Communicating in the age of ‘untelligence’

Communicating to consumers during COVID-19 is difficult enough, but when you add conspiracy theories, wayward social media posts and fear mongering to the mix, it becomes a minefield. Managing Outcomes' Tony Jacques explores how you navigate your way through.

Issue managers and communication professionals have to deal with them every day. – people who seem to genuinely believe ideas about science and technology that are simply wrong. And social media helps spread these false beliefs at electron speed to potentially influence millions.

Look no further than the hoax claim that the coronavirus pandemic is spread by 5G wireless (it isn’t), circulated by  “super-spreader celebrities” such as Woody Harrelson. And promoted by charlatans who want to sell you a $350 USB stick to protect you from infection (it won’t).

COVID-19 conspiracy theories abound 

Or the dangerous “Silver Solution” coronavirus “cure” promoted by televangelist Jim Bakker (best known for going to prison for fraud), which was recently the subject of a cease and desist order from the Attorney General of New York. Or Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans fined for spruiking a $15,000 electronic “frequency machine” to combat the virus.

Are all the believers stupid? Or totally irrational? Of course not. But there is no good word to adequately describe how widespread ignorance is exploited by manipulative people or shared by innocently wrong-headed individuals.

Step forward European uber-sceptic David Zaruk, who writes under the name Risk-monger, and has come up with a new term to help understand this growing phenomenon. He calls it Untelligence – the ability to acquire and express ideas based on limited associations without proper information and research which involves willingness to accept widely shared messages based on anecdotes rather than evidence.

However, this is not just about a witty neologism (look that one up). It concerns a much more fundamental problem which inhibits informed discussion and cannot be dismissed as simply another manifestation of fake news.

Communicating about difficult scientific concepts or nuanced medical issues is hard enough. Yet it is made even harder when millions of people are influenced by false information and anti-science. And it’s certainly not helped when, for example, the President of the United States declares that noise from windfarms causes cancer (it doesn’t) or suggests injecting disinfectant as a treatment for coronavirus (it isn’t).

So how does Untelligence spread? We know from research at MIT that false news on Twitter proliferates faster and wider than stories which are independently verified. And we know from research at Iowa State that Russian trolls have deliberately planted anti-GMO messages around the world as part of a campaign to inflame divisive issues in the West to promote distrust of Government, large corporations and experts. Indeed, the New York Times says Russia has also been very active in promoting the anti-5G conspiracy.

Yet it’s all too easy to blame outsiders. Our own news media are at least partly to blame for the promotion of non-scientific information. It might seem harmless when they devote space to the efforts by rapper B.o.B. to prove the Earth is flat. But it can have real consequences, as when the Australian media lionised fake wellness blogger Belle Gibson and gave her a national platform to promote the dangerous lie that she used diet to cure her own cancer. Or when the American media made a business hero of Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of Theranos, which cost investors millions when their claimed revolutionary new blood testing technique proved to be a fraud.

Moreover, in these pandemic times, we know that believers in false cures and false information about the virus crisis are risking their own lives and the lives of others around them.

For issue managers and science communicators, combatting false information is a daily responsibility which cannot be addressed by finger-pointing, no matter how satisfying that might be. It needs planned and persistent challenge and rebuttal.

And never forget, the public are generally not stupid. More likely they are just wrong-headed or victims of Untelligence.

Tony Jaques is the director of Issue Outcomes


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