Why do people believe fatal lies? How is disinformation cooked up? Who profits from it? What can be done?
How are people still falling for disinfo with over 600,000 deaths COVID deaths in America already? Experts believe that disinformation uses three key components: ethos, pathos and logos.
- Disinfo artists first persuade people that only he (or she) can be trusted (ethos) and attacks the real experts to make them less believable.
- Disinformation is aligned with what the target audience's emotions (pathos) making it more likely to be believed.
- Facts are twisted or alternate facts created (logos) to create the disinformation.
"Queen Grimhilde disguises herself (ethos) to trick Snow White. She knows of Snow White's romance with the Prince (pathos) and tells her that the apple will grant wishes (logo), and persuades her to take a bite of the apple to get together with the Price. Snow White, fooled, makes her wish and takes a bite." - Fandom
Let's get emotional (pathos)
Watch out when someone uses emotion (pathos) to appeal to an audience’s emotion instead of facts. They know that emotions will cloud our judgement.
Disinformation is designed to evoke a particular emotion.
“We can either have a free society, or we can have a biomedical security state,” Mr. DeSantis (NYT)
Ask yourself, what does wearing a mask to prevent infections have to do with a free society?
This emotion is then invoked to justify asking you to do something.
"DeSantis issued an executive order on Friday that prohibits school districts from imposing mask-wearing requirements." (WUSF Public Media)
After hearing an argument consider how it makes you feel? Does it confirm what you want to be true? Do you have any stake in the events at play? Consider the logic of their message. Does everything make sense? Do the numbers add up? (Hussain Ather)
"Florida has the country’s highest hospitalization rate and second-highest rate of recent cases... Of particular concern has been the Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County, north of Miami. This week, it had more than 1,600 patients, a record, nearly 600 of them with Covid-19." (NYT)
"I'm the only one you can trust" (ethos)
Disinfo artists will make sure to appear credible whether they are offering sound advice or not. This includes verbally assuring the audience of their credibility and good intentions and dressing sharply. All things which index competence in the modern world. But the appearance of credibility alone isn’t enough to judge a speaker as credible. The audience must know the speaker’s experience and moral character to avoid falling for unsound advice.
"Federal judge, Mary Kay Vyskocil, who herself was appointed to the federal bench by Trump agreed that Carlson is, first and foremost, not a provider of “the news” as we know it, or “facts” as we commonly understand them, and his audience knows this. They’re apparently in on the gag. Fox News lawyers claim, Carlson is not “stating actual facts” but simply engaging in “non-literal commentary.” Fox News doesn’t label Carlson’s speech parody because that’s embarrassing for a company with the word news in its name to admit; it’s not factual journalism because that implies some responsibility for the credibility of the information that you spew." - Slate
An important goal of disinformation is also hurting the ethos of other communicators, contributing to distrust in society.
"Fox News host Tucker Carlson wrongly called Dr. Anthony Fauci "the guy who created COVID" during a segment attacking the virologist." - Newsweek
Consider the position of the speaker. Do they have experience with the topic being discussed? Do they have a history of honesty? Do they benefit from your support of their argument? Follow the money.
"Tucker Carlson Tonight sold $108.3 million worth of commercials in 2020. Tucker Carlson Tonight generates about 16 percent of Fox News' total ad revenue estimated at more than $1 billion according to iSpot.TV" - Forbes
Facts or 'alternative facts' (logos)?
"Fox News pushed coronavirus misinformation 253 times in just five days. This includes claims dismissing the effectiveness of public health measures like stay-at-home orders, wearing masks, social distancing, contact tracing, testing, and business closures (made 18 times); claims downplaying the severity of the virus (13 times); claims eroding trust in public health experts (15 times); and claims promoting or defending unproven COVID-19 treatments like hydroxychloroquine (18 times)." - Media Matters
"A famous past example are the reports of Dr. Wakefield in 1998, claiming to have found a link between autism and vaccines. This was not true, but it created sufficient fear to fuel the anti-vax movement, eventually leading to the re-emergence of diseases like measles. Pro-Kremlin media took part of the truth (the AstraZeneca vaccine(opens in a new tab) was developed using chimpanzee viral vector) to rebrand it as “the monkey vaccine(opens in a new tab)”, in order to undermine the credibility of western-produced vaccines This enabled the pro-Kremlin media to suggest that the British vaccine will turn people into monkeys(opens in a new tab), and also tap into criticism from animal rights supporters and anti-vaxxers." - EU vs Disinfo
65% of anti-vaccine disinformation on social media comes from just 12 people - the Disinformation Dozen.
“Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician who has kind of built an empire based on spreading health misinformation and sowing distrust in traditional medicine. His website, on top of having a prolific archive of articles about various natural health remedies, and even diving into some health-related conspiracy theories, he sells a lot of supplements, and treatments and medical products through his website that have garnered him a net worth well over $100,000, according to a Washington Post article from 2019. So he’s really created an empire based on spreading false health information to people. And saying, You can only trust me, not your regular doctor, not the health authorities.”
“Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is probably the most prominent name in the anti-vaccine community. Simply because of the name value he brings, being one of the sons of Robert F. Kennedy kind of boost his profile. And he can appeal to, I think, a broad set of people because of the Kennedy name brand. “He now exploits anti-vaccine misinformation. His group, Children’s Health Defense, is actually one of the largest and really health focused, really anti-vaccine focused sites that NewsGuard sees in terms of Facebook interactions. They’re up in the top 600 of all news sites, in terms of Facebook interactions. So that name brand, that name recognition with the Kennedy name and just his established reach really helps him put these things out.” - KUOW
Making money spreading disinfo
Facebook, Google and Twitter make money from advertising to traffic generated by the twelve leading online anti-vaxxers.
"Living in full view of the public on the internet are a small group of individuals who do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line, who are abusing social media platforms to misrepresent the threat of Covid and spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines. According to our recent report, anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers. Our research has also found anti-vaxxers using social media platforms to target Black Americans, exploiting higher rates of vaccine hesitancy in that community to spread conspiracies and lies about the safety of Covid vaccines."
Facebook, Google and Twitter have put policies into place to prevent the spread of vaccine misinformation; yet to date, all have failed to satisfactorily enforce those policies. All have been particularly ineffective at removing harmful and dangerous misinformation about coronavirus vaccines, though the scale of misinformation on Facebook, and thus the impact of their failure, is larger. Further, they have all failed to remove the accounts of prominent anti-vaxxers who have repeatedly violated their terms of service, as documented in later sections of this report." - Center For Countering Digital Hate (CCDH)
"Read the CCDH report on the pandemic profiteers; the dozen leading anti-vaxxers who have enriched themselves by spreading misinformation. The Anti-Vaxx industry boasts annual revenues of at least $36 million and is worth up to $1.1 billion to Big Tech with 62 million followers across their platforms. Through government PPP loans, affiliate marketing schemes and social media empires, these anti-vaxx businesses have been able to generate profits by spreading misinformation." - CCDH