OODA Loops, Coronavirus, and the distinct strategic advantage that misinformation has over science

It's a little late, given what American has been going through in the past week, but I still want to write about Coronavirus. Specifically, I want to examine Coronavirus information/misinformation/disinformation from a lens of startups competing for user adoption.

1. Setting the stage

The path of the Coronavirus After incubating in China, then ravaging Europe, Coronavirus began its spread through the United States. Slowly at first, then all at once.

In response, two major tactics emerged to prevent its spread:

  1. Shelter in Place- striving to stay indoors whenever possible
  2. Wearing a mask when you needed to venture outside

US citizens adopted those tactics to varying degrees: some (we assume to be Democrat-leaning, liberal, city dwellers) proudly stayed indoors, bought cloth masks, and limited their exposure. Others (we assume to be Republican-leaning, conservative, country dwellers) produly did not.

Coronavirus spread more easily because of the politicization of masks One head-scratcher coming out of this whole crisis is: how did wearing a mask become a political act? Somewhere along the way, wearing a mask meant that you believed in the Coronavirus, which then meant that you were a Democrat, which then meant that you were likely working to destroy the livelihoods of true Americans.

This provided an obliging pathway for the Coronavirus to spread through churches, pool parties, and backyard gatherings.

2. OODA Loops

OODA Loops are a concept that startups have borrowed from the military. OODA stands for Observe > Orient > Decide > Act. You loop through this cycle, and, theoretically, you win in, say, a dogfight, an engagement, or a fight for ridesharing supremacy

There are a couple of ideas that spawn from OODA:

  1. Speed is key: if you can spin your loop faster than the other side can, you have a distinct tactical advantage over your opponent. Everybody talks about this one: this is the popular jock of the OODA Loop manifesto
  2. There's a limit to how fast you can spin your loop, so you're better off slowing down your opponents' loops. This is the one that people don't talk about: this is the quiet nerd that was hot all along

How to slow down your opponents' loops

  1. You can overwhelm them with information: attacking them during the "Observe" step
  2. You can disorient them by acting in a sudden, unexpected, forceful way. This means that the magnitude of the information your opponent is Observing is SO LARGE, that it slows down their Orientation step
  3. You can deliberately mislead your opponent into a false reality: this means that they Observe and Orient, but their map no longer matches reality

Let's discuss how the OODA Loop plays out in an example.

3. The fight between two competing startups: Co.rona and No.rona

For the sake of this contrived example, let's just assume that these two companies have settled their name lawsuit out of court and are content to have wildly distinctive branding that makes them impossible to confuse.

Their TAM is 350 million Americans (for now: they're working on a localization feature set that should allow them to aggressively expand globally).

Even though No.rona holds majority market share, Co.rona has been making huge strides in user adoption in the past few months. How, though? No.rona has years of science on its side, some of the smartest, most dedicated scientists in the world, and Co.rona also kills a percentage of its users every week.

Co.rona has a huge set of advantages in this fight

Researchers looked at the competition between anti- and pro-vaccination news. In a pool of 3 billion Facebook users, the researchers identified anti-vax, pro-vax, and undecided clusters, and then traced the passage of news between them.

They found that although anti-vax clusters are smaller, that makes room for MORE of them, which provides "a large number of sites for engagements”.

In our analogy, this would look like Co.rona having on-the-ground presence in multiple cities, while the more established but slower No.rona reaches customers through traditional channels like school and public health campaigns.

Further, anti-vax clusters “offer a wide range of potentially attractive narratives that blend topics such as safety concerns, conspiracy theories and alternative health and medicine, and also now the cause and cure of the COVID-19 virus".

The Co.rona sales team has a variety of approaches to objection handling: vaccinations cause autism; vaccinations are a way for the government to get control over you; vaccinations don’t even work; etc. Whereas No.rona has the old standby, "get vaccinated".

Co.rona's largest advantage, of course, is that it doesn't have to tell the truth No.rona is based in science. That's great: the scientific method helped us beat polio and evolve our model of germ theory past ~~miasmas~~. But it slows No.rona down.

Science is necessarily cautious. It lives in the world of probabilities, confidence intervals, and manifold possibilities, rather than binary, black-and-white choices. And that puts it at a distinct disadvantage against a competitor that moves much faster and aggressively.

Co.rona has no such baggage. Their bar for proof is much lower, and it's way easier to argue the con argument than the pro. It also benefits from the fact that the path of least resistance skews toward Co.rona: if you don't actively change your behavior—buy a mask or go out less often—you're going to become a Co.rona customer.

4. Bringing it back to OODA Loops

Co.rona is running loops around No.rona. Remember the ways to slow down your opponent:

  1. You can overwhelm them with information
  2. You can disorient them by acting in a sudden, unexpected, forceful way
  3. You can deliberately mislead your opponent into a false reality

(1) There are so many narratives out there it's hard to figure out which one to try to disprove first:

(2) I believe the Plandemic fits into this category. It was a sudden, unexpected, forceful message that felt true. The highly-produced, professional looking video gave a sheen of credibility. It was so different from the regular Facebook groups full of anti-vax yawps that it took people an extra second to realize that this wasn't true (some people haven't yet realized). And in that second, it spread. As Terry Pratchett said: “A lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth has even got its boots on”.

(3) The research paper above found that anti-vax clusters dominate in the main sphere, while pro-vax clusters are relegated to the smaller sphere. Because of this, pro-vax clusters look around them and believe they are winning.

Some of this is intentional, like the case in which the Florida Department of Health abruptly fired their chief data scientist amid her claims that COVID-19 data was being manipulated. But this is also the hard part about trying to model large numbers in aggregate: it becomes really hard to ensure data integrity (but that's another article for another day).

5. What can No.rona do?

Therein lies the rub. If we knew what to do, we would have already. I've got some ideas, but public health policy is certainly not my domain, so these are going to have a severe tech bent to them.

I said above that there is an upper limit to how fast you can spin your own loop, so it's better to invest in disrupting your opponents' loops. However, I think No.rona DEFINITELY has room to speed up its loop. This could look like:

In Marketing, we have this idea of an educated consumer. An educated consumer has the appropriate information, data, and framing to make an informed choice in their purchase. Years of neglect of the educational and healthcare infrastructure in our country have resulted in a dangerously uneducated consumer. No.rona's best bet of slowing down Co.rona's loop speed would be to invest in this area.

6. Coda

Coronavirus spread like wildfire, and we helped it.

The spread of coronavirus can be modeled like two competing startups: Co.rona and No.rona

Co.rona benefitted from much faster OODA Loops, which allowed it to rapidly take market share

It accomplished this by slowing down No.rona's loop speed in three ways:

  1. Overwhelming No.rona with information
  2. Acting suddenly in an unexpected direction
  3. Misleading No.rona into believing a false reality

No.rona has some opportunities to speed up its loop, but its time and money would best be spent increasing the number of educated consumers in the world. It would be better served investing in education and healthcare infrastructure, which would help to slow down Co.rona's loop speed