Perhaps the deadliest pandemic ever to strike humanity is the plague of deliberate misinformation, mass delusion and unfounded beliefs which is engulfing 21st-century society.
Whether generated by the fossil-fuel lobby, certain media or other corporate interests, the anti-vaccine lobby, religious fanatics, politicians, ideological extremists, well-meaning simpletons or nutcase conspiracists, a global deluge of utter nonsense is rapidly inundating the human species.
In the short run it may seem irritating, even occasionally amusing. In the long run, it lays the ground for the failure of governments, the collapse of social order and, eventually, civilization, in the face of spreading public ignorance of the risks we face and what must be done to overcome them.
"This wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense - often driven by political figures and partisan media - undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens," warned the authors of the Doomsday Clock's 2021 report. The dissemination of lies increased the danger from established threats like nuclear weapons, climate change and pandemic disease, they added.
"Misinformation has reached crisis proportions," Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom declared in a recent study.
"It poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision-making, endangers the wellbeing of the planet and threatens public health. Public support for policies to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 is being undercut by misinformation, leading to the World Health Organisation's 'infodemic' declaration. Ultimately, misinformation undermines collective sense-making and collective action. We cannot solve problems of public health, social inequity, or climate change without also addressing the growing problem of misinformation."
Disinformation - the deliberate spreading of wrong information - is murder: world statistics show that COVID death rates are far higher among the unvaccinated, many of whom are influenced by lies spread by others. Some researchers describe the flood of nonsense as a new form of warfare, declared by one part of humanity against the whole - including themselves - using the global internet.
"Cyber-enabled information warfare has also become an existential threat in its own right," says Herbert Lin.
Dr Steven Novella, editor of the journal Science-Based Medicine, adds: "It's also clear that social media has given psychopaths and con artists the keys to the kingdom. It now pays, big, with little upfront investment, to spend a lot of time and energy crafting and spreading misinformation online."
Production of misinformation has attained global industrial scale, with the fossil-fuel industry funding a worldwide campaign costing hundreds of millions of dollars to mislead the public and governments over the dangers of climate change and the role of fossil fuels in it. Through purpose-built "lie factories", the $7 trillion petro-sector (coal, oil, gas and petrochemicals) has sought to misinform, manipulate and sabotage world efforts to rein in climate change by corrupting governments, distorting public discourse and circulating falsehoods. Its methods, adopted from those of the tobacco industry, are detailed in a report by researchers from Harvard, Bristol and George Mason Universities. A study by Oxford University revealed evidence of formally organised social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, describing it as "a critical threat to public life" that was now "big business".
"Antiscience has emerged as a dominant and highly lethal force, and one that threatens global security, as much as do terrorism and nuclear proliferation," warned Dr Peter Hotez in a Scientific American article calling for a global effort to combat anti-science.
The complicity of the media - world as well as national and local, traditional as well as social - in disseminating false information under the false flag of "balanced reporting" is a central part of the modern phenomenon. The lie factories cannot flourish without obedient messengers to carry their deceptions.
Some media have even made the spreading of misinformation part of their business model, gambling that a flood of exotic nonsense will attract "more eyeballs" (audience share) to their TV and internet platforms, which the corporation then converts into money by attracting corporate advertising. Thus, these 21st-century media have made the remarkable discovery that misinformation is more profitable than telling the truth. Over time they cultivate huge, loyal audiences who either love conspiracies or are just more credulous and ill-informed than most people about what they are told.
Of course, humans have been lying about one another for millennia; the spreading of nonsense is nothing new. What has changed is that human civilisation as a whole is now at risk from a number of catastrophic threats - and that the media tools for spreading misinformation are far more powerful. Specialist data firms now analyse mass audiences in detail in order to target the most gullible with the most attractive misinformation for their mindset.
For around 300 years, science has sought to dilute the human tendency to delusion by presenting an objective, tested view of the world and how it works - and constantly re-testing it to make sure it is correct. No other belief takes such an approach. That groundwork of fact and understanding, ushered in by the Enlightenment, built the greatest achievements of civilisation. Now, in a new dark age, fantasy, superstition, delusion and denial are in the ascendant once again.
The motives behind the spreading of lies and conspiracies are many, but chiefly monetary greed, political advantage, malice and ruinous ignorance. Russia, for example, stands accused of using misinformation to sabotage American politics , while the US Republican Party appears to have embraced misinformation because its voters are so open to it. By such means democracy worldwide is being paralysed, with governments unable to move for fear of offending large minorities of the misled.
The problem of mass delusion is compounded by accumulating scientific evidence that humans are today less intelligent than they were a generation or two ago. Recent research has found that human IQ has declined by around 13 points since the mid-1970s. Humans today, with their chemically damaged brains, may be more easily misled than were their parents or grandparents.
If humans lose the capacity to reason, or become addicted to fantasy, there is no saving them in an existential emergency - because so many will not grasp it is real or act to prevent it. Indeed, they may actively seek to undermine attempts by humanity to save itself.
Global misinformation may seem a modest threat in comparison with, say, all-out nuclear war - but it is no less deadly in the long run because it disables the very quality on which humans most pride themselves: the ability to think, understand and act rationally to save ourselves.
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