Gary Horvath is a USPTA master pro, founder and past president of the USA Professional Platform Tennis Association prior to its merger with USPTA, a certified coach with USA Volleyball and a long-standing member of the Wilson Advisory Staff. His experience as a pro has covered the spectrum from grassroots to college tennis. In addition, Gary Horvath has conducted extensive business/economic research that has largely supported Colorado's economic development efforts.
by Gary Horvath
The following words and phrases - fake news, facts, lies, social media, follow the science, and disinformation are part of the toxic Infodemic that is dividing our society. The crescendo of the Infodemic has been building for years. Yet, it has quietly become incorporated into our politics, social norms, economics, and other aspects of our lives. This short article provides information about the Infodemic and resources and ways to slow its toxic cycle.
On May 11, 2003, Washington Post columnist David Rothkopf created the word “infodemic,” a combination of the word information and epidemic. He used the new word to describe the country’s reaction to the SARS virus, terrorism, and events as mundane as shark sightings.
The online version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary credits Rothkopf with the following explanation of the Infodemic. “A few facts, mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economies, politics and even security in ways that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities.” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/words-were-watching-infodemic-meaning).
Facebook, Twitter, and Google are the more prevalent online social media and social networking tools. Consumers use their services at no charge. In exchange, the companies cumulate user data and online search preferences with similar users to market goods, services, and information to the benefit and detriment of society. Because the digital data industry is young, social media companies have been able to develop lucrative business models in an industry with very few regulations.
In 2018, the MIT Sloan School of Management issued a press release featuring the research of Sinan Aral, a recognized data scientist and expert on fake news. It stated that:
It takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does to reach them with falsehoods.
The time for a rumor Twitter cascade to reach a depth of 10 took about 20 times longer for tweets that were true than those with false news.
False news stories are 70% more likely to be retweeted than true stories are.
Aral has published multiple papers and videos about data science and fake news. In 2020, he released the book, The Hype Machine, that describes how social media has disrupted our society. The book also provides thoughts about how to address the Infodemic. Aral received favorable ratings for his research, videos, and written material. They serve as excellent resources for learning more about data science.
Also, in 2020, the docudrama Social Dilemma premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released on Netflix in September. The film also addresses some of the same issues and concerns raised by Aral. It touches on the positive aspects of social media as well as the downside of data mining and artificial intelligence and the ill effects that using technology has on individuals and society. Viewers generally gave the film favorable ratings. It is instructive to view the movie and read the pushback from social media companies.
The infographic about the Internet Minute shows the level of activity on the Internet and makes it clear why the Infodemic is out of control. For example, every minute, 1.3 million people are logging on to Facebook while 194,444 people were tweeting.
This infographic by Lori Lewis (click here) illustrates the amount of digital activity occurring on the Internet at any given moment.
Data – True or False
People use data, tables, charts, word clouds, and infographics to tell stories. For example, many years ago, there was a catchy television advertisement that encouraged drivers to wear seatbelts on all trips because most accidents occurred within 25 miles from home. This message effectively tugged at heartstrings.
It turns out, the claim of the advertisers was accurate but meaningless. Since most of the travel is within 25 miles of home, it stands to reason that is where most of the accidents would be.
To increase awareness of intentional and unintentional skullduggery in the use of data, Darrell Huff wrote the classic, How to Lie with Statistics. It is a 142-page primer that discusses the use of data to describe either side of a story in tables, charts, and graphs.
In 2016, Todd Rose penned The End of Average. The mean is a measure of central tendency used to describe groups; however, there are very few average people in most groups. This use of averages in business and education fails to recognize the unique talents of workers and students.
Without a doubt, the best book on the topic of data analysis, A Field Guide to Lies was written in 2016 by Daniel Levitin. It is a modern version of Huff’s book, with greater detail. It also includes discussions about expert opinion, science, Bayesian thinking, and the use of logical fallacies to create arguments.
These three books are from a long list of resources about data collection and analysis. The authors’ discussions about how to use and misuse data and information are easy to understand and put into practice. Understanding data is an essential part of understanding the Infodemic.
Confronting the Infodemic
There have been outcries for Congress to impose stricter regulation on social media as a way of reducing the toxicity of the Infodemic. While that is in the works, the following suggestions can address issues related to data, information, and social media.
Consider the source – When you hear or read something that is “on the edge” pause before reacting or sharing it with others. Does it sound realistic? Is the source credible and unbiased? How timely is the information? Have you searched to see if others are talking about this topic? If so, what do they say? Have you used a fact-checker? (A word of caution, fact-checkers may be biased or may produce conflicting results.) What was the context of the information? For example, was a person quoted out of context?
Social Media Silos- The data mining, filtering, and censorship processes used by social media companies have the potential to shape opinions. Depending on your perspective, these processes are either beneficial or detrimental to society.
Users should become knowledgeable about how social media works. They should also ignore the recommendations, feeds, and clickbait sent by social media companies that keep users hooked to their services. Finally, users should broaden their horizons beyond the silos created by social media. For example, users may solicit news from foreign, domestic, liberal, and conservative sources instead of using a single source.
Definitions– Political parties are masters at changing or blurring definitions to meet their political agenda. For instance, there are distinct differences between legal and illegal immigration. Discussions about immigration policy have historically been contentious because the line between the two groups has been blurred or ignored for political gain. The first step in having a meaningful discussion about any topic is to establish a “common” set of definitions. Be on the lookout for blurred definitions!
Science – What is the role of science in the decision-making process? Over time, science has provided conclusive and inconclusive results. For example, there is a consensus among scientists that climate change occurred for thousands of years. At the same time, there is not a consensus among scientists that global warming is caused by human activity.
There are times when scientific research produces multiple responses to a question. Other times research does not provide an answer. And there are times when science changes. For example, bloodletting with leeches is no longer a form of medical treatment. Thank goodness!
The merits of science are weighed against economic, political, financial, social, and other issues in the decision-making process. In other words, science does not provide the answer, but it is a critical input in finding a solution.
The Half-Truth – Half-truths only tell part of the story, but they are 100% accurate. They are often necessary for captions, sound bites, titles, or clickbait because they save time or space. They are accurate, but they can be misleading.
For example, a positive interpretation of October unemployment data might state that the unemployment rate plummeted from 7.9% to 6.9% in October. On the other hand, a more pessimistic version might say that 11.1 million persons were unemployed, and the rate was 6.9%, well above 5.8%, the rate a year ago. Both statements are correct, but they tell a different story.
There are two options for dealing with half-truths. First, it is possible to check out information from the primary source (data, press release, etc.). A second approach is to read or listen to what others have to say about the topic.
Polls –Political candidates and policymakers use polls to help make strategic decisions about pertinent issues.
The credibility of polls has been in question since the 1948 election. As a result, it is appropriate to raise questions about them. The concerns about pollsters in the 2016 and 2020 campaign were more egregious.
Are the pollsters credible? What is the methodology? How is the poll biased? Were the pollsters able to get a representative sample? Do the results make sense? How are the results going to be used? Are the poll results going to be used for ethical purposes?
Models – Models are mathematical systems that use a set of assumptions to create a forecast or derive the impact of an activity. For example, a model may forecast the number of C-19 cases or project the fiscal impact of the oil and gas industry.
Models can be vastly different, but their credibility is determined by the strength of the basic assumptions and data used as input. That includes the methodology, time frame, and geographic area of the study. Also, a statement should mention the level of uncertainty in the project. A review of the literature should present results of similar projects. The report should identify the purpose of the model and how the results will be used with other information to make a decision.
Confronting the Infodemic is an exercise in learning how to use and share information and ask questions. Benjamin Franklin made a comment that is appropriate to the current situation, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”
Learn about how social media uses data and preferences to make money, shape opinions, and determine the information that is made available to users. Understand and question the process!
Read and think about how data is collected, analyzed, and prepared to influence decisions. Use this knowledge to present data and information more ethically and accurately. Recognize when data or information presentations are not accurate or responsible.
Learn, understand, read, think, and ask questions. These critical thinking skills are necessary to offset the toxicity of the Infodemic.