Tag Archives: COVID

Disinformation Kills

Propaganda takes all sorts of different forms, and serves a variety of interests. Does the latest scientific knowledge undercut your fundamentalist religious or political beliefs? Does the upcoming election pit your preferred candidate against one who is espousing more popular measures? Are you frantic because “those people” are asserting their entitlement to rights equal to your own, or because those you consider “real Americans” are losing their privileged  social or cultural positions?

Lie. Target those lies to an audience likely to be unsure or unaware of the facts and thus receptive to your preferred version of reality. Examples emerge daily. Allow me to share a few.

From Axios, we learn:

In March 2020, when everything changed, roughly nine in 10 Americans, regardless of their preferred media outlet, said they trusted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Within weeks, though, that trust was plunging among Americans who mostly watch Fox News or other conservative outlets, as well as those who cited no source.
By the end of last month, just 16% of those who said they get most of their news from Fox or other conservative outlets still said they trust the CDC, compared to 77% of those who favor network news and major national newspapers and 87% of those who primarily watch CNN or MSNBC.

People who primarily got their news from Fox or other conservative media outlets were also more likely to be unvaccinated, and to report that they had tested positive for COVID-19 at some point during the pandemic.

An essay from the New York Times pointed out the under-appreciated damage being done by those despicable Rightwing “groomer” accusations.

As we head into the 2022 midterm elections, calling someone a “groomer” or a “child abuser” has become the conservative attack du jour. What once felt like language reserved for the followers of QAnon, a fringe community united by a central conspiracy theory that America is run by an elite ring of pedophiles, has seeped into the mainstream. The use of these terms has even sparked the anti-gay slur “OK, groomer,” a play on the phrase “OK, boomer,” which is often used by young people to disregard or mock retrograde arguments made by baby boomers…

If the politicians making those accusations were actually concerned about ending child abuse, the kinds of institutions they would be challenging would include religious organizations, youth sports and even the nuclear family — systems that exert control over children and their bodies. These are the venues where child sexual abuse commonly occurs. The misuse of these words is not about stopping abuse, but rather a reassertion of homophobia, gender hierarchy and political control.

The author of the essay, a survivor of actual childhood sexual abuse, points out that in the real world, this indiscriminate and dishonest accusation is “dangerous and corrosive to the very real and devastating experience of sexual abuse. To use these words in this way voids them of their real meaning and desensitizes civil society to bodily harms.”

It isn’t only America’s frantic culture warriors. Russia is fighting back against growing global ostracism by concocting a wholly-invented threat posed by Ukrainian “bio-labs.” That claim, according to NBC, has been eagerly seized on by the American Right.

Russia’s early struggles to push disinformation and propaganda about Ukraine have picked up momentum in recent days, thanks to a variety of debunked conspiracy theories about biological research labs in Ukraine. Much of the false information is flourishing in Russian social media, far-right online spaces and U.S. conservative media, including Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News…

 Most of the conspiracy theories claim that the U.S. was developing and plotting to release a bioweapon or potentially another coronavirus from “biolabs”’ throughout Ukraine and that Russia invaded to take over the labs. Many of the theories implicate people who are often the targets of far-right conspiracy thinking — including Dr. Anthony Fauci and President Joe Biden — as being behind creating the weaponized diseases in the biolabs.

We don’t know how many people died as a direct result of COVID disinformation, or how much real damage has been done by ludicrous “grooming” charges. We cannot calculate the percentage of wartime deaths in the Ukraine that can be attributed to the fact that several GOP Senators adopted the biolab fantasy and delayed the sending of critically-needed aid.

But there is one death from persistent disinformation that we can easily see: the death of civic discourse and Americans’ ability to govern ourselves.

I used to tell my students that if I say a piece of furniture is a chair and you say it’s a table, we will never be able to agree on its use. If you prefer fantasy A to uncomfortable but demonstrable fact B, or “alternative facts” to reality, that preference is deadly to the democratic enterprise. 

 

 

 

This Is Important

I know I harp a lot on the negative consequences of today’s media and information environment, but it matters. When you consider the combined effects of the ability to choose your own reality and embarrassingly low levels of civic literacy (which I have been harping about for years), one of those effects is shockingly low levels of trust.

Americans don’t trust government, they don’t trust business, they don’t trust scientists and–as we are seeing–they don’t trust doctors.

And it matters.

A recent study  published by the Lancet and reported in the Washington Post linked those low levels of trust to America’s relatively poor response to COVID. The article began by reporting on the success of Vietnam in maintaining low levels of infection, despite the fact that, according to traditional tenets of preparedness, that country wouldn’t have been expected to perform as well as it did.

The research uncovered an unexpected reason.

“What Vietnam does have, that seems to potentially explain what has happened, is that they have very high trust in government — among the highest in the world,” said Bollyky, who is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

The peer-reviewed study was published Tuesday in the Lancet, a top medical journal, following 10 months of research by Bollyky, his colleague Erin Hulland, a scholar at the University of Washington, and a team of dozens.
The aim of the study was to answer a question that has been dubbed the “epidemiological mystery” of the pandemic: Why did the coronavirus hit some countries so much harder than others?

As the researchers explored that question, they realized that the traditional models for pandemic preparedness didn’t fit what they were seeing. Countries with better outcomes had high levels of trust in government and other citizens. Perceptions of government corruption correlated with worse outcomes.

Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, and an expert who was not involved in the study, said the research was evidence for what many already argue.

“Trust in government and strength of community engagement is critical to public health response,” Katz wrote in an email. “Experts from multiple disciplines have pointed to the importance of risk communication, community engagement and trust as critical to public health messages and policies being implemented. The findings in this paper emphasize just how important this is.”

Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said the research showed that “the battle of human being against pathogen was mediated by governments.”

“It’s really a Chicken Little situation,” Sharfstein added. “If people don’t believe what the government is saying, then people will be less likely to take the precautions that they need to take.”

It turns out that trust in government and in your fellow citizens is strongly associated with vaccination rates, among other things.

I’ve always disliked people who say “I told you so”–but in 2009, I wrote a book that told you so. It was titled Distrust, American Style and in it I argued that the social distrust that was already pervasive began with distrust of government. (As one chapter argued , “Fish Rot from the Head.”)

In that book, I marshaled data produced by numerous political scientists showing that over the preceding decades, Americans had become steadily less trusting of each other, and that as America’s diversity increases, our trust in our neighbors declines. My research convinced me that the growth of diversity isn’t the reason we trust less. (That old academic axiom that correlation isn’t causation is correct.) I was–and remain–convinced that the culprit is a loss of faith in our social and governing institutions– and that the remedy is to make them trustworthy once more, starting with government.

I argued for the importance of several electoral and systemic reforms : elimination of gerrymandering, ensuring that–if we can’t get rid of it– the electoral-college is reformed to reflect the results of the popular vote, and Improved government accountability. We need these and a number of other reforms so that Americans can be confident that constitutional checks and balances are honored and that government agencies are run by true experts, not political appointees.

In the years since that book was published (shameless plug: it’s still available on Amazon), trust has declined even more precipitously. Americans no longer trust experts or expertise, and a frightening number of them are actively working to dismantle the country–egged on by a far-right media taking advantage of our widespread ignorance of basic constitutional structures.

When you don’t understand how things are supposed to work, you don’t trust government–you trust Fox “News.”

Celebrating Ignorance

I will never understand political “leaders” who actively celebrate ignorance–or those who vote for them.

The lack of  basic civic literacy–which I’ve ranted about for years–is bad enough. The utter cluelessness of people who piously declaim their reverence for life while making it easier for the violent and mentally-ill to acquire and carry firearms is appalling. But nothing–nothing–in my adult lifetime has been as incredible and ignorant as the anti-COVID vaccine “movement.”

A recent essay in the Washington Post echoed my reaction. The essay wasn’t written by a hated “librul,” but by Michael Gerson, an Evangelical Christian refugee from the GOP who served in the administration of George W. Bush. As he said in his introduction

When the future judges our political present, it will stand in appalled, slack-jawed amazement at the willingness of GOP leaders to endanger the lives of their constituents — not just the interests of their constituents, but their lungs and beating hearts — in pursuit of personal power and ideological fantasies.

That observation–the recognition that the GOP officials preaching anti-vaccination nonsense are actually complicit in killing their own partisans–is what I find so incomprehensible. I can’t decide if these people are truly as ignorant as they sound, or if they are playing to what increasingly seems to be a death-wish of their rabid base.

Gerson divides them into three categories.

The first, practiced most vigorously by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, uses an ongoing pandemic as a stage for the display of ideological zeal. In this view, the covid-19 crisis — rather than being a story of remarkable but flawed scientists and public health experts deploying the best of science against a vicious microbe — has been an opportunity for the left to impose “authoritarian, arbitrary and seemingly never-ending mandates and restrictions.” Never mind that U.S. public health officials are not part of the left, and are authentically confused about the equation of their advice with ideology.

As Gerson notes, populists like DeSantis are demonstrating that “their MAGA commitments outweigh all common sense, public responsibility and basic humanity.”

The second category is populated by conspiracy theorists (and major twits) like  Rand Paul. These jackasses are playing “crackpot roulette.” They

 depict the most visible representatives of the United States’ covid response as scheming, deceptive deep-state operatives. Any change in emphasis or strategy by scientists — an essential commitment of the scientific method — is viewed as rich opposition research.

Paul talks of jailing Anthony S. Fauci in the midst of our public health crisis on the basis of imaginary claims. But the fundraising appeals to MAGA loyalists that immediately follow such attacks by Paul and others are real. And for a subset of true believers, Paul’s acts of dehumanization provide cover and permission for threats of violence against scientists and their families.

Senator Ron Johnson exemplifies Gerson’s third category of Republican ignorance peddlers. Gerson dubs this category “the practice of strategic ignorance” and he notes that in the case of Johnson —” one of America’s most reliable source of unreliable information” — such ignorance might not be feigned.

He might well believe that gargling with mouthwash call kill the coronavirus, and that thousands of people are regularly dying from vaccine side effects, and that a pandemic that has taken more than 800,000 lives in the United States is “overhyped.”…

Johnson is not only making dangerous statements about the coronavirus. He is using his willingness to cite stupid things as the evidence of his independence from the rule of professionals and experts. He is defining democracy, in the words of Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters,” as “unearned respect for unfounded opinions.” Johnson is practicing strategic ignorance.

As Gerson points out, all of these behaviors encourage the development of alternative realities, and make the pursuit of a common good difficult if not impossible. But the damage goes well beyond that–to celebrate ignorance during a pandemic is an invitation to die.

If a significant group of Americans regard the musing of a politician such as Johnson as equal in value to Fauci’s lifelong accumulation of expertise, the basis for rational action is lost. And the result is needless death.

Gerson is an example of the sane Republicans who used to dominate the GOP, partisans whose policy positions were based upon drawing different conclusions from a reality shared with Democrats and Independents, not upon invented “facts,” conspiracies, or a spineless need to assure the party’s increasingly lunatic base that–as Isaac Asimov would have put it–their ignorance is just as good as the hard-won knowledge of those stuck-up elitists.

A country where a significant percentage of people revel in, pander to and/or actively celebrate ignorance is in big trouble–even without a pandemic.

 

The Story Of Today’s America

Discussions on this blog tend to be conducted in relatively abstract terms. It can be easy to forget the power of particularity–the power of stories–to bring them home.

A lengthy report in last Sunday’s New York Times reminded me of that power–rather forcefully.

The article described one of the numerous fights over mask requirements, this particular one in Enid, Oklahoma. It began by focusing on a public meeting, and the discomfort of an Air Force sergeant, Jonathan Waddell, who had moved to Enid with his family seven years before, when he’d retired. He’d thrown himself into the community, and won a seat on the City Council. He supported the mask mandate–unlike the throng of people dressed in red who filled the chamber that night.

He had noticed something was different when he drove up in his truck. The parking lot was full, and people wearing red were getting out of their cars greeting one another, looking a bit like players on a sports team. As the meeting began, he realized that they opposed the mandate. It was almost everybody in the room.

The meeting was unlike any he had ever attended. One woman cried and said wearing a mask made her feel like she did when she was raped at 17. Another read the Lord’s Prayer and said the word “agenda” at the top of the meeting schedule seemed suspicious. A man quoted Patrick Henry and handed out copies of the Constitution.

“The line is being drawn, folks,” said a man in jeans and a red T-shirt. He said the people in the audience “had been shouted down for the last 20 years, and they’re finally here to draw a line, and I think they’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough.’”

 People were talking about masks, but Waddell said “it felt like something else.”

That “something else” became depressingly clear as the Times described the woman who had organized the red-shirted attendees. It’s one thing to speculate about the fears and resentments motivating QAnon and “Big Lie” believers and anti-vaccine cultists…but the Times story put a face on those resentments.

Melissa Crabtree is “a home-schooling mother who owns a business selling essential oils and cleaning products.

She said she came to the conclusion that the government was misleading Americans. For whose benefit she could not tell. Maybe drug companies. Maybe politicians. Whatever the case, it made her feel like the people in charge saw her — and the whole country of people like her — as easy to take advantage of.

“I don’t like to be played the fool,” said Ms. Crabtree, who also works as an assistant to a Christian author and speaker. “And I felt like they were counting on us — us being the general population — on being the fool.”

She felt contempt radiating from the other side, a sense that those who disagreed with her felt superior and wanted to humiliate her.

The article went into considerable detail about Crabtree’s unquestioning Evangelical religiosity, including her decision to homeschool her children to protect them from a culture she deplores–from its sexual “perversions” and the left’s “preoccupation with race” and its telling of history.

“Why all of a sudden are we teaching our 5-year-olds to be divided by color?” she said. “They don’t care what color your skin is until you tell them that that 5-year-old’s grandpa was mean 200 years ago.”

Crabtree’s organizing was successful; the mask mandate died. But the schism in Enid hardened.

Mr. Waddell voted for the mask mandate, and the reaction was immediate. The following Sunday, people he had prayed with for years avoided him at church. The greeters, an older couple he knew well, looked the other way when he walked by. Several people left the church altogether because of his association with it, he said.

It wasn’t just Waddell. Ben Ezzell, the city commissioner who introduced the mask mandate got veiled warnings  — mostly via email and Facebook. Someone dumped trash on his lawn. At one City Council meeting, “a man shouted that he knew where Mr. Ezzell lived. Another meeting got so tense that police officers insisted on escorting him to his car.”

In February, the Red Shirts swept the local elections, winning three seats on the City Council — including Mr. Waddell’s and Mr. Ezzell’s.  During the year, through a series of elections, appointments and City Council votes, they’ve placed four candidates on the school board and another four on the library board.

The article is lengthy, but I strongly encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety. It is eye-opening.

As the reporter noted, what we are seeing–nationally, and not just in Enid– is a deeply disturbing argument about what it means to be an American, and whose version of the country will prevail.

 

There’s A Monster Under The Bed!

I’ve given up trying to understand the anti-vaccine crazies. The arguments they pose are nonsensical: “I don’t know what’s in them!” (They don’t know what’s in the hot dogs they eat, among a million other things.) “There’s a chip inserted by Bill Gates!” (Yes, it’s in the cell phone you cheerfully carry!) “My friend’s brother got diabetes after getting his shot!” (“After this, therefore because of this” is one of the oldest logical fallacies…). And don’t even get me started on the claims that requiring sensible public health measures violates the Constitution– people who insist government can require a woman to carry a pregnancy to term while arguing that government lacks authority to require people to get vaccinated, are beyond the reach of reason.)

Logic and reason, clearly, have nothing to do with it. 

I was recently sharing my frustration with the young woman who cuts my hair, who told me that her sister– a nurse in a local hospital –is equally frustrated. And angry. According to her sister, the hospital is coping with overflow conditions caused almost entirely by unvaccinated people, and they are not just sick, but unpleasant and irrational. A large number of them refuse to believe they have Covid, insisting that it must be something else, because Covid is a hoax. 

In fact, she said, her sister has characterized these patients as “big babies,” who are making the job of tending to them considerably more difficult than it needs to be.

Evidently, those “big babies” are convinced that vaccines are the monsters hiding under their beds…

What is interesting–if maddening–is that this irrational behavior is largely occurring on the political right (although left-wingers who see conspiracies where the rest of us see human complexity also subscribe.)  A recent article from The Week suggests a reason for those statistics showing that Republicans are dying at far greater rates than Democrats.

The article recounted several recent speeches by rightwing ideologues, and summarized the worldview common to them:

The right believes that the progressive left hates America; that it is an evil totalitarian cult which has infiltrated every institution; and that it is using a mix of business, bullying, and technological surveillance to deconstruct both masculinity and the United States as a whole in order to create a world without belonging.

In other words, the cult that has replaced the once-respectable GOP believes that “the progressive left” (i.e., everyone to the left of lunacy) is the monster under the bed. They actually believe that Democrats and moderate (i.e. sane) Republicans are capable of constructing and executing a co-ordinated, well-planned and utterly nefarious effort to destroy the America that exists in their fevered imaginations. 

Because???

The sheer number of people who have imbibed this Kool-Aid is scary enough, but the threat they pose to the rest of us is monstrous. As RFK Jr’s family has written, “his and others’ work against vaccines is having heartbreaking consequences.” We probably wouldn’t be facing the Omicron upsurge in Covid if vaccination rates had been higher, but the dangers posed by widespread acceptance of these conspiracy theories goes well beyond a deadly pandemic. We wouldn’t be teetering on the brink of something like Civil War if more people were intellectually or emotionally able to resist the lure of simple answers (It’s the bad guys! They’re the monster under the bed!) to complicated realities.

What was that famous quote by H.L. Mencken? “For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” 

Evidently, America is home to a depressingly large number of people willing to believe that all their problems can be solved just by destroying the imaginary monster under the bed…and if destroying the monster means eliminating democracy, well…so be it.