Disinformation is the Enemy, Not My Response to It

Bogus Information is Now the Community Standard but Correcting It is Not

Over a professional academic research science career of almost 35 years I’ve actively opposed the willful dissemination of false information in news, on websites, and in social media. I’ve paid a mighty price for that, personally and professionally. When you call out people on lying to the public, they retaliate, and retaliate hard in bitter, durable ways. Just google me.

Facebook and Twitter are special sewers of false information. While no social media pages or platforms are immune, one Facebook page captured my focus this week. In countering false information the admins told me to change my response, which was admittedly pithy. But this is the problem. My response was direct, colorful and most of all correct. It is now gone, but the disinformation I targeted lives on forever.

Garden of Woo

I used to read the Facebook thread of a local garden group. In general the folks were knowledgeable and fun, and the site was a good place to share my experiences and expertise as a scientist closely working with dozens of different crops in this state. I learned a lot there.

But this week I was schooled by three people that were dead wrong.

The first was about using plants as medicine, implicitly dismissing modern medicine as inferior to plant goo. My retort was funny, yet poignant, rejecting the notion that we should be self medicating with homespun tinctures and extracts from garden crops.

I’m a touchy about this topic because I have an old acquaintance that remained close friends with my sister. She was diagnosed with bladder cancer, and chose to fix it herself by smoking weed and taking “natural medicines” inspired by claims on the internet.

Today she is terminal and in stage four, with maybe weeks to live, and has turned to modern western medicine in a desperate scream to save what wacky tabbacky and an internet-trained, herb-waving shaman never could.

When I mentioned this on the garden page I was met with, “Well I’m a scientist too and…” You know the rest.

The person countering my precautionary words is apparently a self-appointed scientist with no evidence of training or publication in their alleged area of expertise. University of YouTube strikes again.

False Information = Good; Snarky Science = Bad

The other night I read the lament of a local gardener who tried to kill his “lawn” (a.k.a. matt of weeds*) by covering it in plastic. The idea makes sense, as the sun’s heat and lack of water and light could slow them down a bunch.

I suggested that he might try an herbicide, as there are a number of non-selective chemical compounds that could kill the weeds with virtually no risk to him, his family or the immediate environment.

Within minutes the comment arrived from another reader, “All herbicides accumulate to toxic levels in the soil.” That’s a statement that simply is not true.

So here was someone contradicting a scientist that understands the mechanism of action, the environmental and pharmacological fate of just about every herbicide, with nonsense. So I said it was nonsense.

I went on to say that this kind of disinformation is exactly why we have a growing pandemic — the brazen confidence of people to put their Google U training over the tempered knowledge of experts. I noted that it is the same as Trump overriding Dr. Anthony Fauci in issues of public health.

A short time later the admin for the page asked me to remove my comment, citing that it was not civil in tone and inappropriate for the page.

The Disinformation Age

This is the problem. Admins should have requested that the person that posted false information be asked to remove her comment, not the person that factually responded to it. Tone is valued over content. Misinforming people is more toxic than a pointed correction. You are allowed to mislead, perhaps with health-harming implications, as long as you do it kindly.

There is a time when direct, respectful language and analogy are precisely appropriate, and correcting bad information is not “uncivil”. It is what we all need to do, and if it occasionally takes a little vinegar to be persuasive so be it.

I think we have unknowingly segued well into the Disinformation Age. When anything can have gravity because someone feels it is true, read it on a webpage, or just made it up. It is up to all of us to vigorously identify and respond to that false information. That is a valiant cause, as charlatans abound to entice the ignorant, by taking their money, affecting their health decisions, or pushing possibly harmful life choices.

Now we have disinformation experts, non-experts that have profound confidence in their conclusions, and an infrastructure willing to promote and insulate false speech if it is delivered with a smile. Experts are marginalized, then rebuked if they get a little cranky about being marginalized. The Admins are the gatekeepers to the perpetuation of unopposed nonsense.

That said, certainly we can all have some grace and finesse when countering bad information, but the overlords might cop a little slack to those of us that have frustrations with false information that can affect others. Pointy false claims truly deserve equally pointy responses.

The most uncivil discourse is the presentation of false or misleading information from a place of authority. From Facebook to the POTUS, it needs to be called out, sometimes with a rhetorical flourish. Our challenge is to reject false information, remove it from social media visibility, and recognize and support the contributions of the knowledgeable few that dare to correct it.

* And a manicured matt of weeds is a very nice lawn. I commend the commenter for not submitting to the fallacy that we all need high-maintenance grass to steal our weekends.

Land-grant scientist exploring ways to make better food with less input, and how to communicate science. All funding at kevinfolta.com/transparency