This is part one of a series of blog posts that I will write on this topic.
For purposes of the blog post, I am addressing “disinformation,” the spread of incorrect information with the intent to harm, confuse, mislead, or otherwise affect people’s hearts and minds to accept lies and/or support the position of those who are spreading the false information. This is opposed to misinformation that is incorrect information, but the person spreading it did not realize that the information was incorrect or incorrect at the time.
Why is recognizing disinformation important? As a physician, I have had some patients choose not to follow my medical advice. That is fine, and I certainly understand that patients have to consider many factors when making their decision about a treatment that are particular to them, their circumstances and even their personal beliefs or religion. My job is merely to make sure that the patient makes an informed decision – i.e., they understand what their diagnosis is or what diagnoses I am considering if I don’t know their diagnosis yet, what the various treatment options are, what the potential side effects and risks are with each treatment, what the potential benefits are, and what the risks are of not undergoing any of the treatment options. When people understand the risks and benefits, I always support my patients in the decision they have made. What was disheartening was treating patients who did not understand their condition or the risks of the treatment they chose, only to end up seeking my help once things went badly and most often, there was little I could do to help them at that point.
So, the dangerous thing about disinformation is that it can result in people making decisions that are different than those they might have made if they had the correct information. A friend of mine made an investment decision based on some very bad information and lost 2/3rds of his investment. Fortunately, it wasn’t his life savings, and he will recover financially and of course, that failed investment did not threaten his life. But, as doctors, we do see patients who chose to follow disinformation, only to end up seriously ill in the hospital before they realize they were deceived.
Disinformation is not new, although I do believe it is much more prevalent and sophisticated today. Social media and the internet make disinformation much more appealing and pervasive, and in many cases, targeted. We know that foreign countries, such as Russia, China and Iran use social media to promote disinformation in the U.S. Russia used social media in an attempt to thwart Hillary Clinton’s run for president. Iran used social media in an attempt to undermine President Trump’s reelection. Thwarting disinformation should be of bipartisan interest. Unfortunately, many of these foreign interests have also found it advantageous for them to sow distrust of public health and the vaccines.
Disinformation comes from many sources and not just foreign countries. The motives of those who spread disinformation can be diverse – perhaps they stand to financially benefit, sometimes there are political aspirations or motivations, and sometimes these sowers of disinformation like the public attention and adoration they receive from those who want to believe the lies. There may be other reasons as well. But, a common thread is narcissism and lack of empathy. These persons do not care if they harm others so long as they gain whatever benefit it is they are seeking for themselves.
Personally, I have always wanted to know the truth, even when I didn’t like it. As a long-time CEO, I always made it clear to my team that I wanted the truth, even when I wouldn’t be happy about it, because only when you know the truth can you make informed actions as to how to deal with the bad news or issues. I have never found burying my head in the sand and just hoping a problem would go away to be a successful strategy. Often, the problem only becomes worse.
As far as the COVID pandemic, I am not promoting or advocating for vaccine mandates. I have not expressed a public opinion as to whether there should be mandates, and if so, under what conditions. That is not my focus. My focus is on trying to make sure that people had the best available and correct information on which to base their own decision about whether to get vaccinated. In my experience, people armed with the right information often make the right decision. With that said, my bias is that I certainly do want everyone to make the choice to get vaccinated. But, I am not willing to lie to people or trick people into getting vaccinated. If someone decides that vaccination is not right for them, I just want to make sure that they have made an informed decision not be get vaccinated- not a decision based on disinformation.
We are all vulnerable to disinformation, though certainly some are more vulnerable than others. Sometimes we believe things merely because someone we know and trust provides that information to us, e.g., a family member, a friend, or a coworker. Sometimes, we are afraid or anxious and we want to believe disinformation because it will bring our anxiety levels down. We saw this in action when at the beginning of the pandemic, when we had more fear than knowledge about this virus, some people wanted to accept the disinformation campaign that COVID was a hoax. If it is a hoax, then obviously there is no reason for concern. Unfortunately, that disinformation cost some people their lives because they took no measures to protect themselves.
It is also human nature to accept the first explanation for something that is shocking because we are programmed to want to have an explanation for why the unexpected happens. That first explanation can become reinforced, even when wrong, if we simply hear or read it repeated by others, and especially by others we trust or “people like us.” These explanations can also be reinforced if repeated by the President, other elected officials, or people in positions of authority such as physicians or those who declare themselves to be experts in that area. Once we are accepting of those initial explanations, it can be hard to reject those explanations, even when later presented with facts and evidence, especially when the explanation we first accepted continues to be reinforced by those in our social networks or those in whom we have placed our trust.
In the next series of blog posts, we are going to look at how to spot disinformation, how to determine whether it is disinformation, and how we might address some of the disinformation.
Again, it is important to be clear – I am not trying to force anyone to do anything they do not want to do. I am not trying to change anyone’s belief system or political affiliation. My only intention is to help those who want to make their own decisions, but want to do everything possible to ensure that their decisions are based upon correct information. As a former CEO, I often disagreed with people over the best way to respond to a certain set of facts. That is perfectly fine. What is not good for a CEO, a business, or any individual is when we don’t agree on what the facts are.