Pandemics, misinformation and pseudoscience

Credit: U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention

Covid-19 and the misinformation pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted human life like no other event of modern history. As of the present date (1 Mar 2021), over 114,000,000 confirmed cases and 2.5 million deaths have been recorded worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University database. The U.S. has recorded over 514,000 deaths, and the U.K. has recorded over 123,000. The U.S. death toll, for instance, exceeds the combined combat death toll of all wars fought in its 245-year history (save only the civil war). And for every death there are thousands more, particularly among less fortunate populations, who have lost employment, suffered depression, depleted savings or were deprived educationally.

Sadly, alongside the Covid-19 pandemic, and often inextricably intertwined with it, the world has seen a pandemic of misinformation and pseudoscience. While notions that are at odds with facts and science have always circulated in the public arena, the global rise of smartphones and social media has supercharged the proliferation of such material. What’s worse, numerous key issues have become politicized, further hampering progress.

Misinformation in the Covid-19 pandemic

First and foremost, there has been a flood of misinformation on the Covid-19 pandemic. Here are some of the hopelessly misinformed claims that have proliferated just in the past year:

  1. Covid-19 death counts have been greatly exaggerated by the media.
  2. Bill Gates has inserted microchips in vaccines to monitor the public or cull undesirables.
  3. 5G cell phone towers cause or exacerbate coronavirus infections.
  4. The coronavirus was engineered in a Chinese lab.
  5. Covid-19 is no more serious than influenza.
  6. Increased case counts are merely due to increased testing.
  7. Masks are useless to prevent Covid-19.
  8. Hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for Covid-19.

These claims, all which have been thoroughly debunked (see the links above), are not just child’s play. They are having tragic consequences, almost certainly worsening and extending the pandemic, not just in the U.S. but also worldwide. Some of more worrisome developments include:

  1. Activists have burned numerous cell phone towers in the U.K., Netherlands and Belgium, thinking they are behind Covid-19.
  2. Paranoia over 5G and Covid-19 may have led to the Christmas Day bombing in Nashville, Tennessee.
  3. An anti-vaccination movement is growing rapidly in Germany.
  4. Roughly one sixth of U.K. residents would not receive vaccination, due to anti-vaccination propaganda.
  5. Whole towns in Mexico are refusing vaccination.
  6. More than one third of Americans would not receive vaccination, even if offered free.
  7. Roughly 40% of U.S. nursing home staff are refusing vaccination.
  8. Roughly one third of the U.S. military are refusing vaccination.

The elephant in the room

Sadly, as much as the present author dislikes venturing into political matters, in this discussion it is impossible to ignore “the elephant in the room,” namely the most unfortunate promotion of false and misleading information by former U.S. President Donald J. Trump. To begin with, Mr. Trump repeatedly disseminated false information on the Covid-19 pandemic, which in many cases government officials have found necessary to rebut. This includes:

  1. Repeated assertions that Covid-19 was a “Chinese epidemic” (it was first detected in Wuhan, China, but it is misleading to blame China for its worldwide spread).
  2. Repeated claims that Covid-19 is no more serious than influenza.
  3. Repeated claims that increased case counts were almost entirely due to increased testing.
  4. Refusal to wear a mask or insist on masks at his public rallies (Stanford researchers estimate 30,000 cases and 700 deaths as a result).
  5. Repeated claims that the Covid-19 pandemic would very soon “go away”.
  6. Repeated claims that hydroxychloroquine is effective in treating Covid-19.
  7. Refusal to disavow wild Covid-19 conspiracy theories by groups such as QAnon.

The U.S. election

Even these actions paled in comparison with Trump’s nonstop claims, starting a few months before the 2020 presidential election, that the election was “rigged,” that large numbers of votes were “fraudulent,” that he actually won the election “by a landslide,” and, in total, that the election was “stolen” from him and his followers.

Needless to say, these claims are wholly, utterly false. Joe Biden won the electoral college vote 306 to 232, and won the popular vote by a margin of over 7,000,000 votes. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, led by Trump-appointed officials, concluded its investigation by announcing that the November 2020 election was the most secure ever. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a devoted Trump loyalist, confirmed that the Justice Department had uncovered no voting fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election. Several states conducted careful audits of their results, finding no significant differences. A statewide audit in Georgia, for instance, found virtually identical counts.

Trump’s legal team filed over 60 lawsuits, in state courts, in U.S. District Courts, and even in the U.S. Supreme Court. Only one of these legal actions was successful, in a Pennsylvania case that covered only about 200 votes. Many of these lawsuits were dismissed on procedural, timing or standing bases, but in numerous key cases the detailed claims were considered, and invariably found wanting. In a Wisconsin case, for instance, the court ruled:

This is an extraordinary case. A sitting president who did not prevail in his bid for reelection has asked for federal court help in setting aside the popular vote based on disputed issues of election administration, issues he plainly could have raised before the vote occurred. This Court has allowed plaintiff the chance to make his case and he has lost on the merits.

For an exhaustive examination of Trump’s claims of election malfeasance, see this Washington Post report.

Credit: WIkimedia, Tyler Merbler

The tragic consequences of falsehood

For several months leading up to early January 2021, many observers, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, had watched Mr. Trump’s patently false claims and quixotic legal moves with a sort of bemused puzzlement, not taking any of it very seriously. This naive mindset was tragically shattered on January 6, when an armed mob of thousands, riled by months of “election was stolen” rhetoric and fiery speeches by Trump and loyalists on the morning of the event, stormed the U.S. capitol building in a violent insurrection, attempting in vain to thwart the U.S. Congress’ final certification of the election results.

For his part in pressuring state officials to change vote counts, promoting the insurrection and refusing to stop it for several hours, Mr. Trump became the first U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives a second time. He was ultimately acquitted in the Senate (57 of 100 senators voted for conviction, short of the 67 required). But the shocking images of the insurrection, displayed in worldwide newscasts and at the trial (see video transcripts) will not soon be forgotten.

One consequence of the insurrection is that the Republican Party is now deeply divided. Figures such as Mitt Romney (the party’s 2012 candidate) have declared that they can no longer support Trump, yet others (including 59% of the rank-and-file party members) endorse him as the leading Republican contender for the 2024 presidential election. 76% of Republicans remain convinced by Trump’s propaganda that the election was “stolen” and that Biden is an illegitimate president.

Words and facts matter

At the very least, both the Covid-19 pandemic and the January 6 storming of the U.S. capitol have destroyed the claims of those who dismiss the daily parade of misinformation on various news and social media platforms as mere “talk,” of little real long-term importance. To the contrary, words and facts matter, and can have life-and-death consequences. Public officials especially must be held accountable for the language they use. We must never again allow such extreme departures from facts and scientific reality to take hold, either in the U.S. or anywhere else.

Misinformation on social media

The events of the past year have also highlighted the role of large social media platforms in the propagation of misinformation. Facebook has 2.8 billion active users, and Twitter has 330 million users. Both platforms have recently increased their efforts to monitor usage for false and misleading posts. Both, for instance, have now banned Mr. Trump. But many observers remain concerned that misinformation still reigns across the social media landscape.

At the present time, the U.S. Congress is considering additional regulations on large tech firms, but it is not clear how this will turn out, since the issue is highly politicized — for example, some legislators have decried the media firms’ recent anti-misinformation efforts as “censorship.” Similarly, the European Union is considering additional regulation to curb “fake news and disinformation,” but again it is not clear how effective these measures will be.

Credit: Wikimedia, Bill Branson

Looking in the mirror

If social media companies and legislators cannot protect us from misinformation, then what can we do?

The answer may be looking at us in the mirror. Maybe each of us needs to rethink our attachment to social media and the amount of time we spend immersed in social media, and, more generally, to rethink the sources of our information.

Michael Caulfield, a digital media scholar at Washington State University Vancouver, urges the public to “resist the lure of rabbit holes, … by reimagining media literacy for the internet hellscape we occupy.” Caulfield encapsulates his recommendations into four principles (with apt acronym “SIFT”):

  1. Stop.
  2. Investigate the source.
  3. Find better coverage.
  4. Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context.

Charles Weizel adds:

Our focus isn’t free, and yet we’re giving it away with every glance at a screen. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the economics are in our favor. Demand for our attention is at an all-time high, and we control supply. It’s time we increased our price.

Perhaps the single most effective tool at our disposal is to shift our focus away from social media and instead to internationally recognized news sources. Some recommended platforms include the BBC, the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and, for scientific news and information, Nature, Science, New Scientist and Scientific American. It is true that viewing more than a handful of articles per month from any one of these sites (except BBC) requires a paid subscription. But isn’t being a well-informed member of the world society worth the modest cost?

After all, we are what we read.

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