Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Bill Gates created the coronavirus. China secretly developed it in a lab as a biological weapon. A cure exists and the government controls it, but won’t release it to the public. The virus is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu. Coronavirus is a “fake news” hoax manufactured by the news. You can use hand dryers to kill the virus, vitamin C, or lemon juice. The country is going to be quarantined under martial law, and the government will shut down all grocery stores so that no one can buy food. All of these claims are examples of conspiracies associated with coronavirus that have been perpetrated by social media.

Social media are a dangerous venue for information-gathering, especially in a pandemic. It’s not that these venues can’t be used to provide useful information, particularly if the people in one’s social network are transmitting news from credible sources. But in an era of post-truth, where almost half the voting-age population doesn’t vote, and less than half closely follow the news, reliance on social media as a source of information about the world is fraught with perils. And in a political culture as profoundly anti-intellectual as that of the U.S., it is easy for misinformation to masquerade as “common sense.”

It’s not just Trumpeters who are swallowing the President’s dangerous rhetoric about the coronavirus. Others are also at risk of succumbing to unfounded rumors, fabrications, and propaganda. Misinformation filters down to millions of Americans who don’t typically follow the news, but who are exposed to bad information through similarly ill-informed family and friends posting memes and other noise on social media. And many I know who don’t even consider themselves Trump supporters have also fallen victim to right-wing misinformation, because of their reliance on social media.

Many of my family and friends who rely on social media aren’t paying attention to the news. Any news. They log onto Facebook and consume memes and other links from friends who are intent on downplaying the coronavirus, and claiming that it’s a fake crisis fabricated by lying journalists, scientists, and academics. They post videos from “Dr. Drew” Pinsky, who claims coronavirus is a “press-created hysteria.” They think the CDC and the epidemiologists, virologists, and other medical experts’ warnings about the risks of coronavirus are wrong, because they’re simply making up statistics when they provide estimates for the number of Americans who may be infected.

Such behavior is incredibly parochial, in a nationalistic sense, and difficult to entertain when the people making these claims aren’t even paying attention to news reporting on coronavirus as a global pandemic. They maintain that we can’t know anything about anything regarding the virus’s spread, because it’s just too early to have accurate numbers on anything coronavirus-related. The message, implicitly and explicitly communicated, is blunt: since there is much uncertainty associated with the virus and infection rates, we shouldn’t be so worried about it.

I point out to these loved ones that coronavirus is a global problem, that we have global data on hundreds of thousands who have been infected and with a death count that is certain to be in the tens of thousands or more, and that it is much too late in the game to plead ignorance by claiming there’s no reliable information about the severity of the threat. It falls on deaf ears. If they’d been paying attention to what was happening across the world, they would have known that medical experts were saying in February that the virus’s spread was not a matter of if, but when. But these individuals don’t read the news, so they’re not fully aware of the dangers. And anyone who tries to disavow them of their erroneous beliefs is a wet towel who is out to spoil the party.

I’ve been attacked as a “shock” jock for sending out New York Times stories and CDC press releases providing updates in real-time on a rapidly evolving threat. To hear them tell it, I’m unnecessarily stoking fear and hysteria. Because after all, the CDC and New York Times aren’t reputable information sources, but “fake news” venues that peddle fear for profit and prestige.

One serious problem is that so many people are so unaware of the political world around them that they don’t even know that many of the claims they’re pushing are Trump administration and far-right media propaganda talking points. Social media, within this context, has become a tremendously successful tool of hegemonic control, manipulation, and false consciousness. For the loved ones who I’ve struggled to reach, they reject the warnings of scientific experts and view journalists reporting on updates to a spreading pandemic with contempt, because what these sources are saying is so far out of line with what they hear from their Facebook friends. Such is the way of things with social media-induced echo chambers and bubbles.

I hear not a word from these individuals about how the Trump administration has completely failed the nation in containing this pandemic. They don’t read newspapers, so they don’t know about Trump’s gutting of the CDC and how he has told states they’re on their own when it comes to securing potentially life-saving medical equipment needed to combat the virus. They don’t know that Trump pushed against having more coronavirus testing capability because he feared that reports of a rising infection rate would hurt his reelection chances. And they don’t know that the president has publicly lambasted the media for exaggerating fears of coronavirus, while privately expressing serious concerns about being infected himself.

This is all symptomatic of the rampant anti-intellectualism that’s been simmering in the United States for decades and has now fully boiled over. It’s Orwellian. The experts are the fools. The masses are wise, even when they are ignorant – BECAUSE they are ignorant, proudly so, to the propaganda of all those lying academics, medical experts, and journalists. This is all straight out of the Trump reactionary populist playbook. Condemn anyone who believes in evidence-based reasoning, and the only ones left to lead are those with contempt for facts.

I’ve been painfully educated in recent days and weeks about the real “problem” in this country: elitism. What we need are more joe and jane six-packs, I’m told, who have common sense and shoot from the hip, and who will get this country going again. As we are now hearing from the Trump administration and its supporters, open everything back up and tell the fearmongering journalists and medical experts to get lost with their doomsaying and draconian mitigation efforts. The real risk, we’re told, is to the economy and peoples’ finances, more so than to the public health. And how do we even know this coronavirus thing is real? As the thinking goes: if I don’t have coronavirus (not that one would know with the lack of available testing), then how real can the problem be? Never mind that many Americans are silent carriers of the virus, unaware that they’ve had it for days or weeks, and only becoming aware after they’ve transmitted it to others.

I have a close family member who is now ranting about how the Chinese are to blame for all of this. He vacillates, like Trump, between claiming that the threat is exaggerated, and conceding that there is a real threat. I mention to him that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, because the U.S. gave the world Swine Flu, and we live in a country where 48 million Americans a year get food poisoning because of a filthy meat industry that spreads E coli and Salmonella. But he tells me he doesn’t want to hear that nonsense because he’s been to Chinatown in San Francisco (where he lives), and he knows how filthy the Chinese are. As someone who refuses to follow the “fake news,” he’s oblivious to the reality that this propaganda line about the “China virus” came from Trump.

Particularly bizarre are the schizophrenic claims I hear on social media about the risks Americans are facing. One minute I’m told coronavirus is a manufactured threat being stoked by elites. The next moment I’m told by these same individuals that they hear the government will be ordering a full military lockdown and that grocery stores will be forcibly closed. And since we won’t be able to eat anymore, best to run to the local Aldi or Target and clear out the shelves “ASAP.” These individuals don’t seem to be aware that this sort of schizophrenia is a sign of propaganda and manipulation from above. There’s even a name for it among those of us who study propaganda: Orwellian doublethink. And it is a powerful weapon for manipulating the public. By simultaneously filling people’s heads with contradictory falsehoods, officials can construct any truths that they like, and they can manipulate those “realities” from one day to the next. If this all sounds too conspiratorial, look no further than our president using coronavirus to declare a national emergency, while seeking the power to Americans in jail without due process and in violation of habeas corpus, alongside his claim that coronavirus is “fake news” fabrication.

These are scary times. And I don’t believe my experiences are isolated incidents. Rather, they reflect a bigger national problem, with large numbers of Americans being fundamentally misinformed about the dangers of coronavirus, and concerning the Trump administration’s role in intensifying this crisis. One poll from late-March finds that 55 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s “management” of the coronavirus crisis, up 12 percent from the last time it was surveyed in mid-month. In the face of a rapidly worsening crisis, a growing number of Americans are rejecting the notion that coronavirus represents a “real threat,” falling from 66 percent of Americans in mid-March to 56 percent in late month. Furthermore, large numbers continue to downplay the severity of the threat. Most Americans think that threat to the economy and their finances from coronavirus is greater than the dangers to their health. National polling from early-March found that only a quarter of Americans said they would “stop attending social events” in response to the virus. Just 18 percent were willing to shift their shopping from stores to online purchases, and only 17 percent said they would “cancel a personal trip.” Polling from late-March found that a third of Americans were “not too worried” or “not at all worried” about they or someone in their family getting infected. The same survey found a third were not avoiding “staying away from large groups,” while 41 percent had not avoided touching their faces, and only 11 percent were voluntarily “keeping children out of school” to prevent coronavirus spread.

As the Pew Research Center reports, only about a quarter of Americans saw the coronavirus as a serious threat to their health in mid-March. Mass ignorance is being fueled by public contempt for science and evidence-based reasoning. More than a fifth of Americans – or more than 50 million adults – think that the CDC has exaggerated the risks of coronavirus. While this is a minority of the public, this group represents a serious threat to public health if there are tens of millions of Americans who are failing to take basic precautions to limit the virus’s spread because of their contempt for scientific and medical warnings about coronavirus.

Furthermore, an even larger number of Americans – 62 percent – think the news media have exaggerated the threat of coronavirus. Importantly, such attitudes are directly linked to a lack of attention to the news, not greater engagement with reporting. Fifty-seven percent of Americans following the news closely on the coronavirus say that it is a major threat, compared to 39 percent of those following the news “fairly closely,” and just 28 percent of those following the news “not too closely” or “not at all.” In short, it is those who are the most uninformed about what is happening in the U.S. and world around them – via their failure to pay attention to the news – who are the most ignorant to the coronavirus threat. Holding skepticism of the media is not necessarily a sign, in and of itself, of people being misinformed. But when it’s accompanied by a near or complete failure to even engage in the news, it seems clear that the public is forming negative and misinformed views that are independent of any solid foundation.

This crisis should be a teachable moment, exposing the dangers of social media misinformation and officially-encouraged propaganda. But the problem of collective ignorance has been a long time coming, so there are no quick-fix, easy answers. Sadly, the country is going to suffer through great pains as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, and before many come to terms with the risks of anti-intellectualism and contempt for evidence-based reasoning in the post-truth era.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.