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‘An age of manufactured mistrust’: Here’s what rampant disinformation means for health, climate, and democracy

“More than 300,000 Americans are in cemeteries today because of misinformation, doubt, suspicion and distrust that caused them to say that the vaccine is not safe for me. And it continues,” said Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health in September 2022, citing a KFF estimate.

Misinformation not only continues but is getting worse. Public trust is declining due to social media and, increasingly, artificial intelligence (AI). As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, mistrust can lead to preventable deaths.

Confidence continues to fall

Last month, Florida’s Surgeon General called for stopping COVID-19 vaccines, saying they can cause permanent harm. The FDA and CDC refuted his claim, but the damage has already been done. Last September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who supports his Surgeon General, said: “I will not stand by and allow the FDA and CDC to use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for booster shots that have not been proven to be safe or effective.”

A 2023 UNICEF report warned that confidence in childhood vaccines in many countries continues to decline, and a 2023 PEW study found that 28% of Americans said parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children, up from 12 % more than the previous year.

The UK recently had to launch a campaign to persuade parents to vaccinate their children against measles, mumps and rubella, following a rise in cases and a decline in vaccination rates.

Worse yet, politicians are among those spreading misinformation. People who oppose vaccine requirements are winning seats in state legislatures. In Louisiana, 29 candidates backed by a national group working to defeat mandatory vaccines won state elections last fall.

Some groups appear to be more vulnerable. A survey conducted a few years ago indicated that black respondents anticipate Discriminatory treatment due to COVID-19. And the roots of black distrust in health care go back much further. As Karen Bullock, a professor at Boston College, told me: “Why should black people believe that a health care system will honor their wishes when, throughout their lives, the system has not honored their wishes?”

Changing tactics

The Coalition for Health and Science Trust, an alliance of more than 90 organizations, is working to combat misinformation. Its president, Dr. Reed Tuckson, told me: “We live in an era of manufactured distrust, and it works. People are drowning in… articles, videos, memes and posts. “They don’t have a clear idea of ​​what to believe.”

Social networks contribute to the problem. “It’s not clear that social media platforms can or even want to limit misinformation,” Lorien Abroms of George Washington University told me.

Their investigation found that Facebook attempted to remove misinformation about vaccines, but did not do so in a way that would have lasting effects. “They may want to limit misinformation, at least for some topics, but they don’t really know how, given the dynamics of their system; it’s a moving target,” Abroms said.

Even CEOs of big tech companies, like Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, agree that regulators haven’t done their job regarding social media.

Another health emergency is climate change. Those most vulnerable to its effects are children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses, and people who live near toxic substances.

And climate misinformation appears to be evolving. George Mason University’s Ed Maibach, a climate communications expert, told me that most of the misinformation previously denied that any problem existed. (A certain US president claimed that climate change is a “hoax.”)

Now, Maibach explained, as outright climate denialism is less persuasive, “disinformation agents are trying to undermine public trust in alternatives to fossil energy, such as wind and solar power, and electric vehicles.”

Adding AI to the mix threatens not only trust in health and science, but also in public institutions and even democracy itself. The World Economic Forum in Davos recently released a survey of nearly 1,500 experts, business leaders and policymakers who said AI-driven disinformation poses a near-term threat to the global economy.

Fake news and AI propaganda could facilitate election influence and increase social conflict. In Davos, Bill Gates predicted that with artificial intelligence tools, “bad guys will be more productive.” And Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar spoke of fake AI-generated videos of him selling cryptocurrencies on the Internet.

Companies have a vested interest in communicating truth and transparency to their many stakeholders, including employees, customers, and regulators. Employers thrive and compete with healthy workplaces. Employee health benefits are among your highest expenses, and misinformation could lead to higher health care costs and absenteeism.

Susceptibility to misinformation threatens everyone, from schoolchildren to voters to corporate CEOs. We are past the point of simply applying healthy skepticism: we must all do more to protect ourselves, our families, and our constituents.

Bill Novelli is professor emeritus at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He was CEO of AARP and Porter Novelli, the global public relations firm. His last book is Good business: the way to talk, fight and win to change the world.

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