MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:
Hey, everybody. It's Manoush here. A quick note before we get started - the TED Radio Hour team is now working from home. Maybe you are, too, because lots of things in our world are changing, for all of us. But we want you to know that we are working extra hard to keep bringing you great stories and big ideas each week. Some episodes we hope will provide a welcome distraction from the coronavirus and everything going on; others like this one will provide context to our new reality, which, for a lot of us, includes spending a lot of time online. Just so you know, the show may sound a little different in the weeks to come since we're producing it remotely. But our goal is to keep bringing you context, kindness and stories that help you understand this weird world better. So be well, and enjoy the show.
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ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and I think I'm a pretty good citizen. I am law abiding. I stop at red lights. I pay my taxes. I try to be nice to my neighbors. You probably do, too. But what rules do we follow when we go online? Well, none. There are no rules, but maybe there should be because what happens on the Internet can have real life repercussions.
CLAIRE WARDLE: So this particular example happened towards the end of April 2019.
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ZOMORODI: That's Claire Wardle. She studies how information spreads online and how tech platforms filter facts from misinformation. She's been researching a recent case related to the polio vaccine in Pakistan.
WARDLE: A series of videos emerged in Pakistan, which basically questioned the safety of the polio vaccine.
ZOMORODI: One of the videos claimed that kids were dying after getting the vaccine. Another claim - that the vaccine was making us sick.
WARDLE: I mean, if you watch the video, it is absolutely clear that it's a fabricated video.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
ZOMORODI: It shows a man talking to the camera, and then the camera pans and you see a row of kids laying down one by one on a hospital bed, supposedly after getting the polio vaccine.
WARDLE: You see this guy basically saying to these kids on a bed, shh, lie down.
ZOMORODI: So clearly, like, coaching them to act a specific way.
WARDLE: Exactly. But in an era of social media where we just look at the headlines and we don't watch the clip, just seeing the imagery of the children lying on the bed with a caption that was, like, kids affected by polio vaccine, that was enough.
ZOMORODI: So the video started spreading.
WARDLE: And, you know, these videos of kind of children fainting in a hospital, they were being shared on Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp. And then, unfortunately, we saw mainstream media repeat what had happened.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: (Non-English language spoken).
WARDLE: And even though some of them said, well, there are reports that we're looking into, it just gave more flames, more oxygen to these rumors. And in three days, we had a terrible situation where thousands of family members were taking their kids to hospitals. The hospitals were overwhelmed. There was a protest and a health clinic was set fire. Three people lost their lives. And as a result, Pakistan had to stop and suspend its polio eradication program. And this all happened in a space of three days.
ZOMORODI: Just three days from when the videos first got posted to complete panic. But it's not like that panic came out of the blue. The images played into very real fears that were already out there.
WARDLE: Yeah. So some of the most effective disinformation is that which has a kernel of truth. We have to acknowledge that there were concerns in Pakistan, and has been for a long time, around vaccinations. So you also had this sense of, well, maybe there is something to it. And actually, the CIA went into Pakistan before 2011 pretending to be vaccination offices trying to get DNA from bin Laden's family.
ZOMORODI: Oh, yeah, that's right.
WARDLE: Yeah. So that had created a context where there was concern about the West coming in and vaccinating children. So when you take a case study like this, there are so many elements. But it was kind of like a tinderbox. And then somebody threw the match in, and the fire took off and then oxygen was given by news organizations and by others saying there's something to this.
ZOMORODI: Whether it's vaccinations in Pakistan or here in the U.S., rumors that the coronavirus is a hoax or worries about tampering in elections - misinformation is everywhere.
WARDLE: We are just living in a polluted information environment. The problem is is that we as the general public, we're kind of being weaponized because if we didn't share this stuff, we'd be OK.
ZOMORODI: And there might be people who are like, well, who cares? People can talk all they want, sticks and stones, but that's not really true, is it?
WARDLE: Yeah. So I think one thing that's missing in this conversation is a discussion about harm. Back in the day in our little villages, we were gossiping about each other. That's how humans interact. But back in our villages, it would hit the boundary of the village, and it would stop. Maybe somebody would get on a horse and gallop to the other village, but now, all of that is just on a level that we never could foresee, which is it happens at a speed of light.
ZOMORODI: Right. And if people actually had the time to do the research and double check, maybe they wouldn't fall for all this false information. But it feels like things spark so much faster than they ever used to, and we just feel overloaded.
WARDLE: So because we're overloaded, as you said, we rely increasingly on heuristics, which are mental shortcuts which help us make sense of credibility. So all these shortcuts, whether it's names or logos, takes us as humans a long way towards believing something, even though if we slow down, we did all the checks. Ninety percent of the rubbish online we could fact-check - anybody on the street could do in, you know, two minutes. The problem is we're not checking.
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WARDLE: We could have this conversation almost any week of this year, and misinformation would be impacting people's health, what they're eating, what they think about climate. On some level, you want to say, oh, it's frivolous, is it - you know, misinformation, whatever, it's always been around. But when you actually study this and you look at this every single day, it is - the magnitude is significant.
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