I have a friend who is losing his marriage because of an obsession with misinformation. He and his wife have always had differing views on politics, but for a long time, their yin and yang stances were endearing: intellectual stimuli and fodder for respectful, playful debate, like Scalia and RBG. But in this new world that we live in, things have dramatically changed.
Noel T. Brewer is a professor of public health at the University of North Caroline (UNC) at Chapel Hill who specializes in studying why some people decline or oppose vaccinations. Even after two decades of researching this topic, today’s environment is shocking to him. “Some people,” he told me, “have turned their love affair with misinformation into a defining personality trait.”
Already prone to anxiety, Alice (my friend’s wife) was hit hard by the pandemic. As a stay-at-home mom with a gaggle of young children, she had a lot to handle during COVID lockdowns and the kids’ remote schooling. There were limited social outlets.
In a gaping void left by the loss of normal school, sports, and play-date dynamics, Alice’s “community” started to revolve around social media and online committees that peddled fringe theories. When two of the family’s kids became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, a bitter argument ensued and, in the end, they weren’t vaccinated.
And then, Alice got sick. Over two weeks, her symptoms progressed—and through it all, Alice refused to get tested. Not once, not even before starting doses of ivermectin better suited to a large farm animal. Not even before taking the kids to visit her parents, also vaccine skeptics.
When he started his UNC career, Brewer selected for close study two health behaviors that seemed to require complex decision-making: vaccination and disease screening. Since then he has discovered that vaccination is driven by many environmental factors and is actually often “not a decision in any routine sense of the word.” History, culture, and fear all play a role in whether a community is likely to accept a vaccine or not. What seems to be new these days, he says, is the extent to which vaccine misinformation has become a cult-like obsession.
Here we see that misinformation, addictions, and cults all seem to have something in common—a person’s “vulnerability factors” can make them more susceptible to falling prey to the allure. And in both addiction and cults, those with a history of anxiety or depression, are more at risk.
Cult experts call the first step in cult commitment the narcissistic seduction.  The ego and its vulnerabilities are exploited by flattery and groupthink. Many new cult members are seeking refuge from addictions to other things, or from negative family dynamics, and find that their new cult environment, at least initially, provides psychological relief.
This “honeymoon period” can last for days, months, or years.  During this time, the cult recruit is drawn away in bits and chunks from their prior life. In a study of 31 former cult members, researchers noted that the repercussions of cult membership affected the full range of areas of life, “be it on a social, family, marital, professional or financial level. No part of their [prior] life was spared.” 
The study also describes the type of people drawn in by cults’ narcissistic seduction and they sound a lot like Alice—most cult victims in the study were well-educated, had long-time partners, and had a history of anxiety. The ramifications of getting caught in a cult, seen in the study, also remind me of what happened with Alice. Well over 50 percent of cult members report a reduction in social life and 45 percent experience “isolation with family or/and marital partner.”
Our COVID era of uncertainty and isolation just doesn’t seem to be going away. Rates of anxiety, depression and substance abuse have skyrocketed. So, it’s no surprise that a kind of cult mentality might be serving many as a psychological safety blanket—like it has for Alice. She has a community of like-minded people cheering her on as she fights with her family and community about masks, vaccines, and whether COVID even exists. Not even her own mother’s illness swayed Alice—when she heard she was sick, she jumped in the car to deliver a supply of ivermectin.
My friend was at a complete loss as to what to do. “If it were alcohol or drugs, I could stick it out and we could work on a solution together,” he told me. But unlike a substance abuse problem, there was no intervention or program that Alice could turn to; no 12 Steps or Misinformation Anonymous. It’s odd, really, that despite centuries upon centuries of misinformation of various shapes and sizes (state-sponsored propaganda, false prophets, and Mad Men-style manipulative advertising) and despite the fact that being duped is a nearly universal human experience, there’s very little guidance on how to treat this scourge.
What Can Be Done About Misinformation Obsession?
How can we help Alice and her family? If we view her situation as one comparable to addiction, the question is: Can it be treated? How?
Well—spoiler here—the cure won’t be easy. That said, and borrowing from programs designed to treat other kinds of addictions, there are several options to consider:
1. Fear communication
The idea here is to share scary information to change behavior. Every parent is familiar with this technique: “Junior, if you put your hand in the cage, the Gila monster will bite your finger off.” In Alice’s case, the fear communication might be around what Alice has to lose—her marriage, her children, and the health of her family.
The problem is that, as we know, fear often fades quickly. Even if such communication might trigger a moment of realization for Alice, that doesn’t mean that realization will translate into action. And, unfortunately, with other addictions and related behaviors—like substance abuse and drinking and driving—it’s been shown that fear communication doesn’t produce lasting change. Circling back to COVID situations, Dr. Brewer notes, “Fear communication doesn’t increase vaccine uptake” and it’s “unlikely to do any better at breaking people’s addiction to misinformation.”
2. Find a different obsession
Much like an alcoholic who gives up the sauce and becomes addicted to fitness, instead, perhaps there is an option here to trade one obsession for another. “It may be unrealistic to treat ‘misinformation addiction’ in the usual sense,” says Dr. Brewer. “Instead, we could encourage people to shift their attention to a new petty ‘addiction,’ like baking sourdough bread, fantasy football, or Pokémon Go.”
Unfortunately for Alice, her “other” obsession was wellness (fitness, natural foods, and mindfulness)—and these days, those areas are often also gateways into misinformation. Fantasy football and Pokémon Go are not likely to change this.
3. Crisis phase
One of the paths out of addiction is bottoming out. The weekend bender that results in the purchase of a pet Gila monster followed by the Chevy totaled in a ditch can be a transformative moment that purges the demons—if, that is, it doesn’t land the addict in the hospital, or worse. In the best of cases, this is an organic moment—one that brings the risks into focus and motivates the addicted to move on.
The most common reason cult members leave a cult (and keep in mind that the average cult member will spend 9 years under the spell), is that they lose faith in the creeds of the group. Frequently the provocation for this “crisis of faith” is a family or social intervention.
This is where my friend was. He was planning an intervention. A rather simple one, actually: a part-time job—something that could get Alice out of the house and exposed to new, genuine social interactions, in real-time and face-to-face. Employment, he thought, could get Alice out of the vacuum of exponential misinformation.
He was making progress with this idea when Alice’s crisis arrived. His brother, who had also hastened to help his mom when she was sick with (unspoken-of) COVID, became ill himself. Unvaccinated and in denial, the brother went to bed early one night to sleep it off. He was found lifeless the next morning.
I see addicts in the ER all the time. There is no one answer to help them. They took many paths to become addicts and if they find a path out, it’s never exactly the same as someone else’s. But there are roadmaps that have worked for others, directions that can be tried—at least for drugs and alcohol.
If misinformation is in a sense addictive—and I believe it is—Alice and, indeed, our nation needs lifelines out. The sooner we admit that there’s a new(ish), dangerous, habit-forming substance out there, engaging the same neurotransmitters that feed substance abuse, gambling and cult membership, and eating up our neighbors and loved ones… the sooner we name it— misinformation compulsion—the sooner we will be able to Alice and the countless others whose lives and families are being destroyed by a faceless, insidious threat.
Despite it all, last I heard, Alice had yet to acknowledge or release her compulsion. But she had agreed to apply for a job. Maybe this is Step 1 in her 12 Steps to freedom from misinformation.