CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
The Internet has enabled the anti-vaccination movement to become a global menace, threatening millions of lives. Censorship is a blunt tool. It does nothing to address the larger phenomenon: the crumbling of the epistemic architecture of our society.
Since 2018, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has explicitly included Internet misinformation and disinformation in setting the Doomsday Clock. The Internet is a threat multiplier—it exacerbates every other catastrophic risk.
How so? Consider that we have now reached the point, at least in much of the West, where the supply of life-saving vaccines exceeds demand. Yet we’ve vaccinated nowhere near enough of the public to prevent further outbreaks, suffering, and death. In the US, slightly more than half the public has received both doses of an effective vaccine; in Europe, slightly less than half. Meanwhile, we are seeing a global infection surge, powered by the Delta variant, which appears to be twice as transmissible as the original strain.
Even as the variant spreads and the danger grows, immunization campaigns have slowed in countries fortunate enough to have enough vaccines for everyone. Why? Because of the anti-vaccination movement—a social movement so insane it could not exist in a society with smooth-functioning mechanisms for transferring human knowledge.
The anti-vaccination movement has not yet impeded immunization campaigns in countries that are not so fortunate as Western ones, but only because those countries don’t yet have enough vaccines. As soon as they do, they’ll face the same problem. They will face it because humanity’s new system for transmitting information—instantaneous, algorithm-driven social media—is globally networked. Even in the absence of vaccines, every species of quackery and misinformation about the pandemic has spread, at the speed of light, throughout every country in the world—save North Korea, perhaps—causing grave harm. Our ability to end the pandemic is in jeopardy because of this.
The novel mixture of a pandemic and the internet threatens to give rise to an unprecedented catastrophe: a pandemic we know how to end, but can’t—not because the remedy is too burdensome, like quarantines; not because the remedy is too expensive, involving millions of dollar in healthcare costs; not because we cannot solve the logistical problems involved; and not because the remedy is too dangerous.
We face being unable to end the pandemic because a large minority of the human population has been persuaded, by a remarkably small number of people, to believe vaccines in general, and Covid-19 vaccines in particular, are more dangerous than the pandemic itself—and to believe this even when it contradicts overwhelming evidence. For some people, the fantasy of the dangerous vaccine, and the system of fantasies in which it is embedded, have come to seem more real even than the evidence of their five senses. The number of people in the grip of this fantasy is easily large enough to prevent us from triumphing over the pandemic.
Not only is this fantasy suicidal in its consequences, but it is also homicidal. A society can afford to have a few unvaccinated people here and there. They’re protected by the immunity of the herd. But if, as now seems likely in the United States, for example, 30-40 percent of the public remains unvaccinated, that society will continue to suffer wave after wave of infection until, eventually, it acquires herd immunity the hard way.
It doesn’t end there. With every wave of infection, the virus acquires another chance to mutate and overcome the immunity conferred by vaccination or prior infection. We won’t know this has happened until the immunized start dying in significant numbers. Just as a vastly more infectious variant arose among unvaccinated populations in India and swiftly spread to the United States, any variant that emerges in our unvaccinated population will swiftly spread to the whole world.
The decision to forego vaccination has the potential to be the most murderous mistake any of us could conceivably make. If your body becomes the unlucky laboratory in which that vaccine-resistant mutant performs a natural gain-of-function experiment, your decision could kill as many people as the original coronavirus. This is of course highly unlikely. Most mutations are useless or harmless. But if a large population declines vaccination, it is not unlikely but certain that one of them will become a refuge for a mutating virus that is more infectious, more lethal, or both. Thousands if not millions of wholly unnecessary deaths will result.
The unlucky Indian citizen whose body became host to the Delta variant had no choice in the matter: India did not have enough vaccines. But Americans have more than enough. Those who decline them are indeed morally responsible for any mutants that escape as the result of this breathtaking irresponsibility.
It is a plain truth that the unvaccinated are a danger to themselves, their families, their communities, their countries, and the world. Yet often they describe their decision in the language of libertarianism: “My body, my choice.” This logic should not be persuasive to anyone—the choice they’re making is to become a bioweapon—but modern communication systems favor short, familiar slogans even if on inspection they make no sense.
Those who oppose vaccination tend to oppose them for the same reasons. A common master narrative is woven through the various strains of anti-vaccination sentiment. These reasons are so little grounded in observable reality that had you told someone, twenty years ago, that these would become widely held beliefs, he would have been dumbfounded. The spread of these ideas is only possible in a context of total epistemic breakdown. Societies at large acquire common knowledge through a series of links in a chain of epistemic authority. These links are broken. The Internet is not the sole cause of this, but it is the primary cause.
The anti-vaccination movement is now a global catastrophic risk. It could not have become one without the Internet. The interplay—and the gravity—of these risks are insufficiently appreciated.
THE INTERNET AS THREAT MULTIPLIER
In the span of roughly a decade, human social behavior has been rewired. The novel system of global communication that has emerged is nothing like any system of communication our species has used before. Massive, complex social networks now transfer information instantaneously, over vast distances, at no cost to the speaker. Through social media, algorithmic searches, and click-based advertising, new mechanisms have emerged to assign monetary value to information.
The system was built to sell advertising. It was constructed in complete indifference to the aim of enlarging humanity’s stock of justified, true beliefs. Every feature and function of the system serves one goal alone: keeping users’ eyes on the screen for as long as possible. No mechanism or process has been built into the system to encourage the spread of truth, reasoned arguments, or ideas that are complex and subtle. Nor do they promulgate sound mathematical reasoning or deep literacy. They aren’t meant to.
The system is built to be good at tasks like this: If you’re a trendy, upper middle-class woman in San Diego whose kitchen countertop needs an upgrade, it will show you ads showing you trendy, upper-middle class San Diego ways to remodel your kitchen. (Quartz? Marble? Try this handy virtual room designer.) It’s built to be good at grabbing data from your phone, your device ID, your location, and the discount cards you use when you shop. It’s terrific at matching them with your email address and phone number; cross-referencing your interests with your browsing and purchase history (and those of your friends); and creating a virtual you—she lives on a server in Prineville, Oregon—who knows what you want to buy even before you. You agreed to all of this when you accepted those Terms of Service.
This is the only thing these platforms were built to do.
The first recognizable social media site debuted in 1997. Today, some 3.6 billion people worldwide are connected to social media platforms. Social media has all but wiped out the traditional news media; the legacy platforms remain as empty shells if they remain at all. Social media—not the legacy media, books, nor even face-to-face conversation—is now the primary way we transmit knowledge, maintain relationships, and establish norms, a trend consolidated by the pandemic.
Even in countries with lower rates of social media penetration, the norm-setting elites have access to it. And with the advent of high-quality machine translation, language barriers have dissolved. Everywhere, as soon as people become wealthy enough, they buy smartphones. Immediately, they are in contact with 3.6 billion other people, around the world, to whose views they will be exposed as a function of the degree to which they are apt to make them buy an advertised product.
This is extraordinarily new. But our cognitive faculties and physiology haven’t greatly changed since the long period when humans lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers. Those groups were small—the very upper boundary, probably, was a hundred people—and rarely did members encounter anyone beyond it. Suddenly increasing, by eight orders of magnitude, the size of the group to whose opinions we’re exposed should be expected to cause us cognitive challenges. And indeed, it does.
These platforms were built to keep your eyeballs on the screen for as long as possible. Thus, ideas and images that appeal to the triune brain predominate. Sex, of course. Fear. Anything entertaining and sensational. The habits of thought associated with oral culture bubble to the top; the habits associated with written culture sink.
Primitive arguments will be defeated by true, complex, and difficult ones, because the true, complex, and difficult ones will be more useful to the neighborhood, even if they’re harder to understand. The man who has read and understood all three volumes of Fundamentals of Electrostatic Discharge will sooner or later persuade the guy who thinks lightning never strikes twice that abstruse and difficult though his arguments may be, they are more useful. Or at least, he will persuade the witnesses.
This is not true on the Internet. The small-scale process by which knowledge accrues and the purveyors of knowledge become authoritative is not replicated at scale. If I announce on Twitter that vaccines caused every woman in my village to give birth to a two-headed calf, it would take only a single retweet from a gullible celebrity or president to transmit this information to millions of people, in seconds. None of them live in my village, so none will do what once they would once have done to confirm that I’m a useful source of information: survey the village, count the heads.
This is why ideas that within living memory were the sole purview of the village idiot now flood the Internet, imbued with lunatic vitality, coursing and rushing through our social world from all sides and sources at the speed of light, nourished by algorithms designed to focus human attention on information arousing to the average limbic system. No mechanism serves to sift the justified, true beliefs out of this sea of noise.
Obviously, the Internet is not the first innovation in mass communication, nor the first to be met with alarm. But there are reasons to worry this is a transformation in kind, not function. There is a solid argument for fearing this new system of communication will not improve the marketplace of ideas (as the printing press did), but destroy it.
The invention of the printing press led to centuries of turmoil and bloodshed. But for all the upheaval that ensued, the invention encouraged a highly constructive transformation: oral culture became written culture. Written culture, by its nature, encourages rigor and reflection and diminishes the human instinct to prize emotion over careful reasoning.
What’s more, the spread of information had a cost. It was limited by the speed of the printing press, the price of paper, and the time and effort required physically to convey a printed object from one point to another. This discouraged the impulse to print the first thing that popped into mind. This gave people throughout the information distribution chain more time to see if the information was useful or useless, and if the latter, cease spreading it. (False information is typically useless, apart from its value as entertainment.)
THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS
Now consider the problem of censorship on social media, which is on many people’s minds because of Big Tech’s decision, during the pandemic, to crack down on medical misinformation. It is a decision that rubs many people the wrong way. (Not all of them. Surveys suggest that 65 percent of the public supports deplatforming anti-vax luminaries and peddlers of quack therapies.)
A good percentage of the public, however, finds such censorship antithetical to the principle upon which liberal societies are built: freedom benefits everyone. Censorship, the liberal believes, is a grave evil, and not just because everyone possesses a right, self-evident or not, to speak freely, but because it prevents a society from acquiring knowledge: justified, true beliefs. It is knowledge upon which civilization is built. In his famous essay on liberty, JS Mill made this case in the form of a proof:
- Let x stand for an opinion we might wish to suppress.
- x must be true, false, or partly true.
- If x is true, we should know the truth, however much we resist it, for truth is always good.
- If x is false, its public expression will enable us better to know the truth, for its falsehood will be exposed by vigorous public contestation.
- Therefore, x should not be suppressed.
No one can be secure in the knowledge that x is true, Mill proposes, unless he hears the very best arguments against it. Believing x without knowing why one believes it reduces x to a lifeless doctrine.
This argument has underpinned the liberal commitment to freedom of expression since 1859. But is it relevant to the new world we’ve built? Or has Mill’s argument become a lifeless doctrine?
What these platforms do not do is provide a robust marketplace of ideas where bad arguments are countered by better ones and through this process, society at large becomes more knowledgeable and wise. It is by design that users can—and do—create an entire social universe comprised only of people who echo and reinforce their views, however insane those views may be. So how will good ideas vanquish the bad when the algorithms—having discovered a man’s passionate belief that vaccines cause magnets to stick to his skin—ensure he’s exposed only to people equally persuaded of this?
What if there is no longer such a thing as a public square, where everyone gathers to see and hear the same debate?
ENTER THE QUACKS
Amid a catastrophic pandemic that has killed four million people, ground the global economy to a halt, and caused more deaths on American soil than any catastrophe since the Civil War, at last there is a ray of hope. We have vaccines. We have them sooner than we had dared hope. They are astonishingly effective. They are remarkably safe. Some of us are fortunate enough to live in countries where we have more of them than we need. From now on, people in the wealthy West no longer need to die of Covid-19. Almost every death is preventable.
This is the truth, and the arguments to the contrary are balderdash. They can be dismantled by a bright sixth-grader.
We repose our confidence in freedom of expression because we believe truth shines brighter than a lie. But if this is so, it should be impossible for a small handful of profiteering cranks and quacks to convince truly vast numbers of Americans to reject vaccines. Out of the question.
Yet they have. And this has taken place around the world, often through the influence of the same handful of quacks.
In France, vaccination clinics are closing. In the United States, doses are going unused. Why? Because people have been persuaded to believe things that should not be persuasive to citizens of an advanced industrial democracy.
Bridget Burke, 22, a college student in Michigan, said she was unsettled by rumors that Covid-19 vaccines could affect her reproductive health. …
Ms. Burke said that her family wanted her to get the shot but that she worried about the vaccines affecting women’s reproductive systems, a concern that came up in multiple interviews with young women.
Where are people getting these ideas? From social media. The main vehicle for the spread of these apprehensions is not the legacy media, nor is it even friends or family. A survey of UK residents found that heavy users of social media were three times more likely to believe the true purpose of the vaccination program was to track and control the population. Nearly 40 percent of heavy users of YouTube believed the coronavirus vaccine was developed only to make money for pharmaceutical companies. Four in ten such people said they didn’t know whether the vaccine caused autism.
Clearly, our system for transmitting knowledge—justified, true beliefs—is not just suffering from a minor misadjustment: It is broken.
The prevalence of these views is a consequence of the way the 21st century’s information ecosystem functions. But it’s functioning the way it was designed to function.
THE FACELESS DWEEBS
Panicked by this, the social media giants have taken to simply censoring the quackery. YouTube and Twitter have issued stern policies to stem the tide of pandemic misinformation. The list of content labeled “demonstrably false or misleading” is long, detailed, and explicit; in some cases, it contradicts stern injunctions they issued only weeks or months ago. (You may now, for example, discuss the possibility the virus came from a lab.) YouTube and Twitter, as private entities, are fully within their legal rights to forbid you from saying anything they please on their property; this is not a First Amendment question. But given these platforms have become our de facto public square, are they contravening the spirit of a liberal democracy in doing so?
When they find their accounts suspended, prominent anti-vaccination vuvuzelas inevitably suggest so—Bret Weinstein, for example, preposterously calls himself a “free-speech campaigner”—even if they lack the skill to make the case carefully or well. Inevitably, they attract sympathy, even from people who disagree with them, who are put in mind of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”Yes, yes. It was Evelyn Beatrice Hall. Depriving a man of his access to YouTube strikes many as a violation of his human rights.
This case isn’t wholly stupid. These platforms are now humanity’s primary forum for the exchange of ideas. Of what use is the right to speak freely without access to this forum? And if liberty of expression is, as Mill argued, good for everyone and good for the truth, why should this not be so on YouTube?
The talk-show host Bill Maher spoke for many in expressing outrage that some faceless dweeb in Silicon Valley had taken it upon himself to decide what he should and shouldn’t hear. His objection springs from a natural and instinctive reservoir of liberal sentiment.
But his outrage is misplaced. He should be furious with Big Tech, yes, but not because they’re making a hapless, half-assed, rearguard attempt to separate these quacks from their microphones. He should be furious with them for creating a product that’s incompatible with a flourishing and scientifically advanced liberal democracy in the first place.
NO, WE HAVEN’T SURVIVED
Recently I exchanged emails about this issue with an old friend. He wrote roughly what I assume Bill Maher was thinking:
The principle of free speech includes the idea that contrarians should be able to air their views, indeed the unfettered airing of such views is one reason why we should trust scientific consensus. Our republic has had cranks from before the revolution. We’ve survived.
And that’s true. We’ve survived. He and I. But 618,000 of our fellow citizens haven’t. Should that matter to the way we think about this? Many of them died because contrarians aired their views—particularly the view that Covid-19 is a hoax. Just yesterday, I spoke to a man whose 76-year-old father died, in June, of Covid-19. His was a fully preventable death. He left behind a son whose emotions are as you’d expect. His father believed the anti-vaccine quacks. If social media is capable of persuading people not to be vaccinated against a disease that has caused more deaths on American soil than any catastrophe since the Civil War, how sure are we, really, that we’ll just keep chugging along and surviving?
The promotion online of claims about the danger of Covid-19 vaccines, entwined with conspiracy theories about Big Tech and Big Pharma, is genuinely and immediately dangerous—and no one has the first idea what to do about it. Censoring them is a blunt tool that does nothing to address the larger phenomenon: the crumbling of the epistemic architecture of our society. This has many causes; it isn’t just the Internet. The academy, public health authorities, and a host of other people who should have known better are also to blame. But above all it is this system—one in which the normal methods by which we sort good information from bad have gone haywire.
Mill argued that the public expression of lies had a double benefit: Not only would the lies collapse upon contact with the truth, the public contest would prevent the truth from becoming “a lifeless doctrine.” But we don’t see this, either. It is not hard to explain, in plain language, why these ideas are bad. But social media does not lend itself to doing so. To rebut them requires the use of the written word, and more than 180 characters. It requires willingness to spend time understanding the claim—a certain intellectual nostalgie de la boue—as well as the evidence for and against it.
Arguments against the anti-vaccination movement on social media are, predictably, as dopey as the movement itself. The Establishment Organs—The New York Times, the CDC, the dreary fact-checkers—find it beneath their dignity to engage in the argument at all. Again and again, they intone, “Scientists say the vaccines are safe.”
Why do they do this? For one thing, public health authorities have come to believe that giving any attention to the details of these beliefs, even if only to say that they’re wrong, reinforces them. That’s not silly. A great deal of social science research supports the idea that drawing attention to a false belief tends to reinforce, not correct, that belief.
But the words “experts say” and “scientists say” not only fail to persuade the target audience, they enrage them, and justly so. It is a logical fallacy, of course, but more importantly, it is an appeal to an authority these experts no longer possess—for reasons good and bad.
Thus the first problem with “experts say.” Another is that its use inevitably indicates the speaker does not, in fact, know why the experts say it, leaving them unable to make the case for their position in language that isn’t infantilizing.
Yes, you’ll find the occasional blog post that explains one or another fragment of the case. But rarely will you find qualified authorities who are willing to speak to the lunatics, in a dignified public forum, as if they had faculties of reason. Instead, they dispatch journalists and PR flacks to correct the misinformation. The flacks don’t, themselves, grasp why “scientists and experts” say what they do; they trust them blindly—just as Mill feared. They know anti-vaccination sentiment is a heresy, but they’re damned if they know quite why it’s ludicrous to say, “The spike protein is toxic and it breaks off and goes straight to your ovaries.”
Perhaps the most important reason scientists and experts fail to explain these arguments is that doing so would reduce their status. If they could explain these things simply, in a way anyone might understand, of what value would their expertise be? What of their special and revered status as “scientists and experts?” The notion that basic immunology and elementary statistics are just too difficult for ordinary people, who can’t possibly get their heads around such complex concepts, is immensely flattering to those who believe it.
The Cosmopolitan Globalists hold that anyone of modest intelligence who wishes to do so can sort out the difference between true and false claims about the efficacy of purported wonder drugs and the safety of vaccines. But it takes time, and this kind of thinking is not what the Internet encourages. The information needed to do this properly tends to be in paywalled scholarly journals, whereas garbage on the Internet is free.
Why is the information in the scholarly literature more useful? Because the whole system of scholarly publication, flawed and gamed though it often is, is at least designed with the goal of providing truthful information. Quite often (and often infamously) it falls short of this goal, but at least, that is the goal. Social media was not designed to serve this goal at all.
Perhaps the elite gatekeepers are right: Perhaps these ideas are beyond the intellectual powers of ordinary men and women. But right or wrong, whatever they’re doing—for whatever reason they’re doing it—it’s not working. The anti-vaccination movement is growing, not shrinking. It is a major threat to global health. We’ve already compromised fundamental liberal principles because of it: When 40 percent of the public thinks the vaccines cause autism and the other 60 percent of the public is so sick of this idiocy that they favor just shutting these people up, liberal democracy is under severe threat.
THE LIBERAL CASE FOR CENSORSHIP
The case for forbidding the expression of these ideas on social media platforms is legally irreproachable. Is it morally sound? We can find a justification, actually, in the first chapter of On Liberty:
[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.
Given the immediacy of the risk, and the way the design of social media exacerbates this risk, there are few alternatives to the clumsy system of censorship the social media giants have been trying to impose.
In the long run, however, these companies must change their structure of incentives. They have created a dangerous product that has disorganized the stock of human knowledge.
They won’t change voluntarily, so they must be regulated, severely. The spread of the anti-vaccine movement shows us why.
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
|↑1||Yes, yes. It was Evelyn Beatrice Hall.|
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