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Choo Choo: All Aboard The Misinformation Train

The Misinformation Train is not a train you want to be on by any means—its passengers are unruly and prone to undesirable temperaments if you attempt to disagree with them on a number of topics. Despite the unpleasant atmosphere on the Misinformation Train, its compartments are jam-packed with people— who are on their way to visit friends to share their false news.

Next stop: rural Oklahoma.

Hang on tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Deep in the rural mountainous region of Choctaw country in Oklahoma, lives a man— lets call him ‘Misinformation Bob’—who lives in a small town of about 400 people and spends a lot of time on the Internet.

Despite growing up in a Democrat household, ‘Misinformation Bob’ is a far-right Republican—a vocal Trump supporter (even after his loss in 2020) with very vocal Trump supporting friends who hold many of the far-right’s ideologies close to their chests like badges of honor.

Since the pandemic began, however, I saw a flicker of change in his ideology— ‘Misinformation Bob’, a college graduate— had fallen prey to vaccine misinformation, causing him to become ‘anti-vax’.

Why is politics pertinent to the story, you ask?

While the anti-vax ideology sees no particular side of the political spectrum— NPR shows that Del Bigtree is proof of that— the article does go on to say that there is an unusual closeness between the far-right and anti-vax ideology. This can be seen in NPR’s data, which correlates vaccination rates with political stance, stating: “Counties that went heavily for Donald Trump have seen much lower vaccination rates and much higher death rates from COVID.”

The question burns in my mind: Why now?

Why is ‘Misinformation Bob’ anti-vax all of the sudden? All those years of flu shots have seemingly disappeared from his long-term memory and left him believing that getting COVID is better than getting the vaccine.

Three reasons for this come to mind:

1. ‘Misinformation Bob’ has found a sense of belonging in his political identity which is precedented by a strong hatred for the left.

According to Brookings, “partisan polarization drives the spread of fake news”, and so does hatred of the opposing party. The article goes on to say, “Political partisanship—and especially self-reported animosity towards the opposing party—strongly predicted fake news sharing.” “This relationship was strongest among Republicans with disdain for Democrats, who were much more willing to share pro-Republican fake news stories.”

Partisan views have everything to do with anti-vax ideology. Largely, in part, due to the politicization of the COVID vaccine.

According to Vox, Shana Gadarian, a political scientist at Syracuse University is quoted saying,“Partisanship is now the strongest and most consistent divider in health behaviors.”

2. ‘Misinformation Bob’ has become susceptible to the echo chamber. Not only does ‘Misinformation Bob’ spend a lot of time on Facebook, but little birdies in the form of friends have been chirping bits of misinformation into his ears. (By chirping, I mean texting and by misinformation, I mean COVID vaccination conspiracy TikToks— I.e. those infamous TikToks trying to claim magnets stick to people after getting the COVID vaccine.)

A poll was reported by Independent in 2019, stating, “One sixth admitted accepting anything a friend shares on social media as fact and impossible to be false because it is from someone they know well.”

Couple this finding with the idea that ‘Misinformation Bob’ has sequestered himself into a tight-knit community of people who agree with him politically— well, its the quintessential definition of an echo chamber.

It’s also likely that Facebook’s algorithms are at play here. The Conversation states, “It is in the search engine companies’ best interest to give you things that you want to read, watch or simply click. Therefore, as a search engine or any recommendation system creates a list of items to present, it calculates the likelihood that you’ll click on the items.”

If ‘Misinformation Bob’ is constantly clicking on partisan news articles with strong views, the search engine will likely show him more as he continues to browse, only furthering his confirmation bias and leading him further down the misinformation rabbit hole.

Now ‘Misinformation Bob’ not only has multiple news articles filled with misinformation to back up his ideology, but he also has his friends—who he trusts—to share similar false information with him to confirm his biases even more.

As Claire Wardle states, “its the sharing that is so damaging.”

These circumstances have created an environment for ‘Misinformation Bob’ to be swept up into a typhoon of false information.

3. ‘Misinformation Bob’ has looked to trusted officials and leaders within his political party for information—these individuals have also spread vaccine misinformation.

According to Vox, “Some Republicans, such as Sens. Rand Paul (KY) and Ron Johnson (WI), have also continued to cast doubt on the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness.”

As shown on the right, the congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has been permanently suspended from Twitter for spreading misinformation.

The New York Times published findings from a study at Cornell University that concluded former President Trump was the “single largest driver of coronavirus misinformation.”

For loyal followers of Trump, his words may as well be as good as fact despite evidence to the contrary.

*It is important to note that both sides of the political spectrum have spread misinformation.

How I’ve Been Impacted

Confirmation bias is a difficult shield to penetrate through. Often times, I feel like I’m encircled by a tornado of debris and trash in the form of people I know spouting out misinformation.

I’ve heard it all, really—misinformation about Dr. Fauci (who has become exasperated toward public officials like Rand Paul for purporting false information about him)—to misinformation about how to treat COVID-19 naturally (by way of drinking alcohol, which has proven to be false by the CDC)—to the claim that the vaccine causes infertility (which has also been proven false)—to even the ridiculous claim that babies can’t get COVID-19.

Yes, I’ve heard all of these and more.

When I try to retort or confront those claims, their ears become impenetrable to reason.

As Forbes quotes, “When an idea takes hold, it’s hard to dislodge. When new evidence comes in, we still cling to the old belief.” 

Because of this, sometimes I just keep quiet, and let the bits of false information pass me by like a hot air balloon in the sky.

*all images were created with Canva and are free to use

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