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Misinformation and disinformation – why is it so hard to fight?

© Supplied by International SOSinternational sos
Medical misinformation has been a prevalent problem, particularly amid Covid-19

Today, social media has become the primary source for news for much of the world.

Sources are very often not vetted and it remains difficult for many to determine what might be reliable.  Heated disagreements and high engagement cause algorithms to favour controversial posts and more neutral content is submerged.  This tends to deepen our commitment to the positions we take – whether unconsciously or not.

Over the years we’ve seen how fake news can consistently reach a larger audience and tunnel more deeply into social networks than accurate news.  People want to have their input recognised and gain likes, follows, comments and shares.  Stirring up controversy and/or emotion makes us feel important and validates our opinions.  Commitment or confirmation bias refers to our tendency to adhere to positions we have taken, particularly publicly, regardless of the information that challenges them.  People want to be seen as consistent thinkers, never wanting to face the uncomfortable realisation that they could be wrong.  The sunk cost fallacy may intensify this, causing people to maintain adherence to a thought or behaviour even when the cost of doing so outweighs the benefit.  Even if we know deep down that sticking to our guns is based on mis-or disinformation, our need to save face keeps us firmly committed to the path we have publicly chosen.

Here we see emotional intelligence has an increasing role to play, as the line between how we see ourselves and how others see us becomes thinner.  As we now live in a global village, the fear of being wrong is amplified.  Many leaders don’t want to disclose changes, doubt or hesitancy in public spaces such as social media.  Time invested in social media spaces has made us too reliant on the feedback loops and an inherent commitment bias renders us unable to absorb new data in any meaningful way.  Some feel that recanting stances we have taken could leave us vulnerable to attack.

As health advisors we have frequently been tasked with addressing vaccine hesitancy within companies. We have learned to reimagine the way we interact with those whose confirmation bias leads them to reject the evidence that supports vaccination – inviting people into spaces where they can step back from the investment they have made in their public positions so they can consider new information, without it challenging their sense of self or of belonging.  This means private messages, quieter conversations, calm questions that promote critical thinking in social media spaces, an opportunity to provide credible health information and a forum to ask questions.

Over the last three years we have been carefully monitoring the issue of medical misinformation across our global footprint. We’ve seen that organisations have had a pressing need to access reliable curated health and security information in an increasingly noisy environment. In a crisis, experience tells us that mixed messaging can lead to delayed or wrong decisions, and to attendant health and security risks to personnel.  Likewise, a blind following of data without the opportunity to be open and transparent when the trends shift, leads to a drop in trust.

This is particularly important for workers deployed or rotating overseas, where we know the impact of remote rotational work already places added burdens on information gathering, as social connections are impacted and the usual sources of trusted information can be absent.  As business travel resumes, the disruption caused by conflict or by the ever-changing pandemic control measures in various parts of the world continues to place pressures on crisis teams.  As working practices return to pre-pandemic levels in many locations, companies are shifting focus on providing ongoing safe working environments for their workforce that anticipates future health risks and fully meets an employer’s duty of care responsibilities.  In this noisy space, the need for timely independent information and analysis that obtains inputs from multiple sources has never been greater.

To find out more about International SOS, contact Claire Westbrook-Keir at Claire.westbrook@internationalsos.com.

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