A perfect storm of medical misinformation and political disinformation is creating new challenges for the press, for social media platforms and for the public. Take just the events of the last few days. On the heels of his release from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, President Donald Trump stood on the balcony of the White House, removed his mask and then gave a short speech that was quickly uploaded to social media. “Maybe I’m immune, I don’t know,” he declared. The truth is, he is still very contagious. But the public declaration alarmed scientists, who are working to produce an effective and safe vaccine. Online, fans cheered that Trump had beaten Covid-19, even as he put his staff in danger.
A perfect storm of medical misinformation and political disinformation is creating new challenges for the press, for social media platforms, and for the public.
Trump followed up that appearance with a tweet downplaying the lethality of Covid-19 and implying that the flu kills “over 100,000” people in the U.S. every year, despite the vaccine. His message? There’s no need to worry or take extra precautions for Covid-19; we should all probably just learn to live with it.
In fact, the flu does not kill nearly that many Americans in an average year. Doctors, public health professionals and many others called this out dangerous misinformation. So Twitter marked Trump’s tweet as “misleading and potentially harmful content.” His Facebook version of the post was taken down, per the platform’s policy on misinformation about Covid-19, which they apply regardless of the status of the original poster.
Later, Trump retorted, “REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” referring to the protections that allow social media companies to conduct content moderation and shields them in situations where a user posts something libelous or harmful. Because of Section 230, tech companies don’t actually have to police the president’s posting at all. But doing nothing would come at a very high price for the public, which is caught in a maelstrom of medical misinformation.
While the labeling and removal efforts of platform companies signal a sea change in their willingness to moderate misinformation, misleading content from a world leader is significantly different from the bottom-up junk news campaigns that struggle to break out of echo chambers. Now that politicians can routinely sway the mainstream media agenda by making outrageous claims on social media, others must step in for the safety of the public.
The reason why platform companies have failed to contain toxic medical misinformation is two fold. First, many tech companies have only just begun to seriously crack down on this kind of misinfo, and second, years of unchecked misinformation mean lies, speculation, conspiracy and scams are quite literally a normal feature of social media’s design.
The Harvard University researchers who published Network Propaganda — a comprehensive study of media manipulation in the 2016 election — recently released new research on a mail-in voting disinformation campaign. They found that Trump, the Republican National Committee, Fox News, and conservative talk radio leverage the core features of journalism to trigger a cascade of disinformation in mainstream and local news. These features include: “an elite institutional focus (if the president says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side.” And, the same tactics that sought to sully the integrity of mail-in voting seems to be happening again with Covid-19 misinformation.
This propaganda feedback loop recursively builds on itself and gains traction over time. The mainstream media, social media and local media have come to treat almost all of the president’s missives as equally worthy of coverage. By their nature, damning and outrageous claims are more likely to be amplified across the entire media ecosystem, where even attempts to debunk can create some doubt. Media’s efforts to parry claims of partisanship can also lead to equivocation, which has the effect of making political disinformation a matter of what the audience chooses to believe.
But, in the case of medical misinformation, it’s not a partisan issue. There are fact-based healthy behavior guidelines endorsed globally, regardless of the opinions of any specific politician. Simply put, failure to take precautions will likely lead to infection. Is it possible that the White House repeated these talking points downplaying Covid-19 so often that they were deluded into mistaking their opinions for best practice?
So-called white propaganda, which is propaganda that doesn’t hide its source, both misinforms the public and allows for increasingly bold waves of misinformation to take shape as more outlets amplify it.
To complete the victory march, Trump’s team created a propaganda video of his triumphant return to the White House. So-called white propaganda, which is propaganda that doesn’t hide its source, both misinforms the public and allows for increasingly bold waves of misinformation to take shape as more outlets amplify it. To be sure, this is not political spin; it is an effort to pretend everything is fine, when everything most certainly is not.
Slick looking content with high production value is meant to act like a red herring that attracts attention, while averting audiences away from the direness of the current situation. Instead of lowering the bar, when it comes to moderating content, newsworthy individuals, celebrities and political elites, tech companies must hold public figures to a higher standard. And because they have a significant impact on setting the press agenda and swaying public understanding of risk, politicians should be held to the same rules that apply to the rest of us.
It’s not enough to batten down the hatches when the storm has already come ashore. Platform companies must stop providing safe harbor for medical misinformation, conspiracies and grift that over time can erode the public’s capacity to assess creditable risk. News organizations, especially smaller news agencies and local TV/radio, must also address the role they play in sensationalizing scandalous content and call out the corrosive effects of propaganda over time.
Downstream of these efforts, we have to wonder the degree to which our republic can hold under such adverse conditions. When you’re in the eye of the storm, it can be tempting to believe the worst is over, but my fear is that if tech companies don’t take control of their vessel, the entire ship will go down. And perhaps take American democracy down with it.