Someone told me the other day that Bill Gates was trying to kill me.
I was surprised to learn this. I’ve never met Bill Gates and, while he could have my address somewhere in his trove of Microsoft data, surely he has bigger fish to fry?
But, apparently a number of conspiracy theories have been circulating that uncover the “truth” about old mate Bill and his plan to “depopulate the world” with a COVID-19 vaccine.
I’ve thought a lot about this (it is my first – albeit indirect – death threat after all) and decided there’s something far more dangerous at play here than Bill Gates. It is misinformation.
An age of misinformation
The current environment, characterised by heightened fear and uncertainty, is a misinformation petri dish. As is common when profound global events unfold, fake news and conspiracy theories are #trending.
We can access information more easily than ever, but “truth” has never been harder to discern.
Theories about Bill Gates have created doubt around COVID-19 vaccine development. False narratives about 5G as the cause of coronavirus has triggered a revolt against the technology. False claims around vaccines generally or injecting disinfectant to treat coronavirus, encourage people disregard medical advice and frankly put lives at risk.
Even some claims about goods and services – the benefits of teas, supplements, you name it – have no hard evidence to back them. They are paid advertisements.
Claims like these are typically taken out of context and fashioned into catchy, provocative headlines. So much so, it makes for super sharable social media content or striking conversation with friend, family and colleagues.
Most of these theories originate from and spread via social media. By playing on our fears, provocative claims mobilise the media and masses to share, and share, and share.
Within minutes, bad information can spread to thousands or even millions of people. It is virtually impossible to retract – it likely won’t get the needed pickup and the damage has already been done.
Don’t get me wrong, I know this is often done with good intent – to warn, advise, enlighten and help protect others. The caution I received about Bill Gates certainly had this motive.
However, there is a very real risk of doing more harm than good should your information turn out to be inaccurate. In the case of health advice around coronavirus, for example, it could even be the difference between life and death.
Think before you share
We all have an important role to play in stifling the spread of false claims and bad information. By applying a level of critical thinking before sharing anything, we start to police and minimise the proliferation of dangerous misinformation. It is important to always:
- Ask where has a claim has come from – it’s very easy to exaggerate or falsify credentials
- Consider how you might fact check or research a claim
- Be conscious of how it makes you feel and what it incites you to do
- Question your own biases
- Don’t just read stuff that confirms what you already believe
- Be mindful with your trust – don’t misplace it by blindly believing the opinions celebrities or people on the internet
- Point out information that doesn’t stand up and deserves scrutiny
- Focus on real, known issues (i.e. COVID-19, climate change, poverty) not what if’s
The role of PR and communications
At its very core, the work we do in public relations and communications is all about sharing information. Yes, we are storytellers but PR consultants have an important role to play in ensuring that the information and messages we share are fair, accurate and evidence-based.
At Palin Communications, many of our healthcare clients operate under strict regulations that guide not only the claims they can make, but sometimes when and how they can make them.
Not making unproven claims, engaging impartial experts, being mindful of how you work with influencers and ensuring messaging is based on objective evidence are just some of the ways our industry can foster fact over fiction.
Thinking critically and scrutinising information before we share it is a responsibility – and one that belong to each and every one of us.