Information Algorithms Are Proving Deadly in this Pandemic

Current Affairs / Science

The Internet and its communications technologies are allowing us to work from home in the midst of this pandemic, to stay in touch with each other and “shelter in place” in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible even 10 years ago.

But like most technological advances, it’s become a veritable Sword of Damocles. It has developed so quickly that we simply haven’t had time to adapt completely to what it makes possible. That’s particularly true, perhaps generationally, in the way authoritative voices communicate accurate and actionable information. And that’s causing all sorts of stupid behavior right now.

Renée DiResta writes about what is happening and the implications:

Health Experts Don’t Understand How Information Moves – The Atlantic:

All too often, the people responsible for protecting the public do not appear to understand how information moves in the internet era. Meanwhile, people who best understand what content is likely to go viral are using that knowledge to mislead.

[…]The feed abhors a vacuum. But in many cases, algorithms have little or no authoritative content to push to users—because experts haven’t bothered to produce any, or because what they have produced simply isn’t compelling to the average social-media user. Their work is locked in journals, while bloggers produce search-engine-optimized, Pinterest-ready posts offering up their personal viewpoint as medical fact. And with COVID-19, as in past outbreaks, anti-vaxxers and related influencers with a tenuous hold on reality jumped on the emerging topic early, posting repeatedly about synthetic-virus and mass-vaccination plots ostensibly hatched by Bill Gates and Big Pharma.

My doctor has a coffee mug prominently displayed in his office – in such a way that patients see it right in front of their face when the sit down to talk with him. It says “Please Do Not Confuse Your Google Search With My Medical Degree”. You can buy your own on Google. I’m guessing it’s kinda popular. And as a person who often looks up things on the web when I have a medical question – because it’s easier and cheaper than speaking with a doctor – I take the point.

Over the years this will sort itself out. Probably. Younger researchers are putting their work online right away now on pre-pub servers like ArXiv or bioRxiv. And that’s great because it gets the work out where people can see it. But it’s a challenge as well because those papers haven’t been reviewed yet, they are on occasion withdrawn because they are wrong, or occasionally, someone is doing mischief. (Like posting falsified data that claims a particular drug is more effective than it is – and thus causing investors to buy stock in a company…) Once the papers have been properly vetted by peer review, they are published in very-expensive-to-access journals that most of us can’t access. And so we see the new and the novel, not the vetted and accurate information.

See the issue?

DiResta’s article lays out the particular challenges that this liminal moment in publishing is causing as we respond to a once in a century global health challenge – and points out how the adolescent mindset of Twitter (which can’t abide error or a scent of hypocrisy) is throwing gas on the fire.

Media literacy is incredibly important right now. Honest to God Journalists are critical to our survival right now. (Because they’re trained to verify and contextualize information before they share it.) Maybe we all need to step away from getting our news from random voices on Social Media and go back to people who have the training and the access to properly vet things. 

It would keep people from showing up in Pizza Shops with rifles in the midst of an election somehow thinking that the candidates were “lizard people” running a child sex ring… Or keep people from drinking bleach to cure a virus. Or stop people from lighting 5G cell towers on fire thinking that will stop the virus from spreading. Or…

Seriously. Listen to people who are trained to ignore the nonsense that the algorithms are throwing in our faces. It will be deadly to us and others if we don’t.