Timothy Caulfield is among the social media users who have been slammed by haters from both political extremes, left and right.
While his positions on vaccines and masks are sticking points for some people, the author and professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta believes he could post a photo of his cat and still get repellent comments.
“I get it from all sides,” Caulfield admitted — even his recent post on exercising offended somebody.
What bothers Caulfield is that many people are reacting with anger, based on misinformation they heard and now believe. He, therefore, feels deciphering how our society has landed in this polarized place is both timely and necessary.
Caulfield is the next speaker in Red Deer Polytechnic’s Perspectives series. His Jan. 26 talk, titled Relax: A Guide to Life in the Age of Misinformation, will explore how many people’s anxieties and decisions are being dictated by beliefs that simply aren’t true.
A couple of things started the ball rolling down a dangerous path that’s “literally killing people,” said Caulfield. He noted many Albertans deny themselves potentially life-saving vaccinations or take wrong medication, based on misinformation.
While conspiracy theorists have always been out there, Caulfield believes the “normalizing” of anti-science rhetoric has a lot to do with the Donald Trump presidency, public fears around the pandemic and resulting government control of our lives as well as the negative impacts of social media.
Facebook and YouTube use past content you have viewed to determine what narrow new content to feed you until many people are trapped within an echo chamber of false information that confirms their worst anxieties.
“It’s all about the clicks,” said Caulfield, as advertisers pay more to be embedded in content viewed by more people.
While “these times are fraught,” he believes there are still paths to getting credible information. These include seeking out multiple sources and compiling a body of evidence before taking a position on something.
Caulfield encourages everyone to hone their “media literacy” and get information from non-partisan sources. But he admitted even this can be hard when people mistrust mainstream media — or even the World Health Organization.
It’s particularly difficult to challenge opinions when misinformation has been politicized and effectively becomes part of someone’s identity, he admitted.
For instance, many people who oppose vaccines have also positioned themselves to be pro-oil climate-change-deniers who value their freedoms and often have issues with the government.
“Once it becomes part of your ideological beliefs, it becomes hard to change people’s minds,” said Caulfield.
He admitted it might not be possible to get through to everyone who’s intent on clinging to false information: “You have to pick your battles…”
But it’s incumbent on governments to help remedy the situation, said Caulfield, who’s noticed more hateful comments on Twitter since the platform was recently purchased by Elon Musk.
He believes more regulation of social media is needed to rein in the “chaos” that currently exists — while also being careful not to trample free speech.
While the international nature of social media makes it ”not an easy challenge to figure out,” he said, “there must be some way to rein in all that noise.”
Caulfield is the recipient of numerous academic and writing awards. He has written The Science of Celebrity… Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, and The Vaccination Picture. His most recent book, Relax: A Guide to Everyday Health Decisions with More Facts and Less Worry, is a guide about getting through the day with lower stress and improved health.
Caulfield is also the host and co-producer of the award-winning documentary, A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, which can be viewed on Netflix.
Tickets for his 7 p.m. talk at RDP’s Arts Centre Mainstage are available at rdpolytech.ca/perspectives.