Social media conspiracies can be actively dangerous

The growth of social media in the United States has brought about a number of alarming phenomena, including the tendency for false information to propagate rapidly through networks like Facebook, but one huge issue is the rise in conspiracy theories. Some are kind of ridiculous, laughable, and harmless, but others are actively dangerous, and it’s something that we need to figure out how to address. Facebook added a ‘satire’ tag after people struggled to spot fake content, and maybe we need a similar ‘conspiracy theory’ tag, or a better algorithm for trending topics so that people aren’t tricked into accepting erroneous and outright harmful content.

Facebook, Twitter, and other sites all use some variation of a trending topic bar, menu, or cloud so that users can see what each other are talking about. Ostensibly, it provides a way to tap into the zeitgeist, and at any given time it might revolve around breaking news, ongoing events, or any number of other things. Sometimes things end up on there for completely puzzling reasons — ‘man picks tomato’ or some such. Other things, though, are conspiracy theories that somehow end up trending.

I noticed a fantastic example at a crux moment during the Zika epidemic when researchers were beginning to concretely link infection during pregnancy with an increased risk of having a baby with microcephaly. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something popped up on the trending topics: Microcephaly, viewers were informed by the ostensibly completely unbiased algorithm, was caused by exposure to a pesticide during pregnancy. This might have been something with some merit, given that people were still trying to figure out what was going on, but there was a red flag: The headline claimed that the pesticide was manufactured by Monsanto.

During the height of an epidemic, information swirls frantically as epidemiologists try to determine what is happening, why, and how to bring it in check. Researchers explore all possible avenues, and given that exposure to agricultural chemicals has been linked with genetic anomalies in the past, it’s not unreasonable to explore the possibility that a pesticide could be linked with the increase in microcephalic births. Of course, epidemiologists would have to determine why the problem had suddenly blossomed: A new chemical? A different formulation? Changes in application? I wouldn’t believe a claim that a pesticide was responsible out of hand without seeing evidence, but I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that it would be a hypothesis worth investigating.

However, ‘Monsanto’ was a keyword for me, because Monsanto is one of the most aggressively hated chemical companies in the world, and it’s also one that happens to be surrounded by a slew of conspiracy theories. There are a lot of valid reasons to hate Monsanto: For example, its strangehold on the seed market is a huge problem, as is its exploitation of farmers in other contexts. But the company is also inexplicably constantly targeted by conspiracy theorists on the left who appear convinced that it lies at the root of all evil, which is something I do not agree with. There are a lot of evil corporations in the US and a lot of them engage in really harmful social practices and we should be talking about all of them. Monsanto may be a bad actor, but it’s not the worst actor.

Something about Monsanto tends to feed aggressive conspiracy theories and they all fall out along similar lines: Monsanto is doing something terrible (poisoning the Earth, violating a law somewhere, etc), and the crusaders of truth are out to expose the company for what it really is. These conspiracy theories also tend to share the common theme of coming from a single source, or tracing back to a single source, which is something that should always be a red flag, especially when the source is not one that is reputable, and is not one that can cite concrete evidence. If someone says ‘Monsanto is doing a thing that is bad’ and proceeds to link to a number of unbiased studies, statements from officials, and other materials, I’m inclined to take it more seriously. If the source is a conspiracy theory site making wild allegations, I dismiss it.

So conspiracy theories are irritating, but in this case, there was a particular note of danger. Microcephaly cases had been tentatively linked with Zika infection in pregnancy, making it critical for pregnant people to avoid infection, if possible, with the use of tools like insect nets and repellant, thereby keeping carrier mosquitos away. Misleading people into thinking that a pesticide is the problem had the twofold effect of entrenching confusing messages about pesticides (which are not in fact necessarily evil — unless you hate things like marigolds, walnuts, and numerous other natural sources of pesticides) but also of making people think that they shouldn’t avoid Zika infection because it wasn’t a big deal.

In the vast majority of patients, Zika is in fact not a big deal. Many don’t even demonstrate symptoms. In a handful of cases, the infection has been linked with neurological problems, though not definitively. But when it comes to pregnancy, I’m a big fan of precautions now, proof later, because you don’t mess around with foetal development. There’s too much complicated stuff going on in there and it’s too easily disrupted. If you even suspect that something is linked with problems, you protect pregnant patients from exposure ASAP by any means possible until you’ve sorted it out, period. In this case, you do extensive survey research to confirm whether there’s a link with Zika. Until it’s decided, you try to prevent Zika infection in pregnant patients.

Conspiracy theories like this one are incredibly dangerous. Pregnant patients should probably avoid a wide range of agricultural chemicals because they can potentially cause foetal anomalies (and in fact people in general regardless of pregnancy status should be protected from agricultural chemicals), but pinning the blame on a pesticide means that they might relax their guard around mosquitos. Fortunately many people can see through conspiracy theories, but not everyone can, and many pregnant people are understandably very concerned about staying healthy through their pregnancies and protecting their developing foetuses so they tend to view information pretty critically. Being distracted from a very real potential cause of a serious developmental impairment is not acceptable, and social media platforms need to take more responsibility when it comes to issues like this, developing tweaks to their algorithms that will discourage conspiracy theories from trending — for example, certain sources could be blacklisted so they won’t be promoted for everyone who logs on to see, and they could be clearly tagged, though people who believe conspiracy theories generally view tags and debunking as confirmation, rather than disproof.

Image: Facebook, Patrick Haney, Flickr