than good.

Works Cited

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Benjamin R. Bates, Sharon Romina, Rukhsana Ahmed & Danielle Hopson (2006) The effect of source credibility on consumers’ perceptions of the quality of health information on the Internet, Medical Informatics and the Internet in Medicine, 31:1, 45-52, DOI: 10.1080/14639230600552601

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