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  • Pauline Hoffmann

The Power of Influencers....Capitalizing on Tragedy

Lately I've been reading about famous people - we may call them influencers - who are being used by disinformation "professionals" to disseminate false and dangerous information. Two examples come to mind.

Damar Hamlin

You may recall that Damar Hamlin is the Buffalo Bills safety who suffered a cardiac incident live on a Monday night football game on January 2. Luckily, as of this writing, Mr. Hamlin is recovering well in a Buffalo hospital. It is still unclear what caused the cardiac arrest but one thing medical professionals seem to agree on is that it is not a result of the Covid (or any) vaccine.

Grant Wahl

Grant Wahl is the CBS sports journalist who was covering the World Cup in Qatar when he suffered a ruptured aortic aneurysm. His widow, Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist, has written that she knew his death could be used as disinformation fodder so she had an autopsy performed by top pathologists and forensic scientists. (If you have not read her excellent editorial in the New York Times, please do.)

In both cases, in the absence of immediate answers, there was a rush to judgment. And the poison-penned were the first on the scene.

It is no surprise to those of us who study conspiracies and misinformation that high profile people would be used to push a false and dangerous agenda. That doesn't make it any less disturbing or dangerous. Dr. Gounder details in her editorial the tactics used by those creating and sharing disinformation. It's a common playbook and one I've discussed here.

It's easy to blame these incidents on something like the Covid vaccine. Detractors could (and will) say that "we don't really know so it's obviously the vaccine. They have that in common!" Um, I guess, but there are many other things in common. They are both men. Perhaps it's because they are men that they suffered like this. They are both involved in football (one American and one everyplace else). I think football might be the problem. I saw them both in pictures wearing t-shirts. Everyone buy sweaters!

I say these things half in jest. We nerds call this spurious correlations. We want to say that A and B happened and because A happened first it must have caused B. That could be the case but let's take a closer look at what we are trying to explain. Do the variables make sense together? Both of these gentlemen received the vaccine (A) before their medical crises (B). Therefore A is the cause of B. Both of these men wore t-shirts (A) before their medical crises (B). Therefore, A is the cause of B.

(If you want to see spurious correlations in actions, please visit this website and have some fun. As an aside, I often have my students look at this site as an example of what not to do. They don't all always get that and some of them honestly try to explain the "correlations." For example, the more people who consume cheese, the more people die by getting tangled in their bedsheets. I had a student once explain that as, "well, if you eat too much cheese you become lethargic and aren't as able to untangle yourself from your sheets." No. Spurious at best.)

Of course sometimes A does cause B. We have to be very careful about making those assumptions or connecting those dots. That's where science and the scientific method come in. Let's look at Mr. Hamlin. As of this writing, we do not know what caused his cardiac arrest. There are many very plausible and scientifically-backed explanations that are being explored. Does he have an underlying condition that predisposes him? Did he get hit in the chest in the one-in-a-million way that would cause this?

Could it be the Covid vaccine? That would be difficult to prove. What is known is that the vaccine has been tested and administered to millions of people. There are side effects but the side effects reported are not cardiac arrest and aortic aneurysm. Generally speaking, side effects associated with the vaccine would be noticed sooner than months later and would affect more than one or two people.

More importantly, let's think about the efficacy of vaccines. Vaccines save lives. While it is still possible to contract Covid even if vaccinated, your chances of becoming critically ill and/or hospitalized are greatly decreased. That's true of most vaccines. Historically, vaccines have prevented us from getting many deadly diseases like smallpox, measles, and flu.

Let me transition to a discussion of using "influencers" to push your agenda. Last week I noted that one Tweet from an influential person can spread to millions of people in seconds (remember Justin Trudeau?). Think about the number of people who were following the story of both Mr. Wahl and Mr. Hamlin. Millions of people. Both stories were so incredible. If these young, fit men suffered as they did, what hope do I, 50s and fat, have? Coming from Buffalo, particularly, with the year we've had (Tops shooting, holiday blizzard, then this.....), the story elevated our profile and became even more newsworthy.

Enter disinformation "professionals." I've mentioned that from a public relations point of view, if you remove the lies and evil intent, these folks are doing all the right things. Take a trending story and capitalize on it. That sounds awfully crass. Think about it this way. While there were many stories that contained misinformation, there were also many stories that were helpful. Medical professionals in each case came forward to help explain what's going on, provide insights, and in some cases, tips to prevent the same fate befalling you. That's taking a horrible situation and finding the good (of course the educator writing this will say that education is good).

Also, take a look at what disinformationists are doing. (I just made that word up because I don't want to keep writing disinformation "professionals." Let's get that in the OED.) They see a chance to push their agendas. To be fair, many of them believe their opinions are true and factual. Those are misinformationists. (Again! I can't stop inventing things!)

The bottom line, be careful of spurious claims. Take a look at what science has to say from actual scientists.

You might argue that I am a communication professional who has worked in health care for ages but who isn't a medical doctor. Correct. You might also argue that I have no business commenting on medical issues. Wrong. Where did I get my information? Some of my sources are below. I also regularly speak with experts in the field. Remember that one of my skills is taking medical and scientific information and distilling it for people. That is my "authority." Additionally, I am connected with a global network of professionals who have started the Society for Infodemic Management. We are just getting set up. I will provide more information as I have it. Remember, care before you share.

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