When Carl Bergstrom worked on plans to prepare the United States for a hypothetical pandemic, in the early 2000s, he and his colleagues were worried vaccines might not get to those who needed them most. “We thought the problem would be to keep people from putting up barricades and stopping the truck and taking all the vaccines off it, giving them to each other,” he recalls.
When COVID-19 arrived, things played out quite differently. One-quarter of U.S. adults remain unvaccinated against a virus that has killed more than 1 million Americans. “Our ability to convince people that this was a vaccine that was going to save a lot of lives and that everyone needed to take was much, much worse than most of us imagined,” Bergstrom says.
He is convinced this catastrophic failure can be traced to social media networks and their power to spread false information—in this case about vaccines—far and fast. “Bullshit” is Bergstrom’s umbrella term for the falsehoods that propagate online—both misinformation, which is spread inadvertently, and disinformation, designed to spread falsehoods deliberately.
An evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, Bergstrom has studied the evolution of cooperation and communication in animals, influenza pandemics, and the best ways to rank scientific journals. But over the past 5 years, he has become more and more interested in how “bullshit” spreads through our information ecosystem. He started fighting it before COVID-19 emerged—through a popular book, a course he gives at UW’s Center for an Informed Public, and, ironically, a vigorous presence on social media—but the pandemic underscored how persuasive and powerful misinformation is, he says.
“Misinformation has reached crisis proportions,” Bergstrom and his UW colleague Jevin West wrote in a 2021 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “It poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision-making, endangers the well-being of the planet, and threatens public health.” In another PNAS paper, Bergstrom and others issued a call to arms for researchers to study misinformation and learn how to stop it.
Read the full article in Science.