In public health, when bad information is left unchecked the results of it can be deadly.
During the 2014/15 Ebola outbreak, misleading rumours were everywhere. One, claimed that someone was attempting to infecting the local water supply with formaldehyde to raise the death count to gain more in international aid funding1. Another, linked the origins of the virus to the US testing a bioweapons on African nations during the cold war2, and a further rumour suggested that people dressed as nuns were injecting residents with a fake vaccine in order to kill children and traffic their organs3.
While all these rumours were complete fabrications of the truth, that didn’t stop Liberia’s largest newspaper, The Daily Observer, from quoting them (without rebuttal) in their paper and on the papers website where they were they went on to generate substantial traffic 3.
Rumours such as these were a huge challenge to overcome during the outbreak. If you read my post a while back on how to control an Ebola outbreak, you’ll recall the importance of contact tracing. In brief, this process involves asking an infected individual to give details related to all of the other individuals that they had been in contact with over the last 21 days (the length of the Ebola incubation period), these contacts are then followed up and checked for symptoms.
Contact tracing is a simple, but highly effect control strategy4. It allows for speedy treatment of those infected and stems the flow of new cases. It does however require one vital ingredient for it to work:
Where rumours spread, trust is eroded. When trust is lost during a life threatening outbreak, it makes people hide their symptoms, it makes people less likely to take recommended treatments, and it makes people take treatment advice from far less reliable sources5.
For instance, in another rumour circulating during the 2014/15 Ebola outbreak, “drinking hot salty water” was thought by many in a community to be a reliable means of preventing an individual from catching the disease (it's not). This rumour reportedly caused two people, in Nigeria, to died due to excessive salt consumption and many to act without appropriate caution around Ebola victims, substantially increasing their risk of infection 1
Rumour as a disease
The spread of rumours shares remarkably levels of similarity to the spread of disease; however, instead of transmission being due to physical proximity, rumours rely on communication as their vector of transmission. The modern consequence of this is that a rumour can now spread to the other side of the world at a click of a button, and vice versa. Therefore, when the website Natural News runs articles suggesting that Ebola can be treated with homeopathy, or that the Ebola vaccine is dangerous and only for the profit of big pharm, or that Ebola is airborn, or the old classic Ebola being a genetically engineered virus that is designed to wipe out most of humanity to benefit the globalist agender(somehow?), it makes me worried that someone will read, follow the advice and suffer unnecessarily because of it.
Up until recently, the predominant means of addressing dangerous rumours has been through a “quarantine” equivalent approach. For instance, the stories in The Observer newspaper have since been removed due to backlash from the Liberian government and even Natural News removed their homeopathy treating Ebola post (although the page does now point you towards a post titled: “Ebola vaccine to be manufactured by criminal drug company with felony record” So, there’s that) after substantial public backlash. A similar approach has recently been seen being adopted by the social media giants (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), through the banning, or limiting the reach of, ‘bad actors’.
This has always been an imperfect, sometimes heavy-handed, response. It may do the job but in the current age of social media, banning accounts seems, to me at least, to be creating animosity and hardening beliefs rather than changing minds. Yes, it stops new people “becoming infected” by a rumour but at the cost of trust in the system.
With the popularity of decentralised social media platforms (e.g. here on Steemit, Minds or Akasha) increasing, potentially fuelled by the growing distrust in centralised platforms, this discussion about free speech and fake news may soon be rendered mute, due to no central authorities being able to ban users or remove content (for more on this see this post). As such, those of us in public health may have to get our hands dirty(er) and engage in a way that we have not done so previously.
I’ve been here on Steemit for around 6 months now. I’m constantly in awe with the possibilities that this technology has to offer and I firmly believe that ultimately this next iteration of the internet has benifits that far outweigh the negatives. However, sometimes I do worry that we’re sleepwalking into a tricky situation when it comes to our relationship to the truth.
So, I guess my question to you is this:
I have some ideas, but I’d genuinely value your input here. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing and we’re entering a new age of techno-utopia, an age where we all get on and the truth just rises to the top. That’d be nice!
To explore this topic in more detail I’ve decided to write a paper for a social science conference that I plan on attending in January. See the comments below for the abstract that I’ve submitted to them. Their theme is Understanding the social in a digital age, should be fun.
My name is Richard, I blog under the name of @nonzerosum. I’m a PhD student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I write mostly on Global Health, Effective Altruism and The Psychology of Vaccine Hesitancy. If you’d like to read more on these topics in the future follow me here on steemit or on twitter @RichClarkePsy.
 Time: Fear and Rumors Fueling the Spread of Ebola
 CBS DC: Largest Liberian Newspaper: US Government Manufactured Ebola, AIDS Virus
 The Washington Post: The major Liberian newspaper churning out Ebola conspiracy after conspiracy
 Greiner AL, Angelo KM, McCollum AM, Mirkovic K, Arthur R, Angulo FJ. Addressing contact tracing challenges—critical to halting Ebola virus disease transmission. International Journal of Infectious Diseases. 2015 Dec 1;41:53-5.
 Cheung, E. Y. (2015). An outbreak of fear, rumours and stigma: psychosocial support for the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in West Africa. Intervention, 13(1), 70-76.