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Herd Immunity

Just 150 years ago–a single drop in the flow of recorded history–many doctors still believed that diseases were the result of imbalances in “the four humours” of blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Bloodletting was still a thing in many places, and the concept of “germs” was only beginning to gain attention. George Washington died in 1799 of exsanguination because his doctors believed in bloodletting to balance the humours.

America has lost its herd immunity to fake news, and we’re back to believing in bloodletting and humours.

In 1879, quite by accident, Pasteur and his assistant discovered that animals could be vaccinated against diseases and acquire immunity. Though it was long known that weakened forms of diseases could inoculate against the virulent form, Pasteur discovered that vaccines could be produced specifically for that purpose.

So now we have Pasteur to thank for the whole field of immunization and infectious diseases. But it’s not the fact that the vaccines exist that protects us from getting the disease. It’s the fact that we all believe in the vaccines.

Record-scratch sound. Let’s change tracks.

I once had a medical doctor, who was about to treat me, tell me that smoking was not really bad for you, that the studies were merely to make cigarettes more expensive or something like that. By the time he finished his sentence, I had stopped listening to him. I questioned whether this doctor was qualified to treat me for flu-like symptoms, or for a hangnail. Doctors who don’t know that smoking is bad for you should not be doctors, in my opinion.

Herd immunity is not just a medical term. It applies to epistemology with equal force. Epistemology is the study of the theory of knowledge: how we know something, and what “knowing” really means and implies. This has profound real world application, because if a large enough number of people don’t believe that real things are, well, real, society can suffer a whole range of dissociative maladies.

An example is the Kayapo Tribe, native to the Amazon in Brazil, who believed that photography steals the human soul. In fact, the Kayapo words for “photograph” and “steal the soul” are the same word. Some Mexican Catholic sects still prohibit photography (with the threat of jail) because they maintain these beliefs.

Don’t laugh. We all all susceptible to this, though in more subtle forms. It’s human nature to believe things that reinforce existing bias (called “bias confirmation).

An engineer I follow on Youtube and Twitter recently began a series of videos exposing social media manipulation. The latest deals with Twitter. I suggest you watch them all. Seriously, watch the videos.

What does this have to do with herd immunity? A lot.

People click videos they think other people also like, and which reinforce their existing beliefs, fears, skepticism, and experience. Bad people take advantage of this to manufacture thousands of videos, websites, tweets, what have you, in the hopes that one of them will rise up out of the noise and achieve actual human engagement. (Motives vary from basic monetary gain to nefarious state actors attempting to pit us against each other.)

When that happens, people are sucked in to “fake news.”

Newspapers and news networks are not immune to this, as shamefully proven by the last few years, where Trump Derangement Syndrome (a real thing, because it has its own Wikipedia entry) has led certain media to publish terrible libels and untruths, rarely followed up by forceful retractions.

Reporters and humble bloggers are not generally experts in the fields they write about. But readers treat them as such. That leaves a wide gap in sources versus qualified sources. Anyone can quote a source, and just about anyone can find a credential to support the authority of that source. In politics, it’s “people with an understanding of…” or “individuals with access to the White House…” which may well be the equivalent of “I overheard it at a bar.”

Journalism, as a field, is aware of this shortfall, and therefore journalists are taught to carefully cultivate “expert” and authoritative sources for their stories. But the Internet–and its attendant flood of bad people out to flood us with fake news–has made it much more difficult to discern between the real experts and confirmation bias.

Now let’s get back to herd immunity, in both the medical and the epistemological sense.

Way back in 2010, Columbia Journalism Review dealt with the topic of anti-vaccine believers. I believe this was where the term fauxperts was coined.

But with the rise of the Web, as well as changing ideas of authority in general, “the expert” has come to mean something different from what it once did. There’s the rise of what the Brits call “experts by experience”—people like Jenny McCarthy, and also like Orac—who have emerged online because they write well and/or frequently on their subjects, rather than becoming an expert by acclamation of other experts or because of an affiliation with a venerated institution. The worst part of all of this is the thicket of false expertise available on the Web, mistaken by Google-search enthusiasts or, sometimes, naïve reporters, as real expertise. These fauxperts are not entirely new, but not many years ago they had a somewhat harder time getting their point of view presented as coming from an “expert.”

CJR, The Trouble with Experts, July/August 2010

Here’s the problem in a nutshell. We’ve been so fragmented in who we believe, in every subject, that as a society, we’ve lost our herd immunity to fake news.

Measles is breaking out in New York, Georgia, and Oregon, after being eradicated for nearly 50 years, because people fail to believe that vaccines work. Racism is raising its ugly head, along with fake hate crimes, because people believe that racists are around every corner. These beliefs are promoted by modern-day snake oil salesmen.

Politicians like Stacey Abrams make bank by claiming elections have been hacked, when zero evidence exists of it (in fact, there’s overwhelming evidence against it). Anti-Semitism is in full display, with politicians and elected officials spouting tired old theories that Jews control everything (even the weather!).

There’s nobody left that enough of Americans can actually trust and believe on any given issue to give us herd immunity from tin-foil-hat hackery. Therefore, our epistemology is broken. We don’t know what’s real.

It’s like as a nation we’re talking to that doctor I went to who claimed smoking is not so bad. Or worse, we’re George Washington’s doctors, convinced that if we just let out some more blood, we’ll get America’s humours in balance.

We’ve got to fix this before something really virulent hits us. Sure, we can react to measles and other diseases, but can we really regulate truth?

It’s time to inoculate ourselves to conspiracy theories and fake news. Perhaps the Youtube-posting engineer, Destin Sandlin, the one studying social media manipulation, is right. We need some active unity, what he calls “political grace.”

But more than that, we just need to call out some people who don’t deserve to be heard because they are selling snake oil.

Perhaps it’s time to do away with the “likes” and focus on the “dislikes.” It’s time for some social media and news vaccine. And we better hurry before the patient bleeds out.


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