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Navigating Polluted Information Amid COVID-19

Assistant Professor Whitney Phillips discusses the ‘long-standing dysfunction of our information ecosystem’ and the risks it may pose to public health.

Whitney Phillips portrait

A 2015 TED Talk by Bill Gates warning of the growing peril of an infectious virus has resurfaced, but seemingly for the wrong reasons.

Titled “The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready,” Gates’ speech foreshadows the coronavirus outbreak while reinforcing the importance of vaccine research and testing. Since then, the Microsoft founder-turned-philanthropist has faced backlash from anti-vaccination activists and conservative pundits, some of whom claim he is using the pandemic—or has created it—to seize control of the world’s health system.

“Bill Gates is easily transformed into a health-related meme and figure because he’s so well known,” Assistant Professor Whitney Phillips recently told The New York Times. “He’s able to function as kind of an abstract boogeyman.”

Based in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Phillips specializes in digital ethics. She considers the online vilification of Gates an example of “polluted information,” contaminating public understanding of the coronavirus.

“Polluted information threatens public health because that information has real-world consequences. People act on what they see online,” says Phillips, an ideas columnist for WIRED and co-author with Ryan Milner of “You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polluted Information” (The MIT Press, 2021), available for free download later this month. “Depending on the information in question, these actions can put the health and safety of the population at risk.”

We talked with Phillips about what happens when bad information goes viral.

You study two types of false and misleading information: misinformation and disinformation. What’s the difference?

The difference is intent. Misinformation is spread inadvertently because the person thinks the information is true and is trying to get the word out. Disinformation is spread intentionally because the person knows the information is false and is looking to sow chaos, confusion or harm.

Because our networks are so densely interconnected, information that starts out as misinformation can transform into disinformation, depending on who shares it and vice versa. More confusingly, it’s often not possible to tell which is which just by looking.

I don’t focus too intently on the distinction, instead favoring the more deliberately neutral term polluted information. Saying that something is polluted highlights the problems with the information, without having to commit to why it was shared. Motives are important, but very often they matter far less than outcomes.

How does polluted information threaten public health?

An example in context of COVID-19 is people hearing that the virus is actually a hoax and then refusing to follow social distancing guidelines—directly endangering the health of everyone around them.

Polluted political information is so overwhelming and often so confusing that it can drown out factual, need-to-know information from trustworthy sources. It can also call those trustworthy sources into question when true information clashes with false information, and people don’t know who to believe—an outcome that we’re seeing unfold in real time. The result is a less informed populace.

Are you surprised by the U.S. response to the pandemic?

Given the fundamental, long-standing dysfunction of our information ecosystem, not at all. A significant percentage of the population is inclined to reject scientific and other official sources of information, including mainstream journalism. Another sizable percentage of the population doesn’t know who to believe, so they take their cues from people within their own insular echo-systems. Many people are able to access true information and are appropriately informed, but when they share that information with others, often the only people who see it are those who already know or agree.

The catastrophic informational failures revealed by the COVID-19 crisis aren’t new to the pandemic, but the pandemic has laid bare, like never before, how imperiled we are when our networks are so polluted that we can barely see three feet in front of our face.

Where do we go from here?

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t predict what will happen next week, let alone months beyond that.

I see the next three to six months as pivotal, not just in U.S. history but in global history as well. Either we will begin to challenge our assumptions about political speech, about rights versus responsibilities, about the entire structure of the attention economy, or we won’t.

If we do, we can begin to build new, different and more robust networks that are better equipped to handle the pollution that’s already been generated and to minimize the pollution that’s created in the future. If we don’t, our networks will grow more and more polluted, and information dysfunction will only increase. That future is indescribably grim. But we can make a different choice. The question is: will we?

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .


Also of Interest

  • College of Visual and Performing Arts

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  • Coronavirus Updates

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