Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d have to write: the most interesting discussion in healthcare in the past week has been about Neil Young versus Spotify.
For those of you who have not been following the controversy, Neil Young gave Spotify an ultimatum: it could have his music or Joe Rogan, but not both. “I am doing this because Spotify is spreading fake information about vaccines – potentially causing death to those who believe the disinformation being spread by them.” Spotify chose Rogan.
Mr. Young was not the first to express alarm at some of the Covid “information” promoted on Mr. Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience (JRE); in December, for example, several hundred scientists from around the world issued an open letter to Spotify specifically about JRE, warning:
By allowing the propagation of false and societally harmful assertions, Spotify is enabling its hosted media to damage public trust in scientific research and sow doubt in the credibility of data-driven guidance offered by medical professionals.
Misinformation and disinformation (intentionally wrong information) have plagued the storyline of the Covid19 vaccine since the early days of its development, creating a healthcare communications crisis that has not only stalled U.S. vaccination rates, but has also raised questions about how medical and scientific experts will ever again win trust across audiences and communications platforms that are becoming increasingly fragmented, and sometimes hostile.
Yesterday, on the two-year anniversary of the first Covid case in the U.S., I sat down with Dr. Carlos del Rio, Professor of Infectious Diseases & Epidemiology at Emory University, and Jon Reiner, Editorial Director at 120/80 MKTG, to check-in on the vaccine conversation and, more generally, what we in the health innovation community can learn from this situation as we attempt to introduce other new medicines, breakthrough technologies, and scientific advances to the world.
Dr. del Rio served as a vaccine expert in a public service campaign that 120/80 MKTG put together called “Just the Facts on Vax,” which sought to combat vaccine disinformation early-on with a series of bite-sized, social-media-ready videos that put infectious disease experts front-and-center to answer common questions about the vaccine. The full campaign can be viewed on 120over80 MKTG’s YouTube channel, but can it still have an impact? And, in the grand scheme of things, when it comes to people’s personal health, evolving medical or scientific information, and a litany of communication platforms that can position nearly anyone as an expert, how do real experts build trust? An interesting – and timely – chat about the power of information and the “trusted expert” archetype in the context of one of the most unique healthcare stories of our lifetime.
I first clashed with authority when I was eight. Every Saturday bunch of brown kids, children of Indian immigrants to Britain with an identity crisis who longed for the culture they left behind, attended a class in the temple about “our culture” taught by a joyless scholar of Hinduism – a pundit – whose major shtick was punctuality. When I turned up late, even by a minute, he’d make me stand outside, even if freezing. Some kids called him “Hitler,” or “Hitler uncle,” the qualifier “uncle” indicated that because he was as old as our fathers, he deserved respect.
Then, I believed that Hitler meant authority. I preferred calling the pundit “wanker” or “asshole” but the foul language would have gotten me afoul with my parents, my authority figures. “Hitler” amply conveyed disdain for our pot-bellied teacher who exercised his authority whenever he could, without tarnishing our nubile vocabulary.
Eventually, I understood the significance of Hitler, and of World War 2, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Though related neither morphologically to the perpetrators nor ethnically to the victims of this ghastly period in human history, I developed a reverence, a sensitivity if you will, to such allusions. The Lord of the Old Testament instructed Moses that his name be not used in vain, lest every blocked sink or traffic jam evoked “oh my God.” I resolved never to use Nazi as an epithet frivolously.
I was surprised how common Nazi name-calling was in American political discourse across the political spectrum, which peaked during the Trump Presidency. Some likened migrant detention facilities to “concentration camps.” Many saw in the rise of white nationalism during Trump’s reign parallels with the Third Reich. The former White House strategist, Steven Bannon, was compared to the Nazi propagandist, Goebbels. Bannon is loathsome, detestable, a wanker. Goebbels is a mass murderer – no adjectives are needed to describe him further.
We’re already living in an era of unprecedented misinformation/disinformation, as we’ve seen repeatedly with COVID-19 (e.g., hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, anti-vaxxers), but deepfakes should alert us that we haven’t seen anything yet.
ICYMI, here’s the 60 Minutes story:
The trick behind deepfakes is a type of deep learning called “generative adversarial network” (GAN), which basically means neural networks compete on which can generate the most realistic media (e.g., audio or video). They can be trying to replicate a real person, or creating entirely fictitious people. The more they iterate, the most realistic the output gets.
Two years ago, I interrupted a speaker at a big health/tech conference, right in the middle of his presentation. I still blush at the memory. But the speaker was citing data — my data—incorrectly and I couldn’t let it pass.
Brian Dolan recently wrote about how he wished he’d spoken up when he heard someone spreading misinformation at a conference:
Unfortunately, about 80 people sitting in the room either accepted this as new information or failed to stand up to correct the speaker. I wish I had pulled a Susannah Fox and done the latter.
What style of conference is the right one for the health/tech field? The TED-style “sage on stage” who does not take questions? Or the scientific-meeting style of engaged debate? Or is there a place for both?
Do different rules apply to start-ups? Is it OK to fudge a little bit to make a good point, as one might do in a pitch? Personally, I do not think people are entitled to their own facts. There’s too much at stake.
We can’t let misinformation—or worse—go by without comment.
I think it’s time for more people to speak up in health care.