'Fake News' Reaches Risk Management

The "fake news" complicating the response to wildfires will surely appear, in far greater fashion, when a vaccine for the coronavirus becomes available.

With all the legitimate concerns about the wildfires in the West, I was dismayed to see that people in Oregon were declining to evacuate because they were convinced that antifa would loot their homes. To try to catch members of antifa, vigilantes even set up roadblocks and demanded that those trying to leave present ID.

Authorities have said that, despite the rumors, there is no evidence of any involvement by antifa in setting fires, and there have been no reports of looting. But such "fake news," amplified on social media, is complicating crisis management in Oregon. I'm afraid the pernicious effects of "fake news" will only grow -- and massively -- for risk managers.

What's happening with wildfires will surely happen, in exponentially greater fashion, when a vaccine for the coronavirus becomes available, likely within the next several months. We'll head into a stretch where "fake news" about a vaccine could easily overwhelm real news and real science, given the environment of fear about the virus and suspicion about political motivations. Rumors, and even deliberately faked "news," could determine millions of decisions about whether to take the vaccine, whether to fully reopen businesses and schools and whether individuals will try to resume their normal lives.

In a thoroughly rational world, risk managers could make thoroughly rational decisions about how a vaccine would be rolled out. Then risk managers could advise on how quickly offices, factories and small businesses could safely reopen and on the myriad other issues that will face companies as we try to feel our way back toward the pre-COVID economy.

But we don't live in a thoroughly rational world. We live in what some call a "post-truth" world, where likes and shares on Facebook matter more than veracity, where the debunked "Plandemic" conspiracy video carries more weight for many than public health authorities do. We vote on truth these days, certainly when deciding what journalism to believe but even when choosing what science to accept. So, anyone who wants to predict what risks will look like over the next six months to a year, as the vaccine rolls out, will need to channel his or her inner Nate Silver.

Even in the best of circumstances, the next six months to a year would be tough for risk managers to plan for. The FDA will approve a virus as long as it's 50% effective (once it's determined to be safe), which leaves a lot of room for indecision. Those in vulnerable groups will still be cautious if told a vaccine is only 50% or 60% likely to protect them. At some point, through vaccines and through immunity achieved the hard way, by getting sick and recovering, enough people will become protected that we will achieve herd immunity -- but at what level does that happen? I've seen estimates ranging from 20% to 80% as the level of immunity that needs to occur in a population to render us generally safe. There's a lot of room for uncertainty between those numbers. And it's not clear how long immunity will last -- it could be as little as several months. Until people know how safe it is to venture out again, and start acting predictably, all planning will be iffy.

Now consider our actual circumstances and all the misinformation -- and even disinformation -- that will be tossed into the mix.

The Trump administration has pushed a political agenda that has often run roughshod over the science on issues related to the pandemic (hydroxychloroquine, masks, convalescent plasma, etc.). At times, the administration even contradicts itself, with the president saying one thing while public health authorities may say something very different. So, even if the president declares victory on a vaccine, many people might see that claim as "fake news."

Those ignoring of disputing the president could, in turn, spark a reaction from his supporters, which could produce the kind of political divide that occurred over wearing masks and create the sort of angry environment that fosters misinformation and disinformation. Michael Caputo, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, may have given us a taste of what lies ahead when he bizarrely claimed over the weekend that there is a "resistance unit" within the Centers for Disease Control where officials are willing to commit "sedition" to undercut the president and that "they're going to have to kill me." [Note: After this article was published, Caputo apologized for his remarks, then announced that he is taking a 60-day leave of absence.]

The anti-vaxxers will have their say, too. So may the Russians and any other foreign actors interested in stirring up confusion and rancor in the U.S.

"Fake news" is going to have its way with us, complicating every decision that we make as individuals, as families and as leaders of our organizations as we try to determine the pandemic's risk over the next six months to a year. Pity the poor risk managers who have to predict how all those individual decisions will play out, so they can spot the key risks and help all of us mitigate them.

Fasten your seatbelts, then check your airbags. Okay, maybe put on a helmet and some body armor, too.

This will be a bumpy ride.

Stay safe.


P.S. On a personal level, I ask that we all be the place where rumors go to die. Having spent too much time on Twitter, I'd say the most dangerous words known to man are, "Interesting, if true" -- which almost always introduces some article that has a 0.0% chance of being true. I think we'll all be better off if we only share information that we've personally vetted and would be prepared to defend on a witness stand.

P.P.S. Here are the six articles I'd like to highlight from the past week:

Creating the Future of Distribution

Having partnerships and an ecosystem becomes very strategic as insurers expand their reach and presence to where their customers will be.

For Agents, COVID Means Digital or Bust

Survival in the era of COVID-19 will be determined by the independent agent’s ability to implement digitization.

How to Evaluate AI Solutions

There are five main concerns when implementing regulatory technology, especially AI technology, in the financial sector.

You Can Still Have Personal Interactions

The challenge in these socially distant times is how to create real relationships with customers despite so much of the exchange being digital.

Navigating Security in the Remote Paradigm

While companies having been improving during the work-from-home phase, bad guys have been busy, too--and deep fakes are getting scary.

What My $18,289 Medical Bill Says

Systemic problems don’t sound catchy, don’t boil down to one sentence and take time to implement -- but we need systemic solutions.

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.