Going Viral About “Fake Science”–Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why

Marco Zozaya created a viral storm several years ago when he cleverly took on the subject of vaccines and autism.

His 2-minute video has attracted over 8 million views, which for a 12-year old is a tsunami of eyeballs and ears and prompted a story in the NY Times’ Science Times section on the topic (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/science/marco-zozaya-vaccines-video.html).

While the video (to me) is interesting and its prop of empty white pages certainly “show- and-tell” worthy in grammar school, it was not a Susan Boyle moment singing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables on “Britain’s Got Talent” (and wow, does she), so, the merits of autism and vaccines raises the question, what makes things go viral?

Young Mr. Zozaya, now 14, looks back on his vaccine video and says he was playing to “drama” as a way of explaining its virality.  A more recent, less “proppy” (not a word yet or likely to become one, methinks) video he followed with attempted to provide a more information-based explanation on the role snakes play in the environment.  It got a ho-hum response.

Mr. Zozaya’s vaccine and autism video, an issue that still haunts parents of autistic children, drew hateful comments by those who felt he was a shil for Big Pharma and just a nasty wise-ass kid.  They posted details about his family in retaliation.

The question of virality in science or information videos to me is twofold–1. Is your intention to become viral or 2. Is your intention to make people “feel, know, or do?”  My hope is that by successfully allowing people to “feel, know, do” you may also facilitate (but not guarantee) that something will go viral or “jump the chasm,” as data scientists call it.

As for Ms. Boyle’s audition on “Britain’s Got Talent” going viral, it was watched by over 10 million viewers when it aired on April 11, 2009 and millions more on YouTube following her sensational performance.  She went on to a spectacular career.  She made people “feel, know, do” in one song.

If I were to parse why her particular performance on “BGT” went viral, I believe it was the contrast of a combination of how she looked (matronly), how old she was (47), and how impossible her dream to “become a professional singer” seemed to the judges and audience on this national talent show.  What came out when she summoned what was inside made her performance go viral.

And indeed she turned the tables on not only the audience and judges, but in fact the world when she opened her mouth and out came that heaven-sent voice that made the iconic song lyrics of “the Miserables” celestial.  She also spoke truth to power in the truth that talent shines through whether from the lips of a diva or a parish singer from a small Scottish town.  She made the audience cry and judges gobsmacked in surprise and admiration.  She tugged at a string in all of us who yearned for a chance at their dream on a stage that facilitated virality.

To the point of Mr. Zozaya’s unfaking science by his video, a number of remedies seem at hand: 1) social media platform algorithms regulating posts that are clearly “fake”; 2) unlocking updated science that is often safeguarded or held from the public for proprietary or marketing reasons (cures found that are waiting for patent protection) when such are unlikely; and 3) exposing more accessible scientific writing that indeed sheds light on what is evidence-based and what is not.

The lure of fake science, for the purpose of serving an individual’s or group’s agenda, will continue.

That aside, the 9 stories that facilitate engagement is a great place to start so people want to pay attention and above all, making a human connection.

Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point–How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” thinks it’s a combination of the law of the few (mavens, connectors, and salesmen), stickiness (are people following it, looking at it, listening to it?), and context (what else is happening that impacts it? News, personal issues, etc. that might impact it?)

Call it what you want, separating the wheat from the chaff or tugging at a heart string, we are creatures of our emotional brain.  And sometimes what happens hits us in a way we just want to experience again and again, a “gotta have it” moment.


This entry was posted in algorithms, Fake News, Uncategorized, Viral, Voice. Bookmark the permalink.

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