The risk to our healthcare system goes far beyond COVID

The moral harm faced by healthcare workers is fundamentally structural.

With omicron on track to break Texas hospitalization records, some patients continue to deny that COVID-19 is real, even on their deathbeds. Healthcare workers take on the grueling task of managing more and more patients with less and less support (18% quit during the pandemic, according to Morning Consult), while cycles of death and disruption fail to cure people of this collective delirium.

I believe in individual responsibility, but the idea that this tragedy is mainly due to individual ignorance is misplaced. The insidious misinformation (and misinformation) machine of social media is leveraging weak science literacy and bizarre political polarization over the pandemic to cause catastrophic moral harm to healthcare workers.

People are suffering and dying from misinformation or disinformation that is algorithmically amplified by some online companies for profit. Social media companies strategically divert attention economy, i.e. working memory is a scarce resource, maximizing the time you spend on your news feeds can help advertisers on the platform make a sale.

Your behavior is exquisitely dissected, your biases devastatingly exposed, and you are captivated by content designed specifically for you to generate fear and outrage. When you take the time to comment on and share a social media post, that’s a data point. And the shared material is then propagated for even greater reach within your social networks, usually people who behave similarly to you and who will further increase the growing avalanche of impact.

As a lab-trained neurologist and neuroscientist studying perception and attention, I interviewed many years ago for a research position at one of these companies. My fears about an industry that monetizes human relationships are coming true. But technology isn’t the only culprit. Our inability to properly teach children history and science and the history of science has worked to our detriment. If we were to critically examine how science has been co-opted historically for diabolical purposes, how despite the horrors we have achieved tangible scientific gains, policy makers would have understood sooner the importance of good messengers and good messages in defense vaccines. And they would have inspired more confidence in science as an evolving enterprise.

Blacks and other minority groups have reason to be skeptical, being both historically and sometimes also currently exploited and excluded by science. And when more generally the public distrusts scientific advice because they have not been taught to discern between science (verifiable hypothesis) and pseudoscience (invulnerable to refutation), they become manipulated by political experts who have passed the pandemic to pretend to be scientists.

the political polarization that exploded over the past few years, largely due to social media, is actively undermining the health of individuals and the health of our democracy. Viewing mask mandates and vaccination as an individual choice and refusing to be guided by evidence that poor individual choices lead to collective harm shows how devastatingly the pandemic has been politicized.

What is the answer to the loss of nearly 850,000 American lives and historic attrition in medicine? How can we help our so-called healthcare heroes before acute ruptures become chronic meltdowns?

The answer is not another medical wellness conference, life coaching, or a gift of appreciation. This is an action to hold social media companies accountable for their exploitation of our behavioral data. It is the resistance to the dynamic that keeps the public misinformed and disempowered.

It’s realizing that change requires us to protect democracy, which is also very much tied to our health and well-being.

Dr. Dona Kim Murphey is a medical scientist and vice president of Doctors in Politics. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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