Doubt . . . about virtually everything has infected our culture and political system and those around the world like nothing we’ve seen before. And the ignition switch for much of the misinformation and disinformation contributing to that doubt is social media.
When American soccer reporter, Grant Wahl died suddenly while covering the World Cup in Qatar, doubt threw its hat into the social media echo chamber and said that the Covid vaccine was likely responsible. An autopsy determined that Wahl died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm.
“People, especially close family and friends were really asking questions,” Wahl’s wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist, told NPR host Juana Summers recently. “I was asking questions. It was really important to me to know what was the cause of death. And getting the autopsy gave me at least some partial sense of closure, of having an answer.”
Despite interviews and autopsy documents, however, the disinformation spread like a wildfire with no means of escape.
In one of many messages, Gounder said that “this particular email blamed me for having killed my husband because he got COVID vaccinations and said this was karma, that I was being punished for having done this.
“I really had hoped,” Gounder told Summers, “that when I first put out a written statement that I did several interviews on various different media platforms, that that would really put these conspiracy theories to an end. I started to get messages again as I had early on from anti-vax conspiracy theorists who were blaming not only my husband’s death but also Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest as well as the deaths of other young, healthy people recently on the COVID vaccines. And I felt, at that point, that I did have to take these conspiracy theories head-on.”
“It felt so exploitive to use this horrible tragedy for me and my family, to exploit that for their own ends,” Gounder added.
Social media has become a repository for doubt, conspiracy, denial, and hate. For hardened non-believers, doubt is where facts and truth go to die.
Social media is a monster that constantly needs feeding . . . a lot of feeding and there is no shortage of individuals who are ready, willing, and able to supply false and damaging information to those that get their fix from baseless fear.
“Disinformation is a business model, make no mistake about it,” Gounder told Summers. “And these are people who are trying to make money, who are trying to gain social media followers or subscribers on Substack or some kind of social status or power. And that really is just re-traumatizing not just me and my family but others who have been victims of this kind of behavior.
“I want people to remember him as this kind, generous person who was really dedicated to social justice,” Gounder said of her husband.
What is the antidote for persistently false information?
Alecia Beth Moore Hart, known professionally as Pink, says it best.
“I care about decency and humanity and kindness. Kindness today is an act of rebellion.”
At this point, however, I doubt conspiracy believers are inclined toward change.