Fake News and Pandemics

When the next pandemic strikes, we’ll be fighting it on two fronts. The first is the one you immediately think about: understanding the disease, researching a cure and inoculating the population. The second is new, and one you might not have thought much about: fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet.

The second battle will be like the Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, only with the addition of a deadly health crisis and possibly without a malicious government actor. But while the two problems—misinformation affecting democracy and misinformation affecting public health—will have similar solutions, the latter is much less political. If we work to solve the pandemic disinformation problem, any solutions are likely to also be applicable to the democracy one.

Pandemics are part of our future. They might be like the 1968 Hong Kong flu, which killed a million people, or the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed over 40 million. Yes, modern medicine makes pandemics less likely and less deadly. But global travel and trade, increased population density, decreased wildlife habitats, and increased animal farming to satisfy a growing and more affluent population have made them more likely. Experts agree that it’s not a matter of if—it’s only a matter of when.

When the next pandemic strikes, accurate information will be just as important as effective treatments. We saw this in 2014, when the Nigerian government managed to contain a subcontinentwide Ebola epidemic to just 20 infections and eight fatalities. Part of that success was because of the ways officials communicated health information to all Nigerians, using government-sponsored videos, social media campaigns and international experts. Without that, the death toll in Lagos, a city of 21 million people, would have probably been greater than the 11,000 the rest of the continent experienced.

There’s every reason to expect misinformation to be rampant during a pandemic. In the early hours and days, information will be scant and rumors will abound. Most of us are not health professionals or scientists. We won’t be able to tell fact from fiction. Even worse, we’ll be scared. Our brains work differently when we are scared, and they latch on to whatever makes us feel safer—even if it’s not true.

Rumors and misinformation could easily overwhelm legitimate news channels, as people share tweets, images and videos. Much of it will be well-intentioned but wrong—like the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccination community today ­—but some of it may be malicious. In the 1980s, the KGB ran a sophisticated disinformation campaign ­—Operation Infektion ­—to spread the rumor that HIV/AIDS was a result of an American biological weapon gone awry. It’s reasonable to assume some group or country would deliberately spread intentional lies in an attempt to increase death and chaos.

It’s not just misinformation about which treatments work (and are safe), and which treatments don’t work (and are unsafe). Misinformation can affect society’s ability to deal with a pandemic at many different levels. Right now, Ebola relief efforts in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being stymied by mistrust of health workers and government officials.

It doesn’t take much to imagine how this can lead to disaster. Jay Walker, curator of the TEDMED conferences, laid out some of the possibilities in a 2016 essay: people overwhelming and even looting pharmacies trying to get some drug that is irrelevant or nonexistent, people needlessly fleeing cities and leaving them paralyzed, health workers not showing up for work, truck drivers and other essential people being afraid to enter infected areas, official sites like CDC.gov being hacked and discredited. This kind of thing can magnify the health effects of a pandemic many times over, and in extreme cases could lead to a total societal collapse.

This is going to be something that government health organizations, medical professionals, social media companies and the traditional media are going to have to work out together. There isn’t any single solution; it will require many different interventions that will all need to work together. The interventions will look a lot like what we’re already talking about with regard to government-run and other information influence campaigns that target our democratic processes: methods of visibly identifying false stories, the identification and deletion of fake posts and accounts, ways to promote official and accurate news, and so on. At the scale these are needed, they will have to be done automatically and in real time.

Since the 2016 presidential election, we have been talking about propaganda campaigns, and about how social media amplifies fake news and allows damaging messages to spread easily. It’s a hard discussion to have in today’s hyperpolarized political climate. After any election, the winning side has every incentive to downplay the role of fake news.

But pandemics are different; there’s no political constituency in favor of people dying because of misinformation. Google doesn’t want the results of peoples’ well-intentioned searches to lead to fatalities. Facebook and Twitter don’t want people on their platforms sharing misinformation that will result in either individual or mass deaths. Focusing on pandemics gives us an apolitical way to collectively approach the general problem of misinformation and fake news. And any solutions for pandemics are likely to also be applicable to the more general ­—and more political ­—problems.

Pandemics are inevitable. Bioterror is already possible, and will only get easier as the requisite technologies become cheaper and more common. We’re experiencing the largest measles outbreak in 25 years thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, which has hijacked social media to amplify its messages; we seem unable to beat back the disinformation and pseudoscience surrounding the vaccine. Those same forces will dramatically increase death and social upheaval in the event of a pandemic.

Let the Russian propaganda attacks on the 2016 election serve as a wake-up call for this and other threats. We need to solve the problem of misinformation during pandemics together—­ governments and industries in collaboration with medical officials, all across the world ­—before there’s a crisis. And the solutions will also help us shore up our democracy in the process.

This essay previously appeared in the New York Times.

Posted on June 21, 2019 at 5:10 AM22 Comments


None June 21, 2019 5:53 AM

Isn’t this ultimately about trust? How do we make sure that people trust conveyers of science over Aunt Tilly or Max across the street?

Jeremy June 21, 2019 6:31 AM

there’s no political constituency in favor of people dying because of misinformation

I think that claim needs to be justified.

In particular, in terms of two possible interpretations:
– a ‘political constituency’ that spreads misinformation with intent to cause deaths; and
– a ‘political constituency’ that is unconcerned that misinformation may cause deaths.

The former is arguably reasonably rare – but by no means nonexistent.
But the latter is virtually a definition of certain sectors of society.

Winter June 21, 2019 6:36 AM

Isn’t this ultimately about trust?

Everything social is about trust. Desinformation campaigns are about destroying trust as without trust, there is no society.

On topic, any epidemic or pandemic will be used by someone to hurt an adversary and to bolster political campaigns.

Divide and conquer.

There is a strong, almost religious, belief that all diseases come from outside. Diseases are always contacted from foreigners, if it must, from foreign animals.

Currently, polio is still around because religious clergy use fear tactics to discredit local governments. In the US the Ebola scare was used to campaign against immigration from Africa, just like AIDS was used before.

Petre Peter June 21, 2019 8:09 AM

In an emergency situation, social networks will be useless due to the amount of disinformation. There needs to be an interupt of higher priority than anything we might be doing on the phone – an emergency broadcast that would work on all networks regardless of carrier or data plan.

Chelloveck June 21, 2019 9:13 AM

@Petre Peter: We have such a system in the US. Lower-level alerts (weather, AMBER (missing child)) can be blocked by the end-user. The highest level alert (Presidential) cannot. Of course it all goes back to trust. There are a lot of people who would claim that the government are the ones spreading the misinformation (regardless of which political party is in power). I presume other countries have similar systems in place. Wireless Emergency Alerts

Alex June 21, 2019 10:58 AM

@Ben Smith: That goes to show the effectiveness of vaccines, in the 1950’s it was estimated that between 3 and 4 million people were infected a year. If you extend this over a 10 year period, almost 1 in 4 Americans will have contracted measles. Over a lifetime and chances are good that a vast majority of the population will have contracted measles during their lifetime.

Unfortunately, the US is seeing more outbreaks of measles because of the exact misinformation that is stated in this blog. And your response is the kind of perpetuation of rumors that furthers the anti-science stance that leads to the deaths of others.

I’m not so sure that “there’s no political constituency in favor of people dying because of misinformation” is very accurate as there’s a lot of hate in this world.

Sergey Babkin June 21, 2019 11:37 AM

Isn’t it interesting that an essay on misinformation starts with the misinformation of “Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election”? Russia probably did apply some effort, as it always did, and as every country including US does in the other countries, but as we know in retrospect, it was absolutely nothing compared to the Democratic misinformation campaign that is still going on 3 years later. Including, literally, the Democratic misinformation campaign against Roy Moore that masqueraded as a “Russian misinformation campaign”.

But specking of the epidemics, they always included both the government propaganda and the spreading rumors. Probably the more interesting part about it is that the government propaganda often is less truthful than the rumors, the government attempting to manipulate the population. The rumors have also been manipulated, starting at least with the German-incited rumors in World War I, but probably going much farther in history. The social media might accelerate the spread of the rumors, but also give an opportunity for more transparency.

The Pull June 21, 2019 1:40 PM

Problem is, with these sorts of problems, mapping out “worst case possibilities”. Because “we don’t know” what is possible. Last election we saw political candidates getting hacked and polarizing conspiracy theories drawn out of the material which ignited the far right base.

Season 7 of Homeland posited a government-far right activist standoff, where disinformation was sent about a wounded boy which led to his father killing the FBI hostage they had. Which led to forcing the raid, from outraged FBI personnel.

But, what is the true worst that could happen? What are other scenarios?

I think one key probably is the conjunction of hacking valuable targets, gaining large archives of information, and utilizing that information as part of a disinformation campaign. Next to that would be hacking valuable targets and using surveillance to get incriminating information. Valuable targets could be politicians, political leaders, or could be institutions, organizations.

There are a lot of secrets out there, sloppily stored in a lot of places.

In all of this, there is another possible factor of false flag operations. Make it look like, for instance, one’s own government has hacked a polarized political figure, to put their base against the government. Or strategies along those lines.

Right now, Alex Jones is screaming about a million dollar bounty on the head of whomever put child porn on his computer systems, for instance.

One major mitigating factor in all of this is the ‘cry wolf’ factor. When people are stung by disinformation attacks, they tend to start to ignore new disclosures.

But, with highly polarized sectors of societies set with very strong preferences, they will believe whatever conforms to those preferences regardless of how ludicrous it is.

Impossibly Stupid June 21, 2019 2:37 PM

misinformation affecting democracy and misinformation affecting public health — will have similar solutions, the latter is much less political

I think you’re wrong on all counts here. I know you try hard to make things non-political, but I think you’re operating on a modern politician’s definition of what politics is: far left and right extremism that those in power use to exploit the masses. That simply isn’t a rational way to live in the real world, the world a pandemic would occupy, and so the solutions to the two problems are as dissimilar as the 1st and 2nd Amendments.

Much of it will be well-intentioned but wrong — like the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccination community today ­– but some of it may be malicious.

It’s all malicious. People who are wrong are liars; they don’t get a pass because they’re also too dumb to know they’re spreading dangerous lies. The only question that needs to be addressed is what you do when confronting those sorts of people. Or what we all do ourselves when faced with our own errors in thought and judgment.

Misinformation can affect society’s ability to deal with a pandemic at many different levels.

So can true information, like Congress not acting swiftly to simply cover the healthcare needs of 9/11 first responders. What message does that sort of thing send to the workers you want to show up during a pandemic? See how this quickly becomes “political”?

But pandemics are different; there’s no political constituency in favor of people dying because of misinformation.

Incorrect. What’s actually true is that there is no political divide that distinguishes those who want people to die. Both liberal and conservative camps have their share of anti-vaxers. I mean, we’re talking about people who even want their own children to get sick and die from preventable diseases! It takes more than a little partisan misinformation to reach that level of brainwashing.

Google doesn’t want the results of peoples’ well-intentioned searches to lead to fatalities.

Yes, they do. They’d act differently if that were not the case.

Facebook and Twitter don’t want people on their platforms sharing misinformation that will result in either individual or mass deaths.

Yes, they do. Like Google, they are acting amorally (at best) in a quest to make easy money. They all give the people the bread and circuses they want. They don’t care if people (or democracies) end up dying as a consequence.

Focusing on pandemics gives us an apolitical way to collectively approach the general problem of misinformation and fake news.

It doesn’t, for the simple reason that even the President of the United States spreads misinformation, and I’m not even limiting that statement to the current holder of that office. And those tech giants will continue to let that message spread far and wide, simply because the President said it. You can’t excise the politics, Bruce, because politics isn’t a real thing, but rather a fungible, irrational property that gets assigned to information (e.g., Romneycare (good/bad) became Obamacare (bad/good)).

And any solutions for pandemics are likely to also be applicable to the more general ­– and more political ­– problems.

Yes and no. We should ignore politics and follow the science so that we meet reality head-on. The underlying problems there are that the masses still don’t receive a solid science education, and we still live in a society founded on political rules (or, worse, religious rules) rather than scientific ones. So the more pragmatic viewpoint would be that it is impossible to be prepared for a pandemic as long as people (including you, Bruce) either over-emphasize or under-emphasize political forces. Richard Feynman said it best when speaking about another disaster:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

tz June 21, 2019 7:49 PM

I assume you know that in Pakistan, under the guise of vaccinations, the US searched for Bin Laden, but lied and now anyone trying to stop Polio is in danger for their lives.

About a decade ago, the Phillipines wanted population control so they had women come in for “flu vaccines” but it was also exposed as contraceptive (or sterilization!) injections.

If there is a pandemic, why should I trust anything?

Also we have a large number of illegal immigrants from everywhere crossing the US southern border and repeating the asylum liturgy.

We also have Typhus in LA and human feces there, in SF, Portland, and Seattle, which is a public health crisis which we will do NOTHING about because of SJW PC. They are ALREADY lying where the next pandemic is likely to ignite.

When something bad happens, I expect the government to lie. That it isn’t a problem of illegal immigrants (though they are the ones who seem to be clogging the ERs), or the homeless, or the IV drug users leaving the needles on the sidewalk, or not those from the Congo (Ebola is apparently spontaneous and native to the USA). Or the Black/White plague – so hard to remove all the rats.

The Government – Both Republicans and Democrats – constantly lie, so have no credibility. That is the EVIL. And the critical problem.

Who can I believe? Even the CDC. “anyone can get AIDS (HIV)” – not just IV drug users or those doing anal sex? There are lies concerning vaccines as well (see Sharyl Atkinsson’s story) which boost the anti-vaxxers (I’m not even a sceptic, but why does something “safe” need a kangaroo court?).

Consider Bayer/Monsanto’s Roundup – is it safe or not?

You wrote liars and outliers. What happens when you KNOW you are dealing with a LIAR who is pleading with you to accept something during a pandemic?

Rachel June 21, 2019 11:11 PM

2nd paragraph
Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election

Mr Schneier, Which presidential election was this? Or is this a typographical – did you mean ‘Prime Ministerial election’ – we’d appreciate learning about which country was affected

vas pup June 22, 2019 12:54 PM

“The second battle will be like the Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election.”

Should we consider disinformation providing truthful but negative to particular political actor information even obtained by not legal action (e.g. hacking DNC)?

MarkH June 22, 2019 6:21 PM

@vas pup:

My answer to the question you posed for Bruce, is “No.”

The Russian Federation made several distinct types of interventions in the 2016 US national elections.

Disinformation was one category of intervention. This has been abundantly documented.

Probably any well-resourced intelligence community would do the same when attacking a high-value target … but students of Russian intelligence operations say that dating back at least to Soviet times, it has been their practice to make numerous alternative or overlapping efforts, rather than “putting all their eggs in one basket.”

Troutwaxer June 23, 2019 11:06 AM

“The recent outbreak of measles in unvaccinated New Yorkers was 256 cases out of 11 Million. That’s 0.002%!!! 2/1000ths of 1%. That’s an epidemic??? Hardly.”

But that’s a much, much higher level than “normal,” (and normal should be something close to “0” if everyone follows rational vaccine policies.) So it’s something like a 2000 percent increase, and definitely worthy of government comment by whatever name, because it means that a substantial number of people are going unvaccinated.

Bruce Schneier June 24, 2019 8:52 AM

Apologies, all. I was busy over the weekend and neglected blog comments.

I have just deleted a whole lot of discussion about the effectiveness of vaccines. Not even remotely related to the topic of this blog.

Ben Smith June 24, 2019 10:27 AM

“We’re experiencing the largest measles outbreak in 25 years thanks to the anti-vaccination movement” “I have just deleted a whole lot of discussion about the effectiveness of vaccines. Not even remotely related to the topic of this blog.”

… welp

Impossibly Stupid June 24, 2019 10:32 AM

Not even remotely related to the topic of this blog.

I would dispute that, especially given that the whole point of your post was to use disease transmission as a non-political proxy to discussions of information security. I would agree that a few people wandered farther off topic into what can only be described as misinformation campaigns (though, again, even that is part of the immediate topic), but I would argue that they were sufficiently balanced by responses that aimed to steer the discussion back to questions of pandemics and general security.

For example, it seems entirely topical to discuss if a quantity/severity of a security breach is sufficient to warrant a particular counter-response. That’s one of the crossover issues I hope you expected to highlight in raising the topic. It doesn’t make sense to me to then cull that discussion.

Ross Snider June 24, 2019 12:16 PM

Bruce, my comment was also deleted. It wasn’t unrelated.

It was about whether your essay’s attempt to associate information campaigns with pandemics was appropriate. It looks a lot like the security theater you usually criticize on the blog.

The connections between these are tenuous because, while there are “information attacks” during health and crisis situations, these are typically not exercised by geopolitical actors (instead, they are exercised by pranksters and criminals of opportunity).

In addition I would charge the essay as being “russophobic”/”McCartyist” in its heavy-handed use of a Russian state-actors as information campaign examples, whereas surely there are better and more varied examples you could pull from. Maybe that was an explicit choice to make the essay appeal more to wider audience?

Anyway, I figure I’ll add the comment again in case it was deleted by accident with the purge of irrelevant vaccine stuff.

AlexS June 24, 2019 1:51 PM

What about the misinformation in published scientific & medical journals? Academia, as it stands today, builds upon the work of others. If you don’t have pages of citations, good luck on getting your article publish. BUT, what if prior work is incorrect? Virtually no one goes back to re-run experiments to see if they were correct.

The initial study showing high cholesterol caused heart disease was very shaky at best. BUT, public policy and generations of people were harmed by the results of this study. Americans are eating the lowest fat diets they’ve ever eaten, but are fatter than ever. Oops.

15+ years ago, I forced a retraction of an article in one of the major medical journals (it was either NEJM or JAMA; I can’t remember these days). The article’s results and explanations were 180 degrees opposite of my own understanding as an undergraduate in microbiology & medicine. I wrote to the PI with my theory on how things worked and he agreed with me…then I pointed him to the article his group published. He actually called me a week later and fessed up that the research was indeed falsified, and the grad students hadn’t even bothered to read the sources they cited. He told me the students would be disciplined harshly (ie: kicked out) and the article was retracted. BUT…how many other articles & research are out there just like this?

Ben Smith June 24, 2019 7:00 PM

I suppose we should believe that Russia’s alleged propaganda helped one servant of big buisness have an advantage over another servant in 2016? If the goverment could not even handle propaganda for its most imporant election, and as Dr. Scheiner said “We won’t be able to tell fact from fiction” we should just blindly trust the government’s science and deny to ourselves this sounds just like religion?

Joe June 25, 2019 3:43 AM

@Ben Smith,

If a few facebook adverts bought by Russia could sway an election, think of how many election the MSM swayed over the decadeds.

Winter June 25, 2019 3:54 AM

“think of how many election the MSM swayed over the decadeds.”

You mean, Newspapers and networks supply information and people act on it? That must be the death of Democracy.

It must be a relieve to you to see that people nowadays avoid the MSM and turn to Facebook, Twitter etc. to get their information.

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