The Stitch ›  Trust, Truth and Tweets: Misinformation In The Digital Age

Trust, Truth and Tweets: Misinformation In The Digital Age

It has been a busy month here at Common Thread and we’re happy to welcome our newest member of Common Thread, Vanessa, and to welcome Tom back after a couple of months of sailing around the world. And speaking of things in perpetual circumnavigation…“A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” This saying is now more than 300 years old. Rumours, misinformation, lies have been outrunning fact for literally hundreds, probably thousands of years.

This month we look at how truth fights to catch up with fiction in the digital age and how social media and closed messaging apps are forcing the public health community to reconsider its traditional response.

The rumour mill today can be more pernicious and difficult to quash, because we tend to believe information from friends and family. And often the most persistent rumours are not completely false. They bind to people’s fear and hopes with a string of truth.

Distrust in scientific expertise increases the likelihood for deadly epidemics, say Peter Piot and Heidi Larson. “Digital wildfires” have already disrupted vaccination and other public health campaigns, setting the world of public health back decades in some cases. Last summer, measles made a deadly recurrence in Europe after being nearly wiped out from the Continent. It is threatening an encore this year.

Does all of this make us more vulnerable to Disease X: an unknown outbreak that will likely be fought in local places and digital spaces? We think more can be done to be prepared. If you’re attending next month’s SBCC Summit in Bali, you can hear us talk more about what’s needed from behavioural scientists to prepare for this mysterious pandemic. Come see us Monday April 16 at 11AM or get in touch directly, we’d love to set aside some time to chat during the week.

Mike and Sherine

“We are transitioning from a society that experienced truth based on facts to a society based on its experience of truth in intimacy, in emotion, in closeness…”

— Igor Sacramento, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz)

Spotlight on Digital Misinformation

Lies Spread Faster than Truth…
Researchers at MIT’s Media Lab looked at 126,000 rumours spread on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. The bad news? Lies spread faster than truth and reach more people. The good news? Present your facts with emotion and novelty and they may spread at the same rate.

… and it’s (partly) your fault
Slate digs into the MIT research highlighting the constant struggle against our human nature. Who doesn’t love the thrill of being the first to break news to 500 of your closest friends? Combine this with the nature of Twitter: it’s explicitly built to share information rapidly, and does little to incentivize people to verify the truth of what they’re sharing. In fact, you’re more likely to be rewarded with piles of retweets for spreading lies than you are for spreading truths.. (On that note, you might want to  follow us on Twitter…Too soon?)

The authors explain more in the New York Times.

When WhatsApp’s Fake News Threatens Public Health
In Brazil, the only thing spreading faster than Yellow Fever is misinformation: “when people share these videos or news stories within their social networks as personal messages, it changes the calculus of trust. ‘We are transitioning from a society that experienced truth based on facts to a society based on its experience of truth in intimacy, in emotion, in closeness.’”

We’re in the midst of a  WhatsApp propaganda age, where end-to-end encryption can make tracking down or fact-checking the original sources next to impossible. And beyond Yellow Fever in Brazil, misinformation has impacted work against Polio in Pakistan, measles in India, and even created rumours of a salmonella outbreak in Malaysia. It’s not all bad though, in Zambia. Since 60% of health facilities are run by a single nurse, WhatsApp allows them to connect with others to quickly resolve doubts, even during clinical emergencies. A similar model is also being used in Kenya.

The Stories We Can’t Stop Thinking About

Devices designed for dopamaine
Does your smartphone: keep you up at night? Get in the way of your productivity? Interfere with your social life? And, do your family, friends and colleagues resent you for it? These are symptoms of what some researchers call a behavioural addiction to your device, likened to gambling. Needless to say, a little detox might do you good. Don’t worry, though, this one’s really not your fault, phones are actually designed to do this.

Finally Microsoft won’t crash!
How do you explain word processing to teenaged students with no access to a computer? Ghanaian teacher Richard Appiah Akoto took it on, and a photo of his incredibly detailed blackboard drawings of the MS Word interface went viral. If only the world had more civil servants like him. While 14 and 15 year old students in his rural village lack access to a single computer at their school, they are expected to pass a National exam demonstrating their knowledge of this programme. In response, Microsoft offered to send a computer. Thanks, but “the school needs 50,” Akoto replied.

The Research We’re Curious About

More women work in public health, but men still control it
On International Women’s Day, Global Health 50/50 launched its inaugural report, exploring the gender-related policies of more than 140 major organizations. The report underscores that decision-making power remains in the hands of men: 69% of organisation heads and 80% of board chairs are men, even though women make up the vast majority of global health practitioners. The top organizational performers? BRAC; GIZ; GAVI and others. You’ll have to read the article to see how your organization fares.

I like you, I just don’t want to see you again
We’re always on the look-out for work where organizations acknowledge and learn from well-intentioned mistakes. The results of this study of an interactive text-messaging service on patient retention during the first year of HIV care in Kenya show that while the WelTel weekly text-messaging service was well-liked by participants, it did not improve retention of people in early HIV care and that new ways to increase patient retention are required.

The Lessons that are Sticking With Us

Nudging organs out of the Dutch
In most countries of the world you must register, or opt in, to be an organ donor. However, a few countries, like Spain, Belgium and now the Netherlands are flipping this paradigm by reversing the default. They’ve borrowed a proven trick from behavioral science known as choice architecture. This default bias means that people are asked to opt-out, rather than opt-in. The approach has already saved lives in countries where it has been adopted. The critical ingredient is choice: individuals always have the option to opt out of the program at any time.

In praise of the scatter plot
Okay, data geeks, here it is: an ode to “data visualization’s greatest invention.” Nerd out with us here.

What’s Distracting Us From Work

Animating an Afghan adventure
Oscar-nominated animated feature film, The Breadwinner tells the story of Pravana, an 11-year old Afghan girl living under Taliban rule. After her father is wrongfully arrested, Pravana boldly stands up for her family to get her father out of prison. She cuts her hair and dresses like a boy drawing strength from her vivid imagination. Watch it on Netflix, Amazon or iTunes.  

Unplug! (but first, plug)
Disconnect is the first digital magazine that forces you to disconnect from wifi to read it: The Disconnect is an offline-only, digital magazine of commentary, fiction, and poetry. Each issue forces you to disconnect from the internet, giving you a break from constant distractions and relentless advertisements. Ironically, you can pay for it with paypal, follow its stories on Twitter, and register for it on their website:  But beyond that, it’s totally off-line. We swear.

This Newsletter was Produced While

Mike dug into the amazing work of Red Cross volunteers and the day the Stones met Muddy Waters.

Sherine began to explore the fascinating, tragic past and present of Tajikistan, while digging herself out of spring-inspired orange snow.

Tom readjusted to the realities of working for a living.