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The High Cost of Misinformation

By Derek May:

Copyright 2021 Bloomberg Finance LP

The events of January 6, 2021, enraged me. Not because I was particularly surprised to see a group of mostly White Trump supporters, many in quasi-military gear and no masks, storming the cradle of our country’s democracy but because of what led them there. If we go back weeks, months, years even, we can see the trail of breadcrumbs that made this horrific insurrection practically inevitable. As the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies are coming to discover, this was not a sudden rush of fervent exuberance—for many, it was planned. But even for those caught up in the moment, they followed the same trail.

Particularly over these last four years, Americans have struggled to talk to one another. But why? I mean, it’s not like disagreements are anything new to the human race.

So why should this particular time feel so unusual, our conversations so divided by what appears to be an impassable gulf?

That’s the question that’s been on my mind so much lately. And I keep coming back to the same answer. Rational discourse requires both parties to agree on certain fundamental truths. We can debate, for example, whether daylight savings should continue or not, but the points are typically argued from two sides that agree that time and seasons are dictated by the revolution of a round Earth in orbit around a spherical sun at a scientifically measurable pace. Arguing daylight savings with a flat-Earther is a non-starter, because you couldn’t possibly get to the relevant parts of the argument without being bogged down in a dozen nonsensical tangents.

Perhaps I’m looking through rose-colored glasses, but it seems to me that previously the idea of arguing with a flat-Earther was sort of like winning the lottery: the chances of it happening were pretty slim. I mean, those used to be the people lurking in dark corners, either real or virtual, posting their specious conclusions to a tiny group of followers too small to matter, except for the occasional single extremist who pops up to do real damage. When John Hinkley Jr. shot Reagan for Jodie Foster, we say that dude’s crazy, he’s a one-off. When you heard that Ted Kacynski bombed buildings because people wouldn’t listen to him, we said, “What a kook!”

The difference I see now is that the kooks aren’t isolated. The ideas aren’t confined to a few crazies. Lies, deceptions, conspiracy theories, and misinformation are EVERYWHERE. And they’re not being repeated only by the socially awkward slobs in the basement, they’re being spread like wildfire by our families, our friends, our leaders, by a former president of the United States. Our greatest resources for connection and information have been twisted into avenues to enforce agendas and confuse the masses.

That’s terrifying.

But why should it be? This is a free country, right? People have the right to say what they want and believe what they want, don’t they? Well . . . not exactly. This is one of the many problems here. People screaming at the top of their lungs about “Freedom” don’t seem to really understand what that means. The United States is not a free-for-all; you cannot just do and say anything you want. We are a constitutional republic governed by a plethora of laws, most of which the average person doesn’t understand.

Ask any random citizen to name five Amendments. Most can immediately rattle off the first two, and after that . . . ? Yeah.

Let’s take those two for a moment. Freedom of Speech, for example, has limits. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. You can’t specifically threaten another person. Freedom of Religion doesn’t mean only your religious beliefs are protected, it means they ALL are, and that takes a balancing act sometimes. And the venerable Second Amendment doesn’t mean you can instantly have any gun you want without any oversight; it says a “well regulated Militia” has the right to keep and bear arms. Curious how many of us with high-capacity fully automatic machine guns are up on our militia dues? But the point is, there are limits to our freedoms, and it’s important to understand what our rights actually are and what restrictions are placed on them before we go rallying others to righteous anger—and potential violence.

Because the question then becomes whether we’re trying to persuade someone to a reasoned point of view or if we’re just angry and want other people to be angry with us.

And that’s a sentiment I surely get. When I’m upset by some jerk driving past my house blasting his bass like it’s a concert while I’m trying to relax, I want others to recognize my fury as justified and support my condemnation. I might feel better not because the jerk understood his rudeness and changed his behavior but because people listened and agreed with me. Vindication is sometimes better than actual justice. And nowadays, that’s practically the entire purpose of social media. I’m angry, and it makes me feel better to when you’re angry too. But when that selfish sentiment starts to grow beyond seeking sympathies from your understanding spouse or best friend into whipping dozens, hundreds, thousands, into a frenzy, it can take on a life of its own and have disastrous consequences.

Let’s take the pandemic. Most medical organizations, leaders, and workers will repeatedly tell you that controlling the pandemic starts with some very simple, very easy-to-follow guidelines:

1) Wear a Mask (that covers your nose and face) and wash your hands,

2) Stay at least 6 ft apart from people outside your household or bubble, and

3) Avoid large crowds and gatherings.

Not bad, right? I mean, we’re not being asked to buy war bonds, grow victory gardens, or volunteer for D-Day here. And yet, many people—FAR too many people—fail or refuse to do these three simple things during one of the worst plagues (that’s right, it’s a plague!) in our history. Why? Why would people be so reluctant to do even the simplest things?

Leaving out the percentage of pure, unabashed selfishness and childlike refusal, the majority of those who push back in some form do so because of the information they have received. Despite the majority of sources saying the same thing, there are those who continue to push the idea that masks are not effective, that death tolls are inflated, that enforcement of any restrictions on behavior are draconian and violate our freedoms.

And here’s the thing: raising these issues isn’t inherently bad. One of the unquestionable freedoms we have is to ask questions. Nothing wrong with that. But when questioning ideas gains traction and authority not by experts or by data or by truth but by fringe pundits who claim to have solid support that ultimately doesn’t hold to scrutiny, then we have a problem.

People, for example, laughing at CDC posts and claiming they have studies showing how masks are not effective are cherry-picking elements from legitimate (and sometime illegitimate) work for their own ends. But hey, we’re not scientists, we can’t be expected to comb through study after study to know what’s what, come on! True, and so we rely on people we trust to tell us the truth. And thus we narrow down to the heart of the matter.

We have to discern who is telling the truth and who is pushing their own agenda, either for ideology or, more often, profit.

A perfect example is what we’ve seen with Dr. Anthony Fauci. When he first came onto the scene, he was universally touted and accepted as an expert due to his extensive career as a physician and as one of the top immunologists in the country. Slowly but surely, his reputation took a hit amongst a not-insignificant range of the population accusing him of flip-flopping, incompetence, and even political bias. Looking back, we can trace the descent. The scientific method requires not only careful observation and study but a re-evaluation of conclusions based on the results of new data. At the start, no one knew much about COVID-19, and so recommendations were made based on what we did know. Those changed as our understanding changed, per the method. Science adjusted, people did not. Either a misunderstanding of how science works or people adhering to the talking heads led to fervent push back against Dr. Fauci, science, and even what they can see happening with their own eyes. People continue to criticize the deathtolls based on a misunderstanding of how the virus affects the human body and how medical examiners determine causes of death. These dissenters post their “evidence” from doctors and articles and sources that when placed under examination are overwhelmed by the real data.

AFP via Getty Images

Some do this for specific, nefarious reasons, but others are innocent casualties of this ongoing war with the truth. They say “History is written by the victors,” but in a world where information of all kinds is available on tap, 24/7, from millions of sources, history is literally being rewritten by the minute. We saw Trump supporters storm the Capitol, then suddenly it was Anti-Fa (which isn’t even an organization), then that was retracted. They were violent, then they were peaceful, then they were violent again. The problem here isn’t that a full understanding of what happened becomes clearer as new information comes to light; the problem is when people pounce on partial information as fact and/or refuse to accept new information.

Those who continue to push falsehoods lure in citizens who are just trying to suss it all out and instead end up aligning their beliefs with whatever echo-chamber they’ve come to trust.

We need look no further than the laughable Q-Anon conspiracy starting to unravel. If there was ever a tinfoil hat brigade, it’s this, and yet not only has this cult only grown in