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Combating the Infodemic Outbreak

Cognitive immunity is needed to guard against the degradation caused by misinformation and disinformation.
By Sandra Jontz and Kimberly Underwood

To prevent the epidemic of misinformation and disinformation from increasing, researchers are offering solutions. Human brains actually have an innate ability to discern false information. Experts in the growing field of cognitive immunology advise us to arm ourselves with practices that lessen one’s susceptibility to propaganda, strengthening the mind’s natural immune system.

The field of cognitive immunology, which draws from psychology, philosophy and evolutionary biology, is the science of developing immunity to misinformation and disinformation. It offers an understanding of human susceptibility and ways to combat incorrect information circulated unwittingly by people (misinformation) as well as information advanced with adversarial intent to deliberately fool, influence or cause destruction, or to disseminate disinformation.

“Just as our bodies have been having to adapt to a world full of infectious microbes for millions of years, in just the same way, our human minds have been having to adapt to a world full of infectious information,” says Andy Norman, executive director of the Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative, or CIRCE. “Our minds actually have evolved certain defenses that help us spot and remove that information. We don’t always realize that we have this rather sophisticated onboard machinery for doing this. The problem, of course, is that this machinery doesn’t always work well, and under certain environments or conditions it can fail miserably and cause people to become extremists or fall for conspiracy theory.”

Solutions are necessary as the U.S. military confronts pockets of radicalization and the United States faces sophisticated disinformation campaigns from adversaries, such as Russia, that are designed to weaken the country. Even the World Health Organization has identified the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation as an “infodemic.”

“Right now, we have Russian influence campaigns that are setting Americans at odds with one another,” Norman observes. “The Russians have gotten extremely good at using social media to turn the American Left against the American Right, and vice versa. A lot of us end up manipulated by these foreign actors, and we find ourselves just angry at one another, and that’s not a good situation. At the same time, there are domestic disinformation agents too.”

Given the influx of misinformation and disinformation in our digital world, a systematic application of mental immune system care is needed—especially since whole communities can be impacted or helped. “Under other conditions, and with the right kind of care, the mind’s immune system can function at a very high level,” he said.

The key is that spotting bad ideas and poor information is a team sport, Norman advised, saying, “You need the help of others, as we’re all sort of blind to our own disbeliefs.” In some communities, such as in scientific circles, the testing of ideas is a strong part of the culture. “Take the scientific community. They ended up being really good at spotting bad ideas and weeding them out,” he noted. “Other sub communities, such as QAnon, don’t welcome certain kinds of questioning. And as a result, their minds lose the capacity to spot and weed out the bad stuff.”

Norman has been studying mental immunity for about four decades. At the urging of fellow scholars from the United States, Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, he co-founded CIRCE, headquartered in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University, with CIRCE affiliates around the world.

CIRCE’s Mental Immunity Project, implemented by disinformation inoculation experts from Brown University, University of Bristol, Cambridge, Monash University, Stanford and other organizations, offers a “mental immunity toolbox,” a series of principles, guides, handbooks, web-based tutorials, articles, exercises and videos to help strengthen mental defenses and “protect minds from the worst forms of cognitive contagion.” Their websites, infodemicsolutions.com and cognitiveimmunology.net, provide specific steps to boost one’s capacity to spot manipulative influence and outline the science behind mind immunity, respectively.

The organization has seen initial success working with the U.S. military. An Air Force base in Tennessee was facing a dangerous level of discord and asked CIRCE for assistance. “It is very hard to run an effective military when your own troops are becoming extremists,” Norman stated. “They don’t play nice with others. Partisanship can tear at the seams of a fighting force and at our nation’s defenses. By working together with the leadership there, we were able to help people master some basic skills to de-escalate conversations and find common ground so that they could work together more effectively. Turns out that de-escalating conversational conflict is a key tactic for keeping your mind misinformation free.”

Realizing and identifying that emotionally triggering information can make people feel defensive, angry or resentful and prevent clear-minded thinking is another step, Norman offered. “Part of the discipline of protecting yourself against mis or disinformation is learning how to modulate those emotions that can easily cause a conversation to escalate out of control. And we need to modulate those same emotions just so that we can think clearly.”

Another step is to practice critical ignoring, learning to disregard suspect information.

“What turns out to be more important is what some people are now calling critical ignoring, learning what not to pay attention to, learning to not let certain ‘click-bait’ things seize your attention and drain your limited time and energy,” Norman emphasizes. “In fact, self-awareness about how your own mind is grappling with, say, conflict, can go a long way towards helping your mind’s immune system function better.”

 CIRCE’s “12 Steps to Mental Immunity” workshop charts a path to robust mental immune health. Rooted in the principles of cognitive immunology, it highlights the path to next-level critical thinking. Credit: The Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative

CIRCE’s “12 Steps to Mental Immunity” workshop charts a path to robust mental immune health. Rooted in the principles of cognitive immunology, it highlights the path to next-level critical thinking. Credit: The Cognitive Immunology Research Collaborative

Moreover, the CIRCE director advises communities to work with children to build mental immunity early on in their development and facilitate a whole new level of critical awareness.

“I think it’s imperative that we start working with young children on these skills, because they are growing up in a world with a whole lot of digital hazards,” he said. “We need to be equipping future generations, young people how to navigate this world without getting duped by it. A lot of young people today are succumbing to depression, in part because they don’t know how to stop doom scrolling when they really need a break, so we can help them.”

A colleague of CIRCE conducts workshops at schools, teaching how conspiracy theories work and dividing the students into groups to design their own theories. “And the kids have a blast designing these fun, funky, goofy conspiracy theories that they present to each other,” Norman shared. “And at the end, they have a debrief on what [they] learned. And it turns out, the teams learn that there’s actually an entire class of sneakily seductive ideas out there and that there’s a long history of fooling people and that we all need to be on the lookout for it.”

The cybersecurity community is another group that could benefit from employing the science of cognitive immunology for their information technology end users. “We actually think that the cybersecurity community needs to integrate the findings of this new science into their [protection] strategies, or our nation is going to be in a lot of trouble,” Norman offered. “It’s not enough to just have firewalls or end-to-end encryption. Because if you can fool a person at either end to give up a password, all of a sudden, those fancy technological solutions become obsolete. So, a huge part of the solution here is how do we actually protect not just our computers, but our minds from hackers, bad actors who actually want to fool us into giving private information or national security secrets.”

In addition, CIRCE is rolling out a series of continuing education workshops for local civics groups in the coming year for organizations to equip their personnel to be more resilient against information dangers.

Norman encourages interested parties to look at the 10 steps they have outlined to combat misinformation and disinformation as well as the comprehensive list of resources and tools, for much is at stake in combating the infodemic.

“I’m really worried that if we don’t institute solutions designed based on these findings, that our society could descend into distrust and factionalism, or even civil war,” he stated. “If you look at history, many magnificent civilizations have fallen apart when people in those civilizations turned against one another. And a lot of times, it is bad ideas or bad information that turns them against each other. The real solution to protecting a nation and protecting a civilization is teaching its citizens how not to fall for unnecessarily divisive information. We can do this. We know how to do it.”

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