"We need to "vaccinate" people against misinformation so that they can identify suspicious information on their own"

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Disinfo Talks is an interview series with experts that tackle the challenge of disinformation through different prisms. Our talks showcase different perspectives on the various aspects of disinformation and the approaches to counter it. In this installment we talk with Dr. Erez S. Garty, founder and head of the department for science communications at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in disinformation

Erez Garty:  Fundamentally, I’m a scientist. I did a Master’s in Biochemistry and a PhD in Immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science. One of my favorite things was to bust myths of all sorts, and because my education was in immunology, my favorite topic was vaccinations. That is how I got into the world of misinformation. I started writing articles about vaccinations in 2012-2013. There was a polio outbreak in Israel around that time. Even though it was a silent outbreak, there were enough people who knew about it for there to be misinformation about the vaccine and I became increasingly active on that topic. Eventually, I founded the Science Communications Department at the Davidson Institute where we began to communicate science to the masses through digital platforms and the media and giving advice to journalists. For example, if someone published an article with a misleading title, we would write about it. This is something that we’ve been doing for the past few years; but when the pandemic started, everything became more intense. I especially recall Friday, March 13th, the day they shut down the schools in Israel, and all hell broke loose. We were flooded by WhatsApp messages that people were going to get arrested in the streets, that COVID-19 was going to kill us, all kinds of misinformation. We understood that we needed to do something more methodical than publishing articles here and there. We opened a Facebook group to answer people’s questions. One of the purposes was to invite journalists to join this group in the hope that they would read queries and republish our answers, echoing them on their platforms. That was quite successful. Ever since, we’ve been publishing various texts, articles, Facebook posts, and short tweets. Misinformation begins to circulate when people don’t know about or are afraid of something. We are trying to add as much certainty as possible in these confusing times.

Can you give a bit an overview of the severity of the problem of disinformation in Israel?

In Israel, we have a population of approximately 10 million people. About a quarter of them cannot be vaccinated because they’re too young, but the rest are eligible. Still, we have almost a million people that can be vaccinated but are not. This is the outcome of misinformation, i.e., people who can be vaccinated but decline because they were misinformed about the severity of the disease or the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The lowered vaccination rates and their consequences illustrate how dangerous misinformation can be.

Where is this mis- and disinformation coming from? How do people become so misinformed?

The messages are spread by people who feel that they are looking out for the public good. We see that groups are more organized than in the past. For instance, the Ministry of Health published a post on Facebook about how the vaccine is safe and has few side effects. This exploded online. There were hundreds of comments, some true, some not, by people who claimed that they were hurt by the vaccine. We saw in several groups that people were urging others to tell their stories online, even if they were not always true. Since the pandemic, we’ve increasingly been witness to this phenomenon, groups have become more organized.

If you compare the nature of the problem in Israel and its manifestations in other countries, what kind of conclusions can you draw?

Israel is unique in that it is home to large sub-populations that are affected by different kinds of misinformation than the general population, especially Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs. Although the dynamics are similar in all viral transmissions of misinformation, the platforms in these populations are slightly different, as are the rumors and misconceptions. For instance, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and the Arabs talk more about conspiracies, fertility, and dangers to young adults. These are narratives that are less common in the general population.

But Israel is naturally not closed off from the world and many of the rumors that start in other countries migrate to Israel eventually. Messages are Google-translated, and with time, they appear in Hebrew. In addition, experts from around the world appear in video clips, telling how the vaccine is going to kill whoever takes it. These clips make their way to Israel, and the lecturers are invited to participate in webinars. The production of webinars shows a very high level of organization.

How does one counter such messages, especially when they’re disseminated in such an organized way?

In Israel, it would have been immensely helpful if we had a clearinghouse organization, to avoid the inefficiency of parallel efforts. We have a few small organizations such as the Davidson Institute, and the NGO “Midaat.” There are a few others, and of course, there’s the Ministry of Health, which until recently did not do enough in terms of providing accessible information for the public. They had a budget of 300 million shekels (about 80 million USD) for this task, but they were ineffective. Now, they are trying to change this. A special coordinator was appointed by the prime minister to highlight targeted messages and to encourage people to get vaccinated.

How do you imagine this ideal division of labor when it comes to tackling disinformation, especially in the realm of science communication?

First of all, I think that the government needs to be as transparent as possible, while of course, taking into consideration medical privacy. The government should share as much data as possible so that people can make informed decisions. In parallel, there needs to be another body that is completely independent from the government. This body should act as a media clearinghouse, coordinating the efforts of other organizations by mixing and matching information, and more importantly, sharing it with the relevant target audiences.

Is there an example of persistent rumors or something that you’ve noticed that is very influential in the Israeli example?

We noticed that people are afraid of the things that we still don’t have evidence for. In the beginning, they were afraid that the vaccine is not safe enough and not effective enough. Then we saw that it was effective, and safe in the short term. Then they started voicing concerns about what will happen in one or two years. For example, will it damage fertility? That’s a very persistent rumor that we are trying to debunk. Wherever knowledge and information are in short supply, rumors breed.

What about the government’s reaction? At the moment, we’re finally seeing the Ministry of Health taking action. Additionally, digital platforms have become more involved and are taking more proactive steps than in the past. Do you think that this kind of active response is going to last?

I hope so, but in order for them to continue these efforts, they need to have motivation. Now, we are experiencing a pandemic push, which provides an excellent impetus to work, but when the crisis is over, I’m afraid that everyone will go back to what they were doing before, until the next crisis. People here in Israel don’t think very far ahead. That’s why there should be a politically independent organization to deal with these issues.

What about digital platforms themselves? 

I’m afraid I don’t have high hopes when it comes to the platforms. It’s simply not aligned with their business interests. Misinformation draws excellent traffic and traffic brings money, so I don’t believe that they will fully commit themselves to the fight against misinformation unless they are forced to by governments. Even then, I doubt that it would be possible to enforce. I believe that a the best approach will be to vaccinate people against misinformation, so that they will have the tools to identify information that is suspicious. This requires education, and education requires time, money, and government intervention. Misinformation is not something new. Ever since there has been information, there has been misinformation, recently, however we are seeing more of it due to the massive proliferation of social media.

Using artificial intelligence tools in order to fight this problem is another relevant angle that should be promoted. While YouTube and Facebook are flagging content, this process takes too much time: People check it, they send it to Facebook, and only then does Facebook flag it. That takes time. This process could be partially automated because the rumors are more or less the same every time. Misinformation changes a little bit, but most items are based on the same core claims. It is rare for me to see new claims coming out. For instance, I recently came across a 30-minute documentary movie published on “Why not let children get infected instead of vaccinating them?” I sat down and wrote a response the day before the video was published, because I knew what they were going to say, and I was mostly right. I managed to publish our response very quickly, since it was already mostly written. If you have artificial intelligence that is able to detect the claims in a video or in a text or anywhere, and then take out the prepared answer and publish it as a response, it could save precious time and provide a response to misinformation at scale.

Dr. Erez S. Garty gained his undergraduate degree in life sciences from the Ben Gurion University, and both his graduate degree in biochemistry and his PhD in immunology from the Weizmann Institute of Science. Over the course of his career, he has specialized in communicating science via digital platforms and the media. In 2013, he received a Ministry of Health award for assisting outreach during the polio outbreak and contributing to the success of the vaccination operation. He became editor in-chief at the Davidson Institute of Science Education in 2014, and later founded the department for science communications, where he centered on raising science visibility in national media. Under his leadership, the Davidson Institute’s popular science website reached more than 10 million unique views a year, becoming the largest official science news outlet in Israel. Dr. Garty has contributed to hundreds of TV and radio science items, as well as original TV productions. He has led the translation of popular science content into several languages, including English, Arabic, German and Spanish. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led several campaigns against fake news, especially focusing on ultra-Orthodox and Arab-language media, and has established a fact-checking Facebook group that debunks myths and misinformation. He is also a founding member of the Schwartz/Reisman Science Center and teaches gifted children science.

This Interview is published as part of the Media and Democracy in the Digital Age platform, a collaboration between the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and/or interviewee/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and/or of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI).

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