The other pandemic: Misinformation thrives in the shadow of COVID-19


At Thursday’s “Judgement Day” protest at the State Capitol, Rene Knight, 48, stood behind a cardboard set of prison bars reading “SET US FREE” in bright red.

Despite the chill and the rain, passersby stopped to chat about their struggles with unemployment and decry Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders.

Knight believes Dr. Anthony Fauci played a shadowy role in the origin of the novel coronavirus. “I do believe Dr. Fauci is behind it. I believe he is part of the Deep State. I believe Hillary and the Clinton Foundation is behind it,” Knight said.

Behold the results of a vast experiment only a truly malevolent scientist would devise, let alone do.

Shut half the country’s population up in their homes, where they will spend their time staring at phones and computer screens for two months of anxious days and insomniac nights, surrounded by a dire yet invisible threat to their lives, whose existence can only be verified by information coming from those same screens.

To keep the petri dish in ferment, add a daily drip of mixed messages from the nation’s leaders as to what people should or shouldn’t do, what is really happening and how it happened.

For best results, do this experiment in a country with a well-established “paranoid style” of political culture, in which everything from the JFK assassination and the fluoridation of water to the Moon landing and 9-11 are thrown into an angry stew of counter-narratives.

At Thursday’s protest, Steve Smith, 27, proudly displayed a sign that read, “Vaccinate Deez Nuts!” as he stood under his umbrella.

“We aren’t a cattle farm,” Smith said. “You can’t just string us up and inject us with whatever you want.”

Smith suspects the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of playing a role in the origins of the novel coronavirus, especially in a time of “global unrest.”

“You have protesters in France and China, other countries. Also, all this pedophilia. Epstein, Anthony Weiner, that one girl from Smallville in the sex cult,” he said. “The pedophilia is all coming out.”

Bubonic rash

When communications specialists at MSU and other research institutions talk about COVID-19, they bend over backward to remind you that they are not doctors or epidemiologists.

But who can resist the uncanny parallels between the COVID-19 outbreak and the “infodemic” that is tearing across the world in its wake?

Shawn Turner, a national security communications analyst for CNN and an MSU professor, didn’t even try.

“We literally watch misinformation spread like a virus across social media platforms,” Turner said.

Last week, Turner, a former director of intelligence for U.S. National Security, tracked the breathtakingly swift outbreak of “Plandemic,” a slick internet video crammed with discredited science and conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

In less than a day, tens of millions of viewers contracted a bubonic rash of plausibly packaged lies — that the COVID-19 virus was manufactured deliberately, with the involvement of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to profit from an eventual vaccine; that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloriquine can effectively treat COVID-19; and that masks “activate” the virus, among many other false claims.

The video was more than an idle internet diversion for many viewers.

“People watch the video and share the video, but it goes farther than that,” Turner said. “When we start to see calls to the CDC, hospitals and other health care centers, asking whether it’s safe to wear a mask, that is the last step before people change their behavior. And if they stop wearing masks, based on what they see in that video, then that has implications for all of us.”

Misinformation is swirling into the public discourse on an unprecedented scale, filling a vacuum created by the lack of information about a new virus and the mixed messages coming from the nation’s leaders. For many people, “Plandemic” was more consistent, appealing and authoritative looking than the daily coronavirus briefings at the White House.

“Where there is a vacuum of information, people can grab on to whatever they can get,” media expert Shaheen Kanthawala said

Kanthawala, who got her Ph.D. from MSU, is an assistant professor of media at the University of Alabama. The coronavirus pandemic caught her in a new phase of research on the interplay between technology and health.

“We are putting all our opinions and thoughts on the internet and everyone else is consuming them,” Kanthawala said. “There’s no actual verification because it takes time for science to get to a point where we can have that confirmed information. Until we get to that stage, everyone’s just kind of filling in the blanks themselves.”

Turner chooses his words carefully when it comes to politics, but as a retired Marine Corps officer, he has noticed that message discipline is not the Trump administration’s forte.

“The inconsistency of messaging coming out of the federal government has, in fact, slowed or impeded our ability to slow the spread of the virus,” Turner said. (He was referring to the COVID-19 virus this time.)

In times of crisis and uncertainty, Turner said, consistent and reliable information from scientific authorities like the Centers for Disease Control should command public attention “across the board.”

“Our senior government officials, our scientists and our elected leaders need to make sure that there is an objective truth with regard to what people should and should not do and make sure that that objective truth permeates around the country,” Turner said. “Unfortunately, what we’ve seen in this case is that at the very top, where reliable and useful information should be generated, we’ve seen rifts and disagreements and different motivations that have caused that information to be inconsistent.”

A week after “Plandemic” went viral, President Donald Trump casually mentioned that he was taking hydroxychloriquine, despite a warning last month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that the drug has “not been shown to be safe and effective” and may cause serious heart problems in COVID-19 patients.

A link to a lie

Dustin Carnahan is up to his neck in misinformation and fake news. He teaches a spring seminar on the subject at MSU and researches the subject year round.

“What’s concerning with this ‘Plandemic’ video is that it’s not just the fringes who are engaging with it and sharing it, it’s people we know,” Carnahan said.

It often starts with a casual post — a link to a lie with a noncommittal remark like “Hmm.” Before long, the person who made the post falls into the disinformation rabbit hole, pulling friends and family along.

“Often, you see it shared innocently: ‘Look at this! This is a pretty interesting take,’” Carnahan said. “The problem is that even if they’re not trying to, they’re advancing this narrative, and that’s terrifying. It’s a pattern we’ve seen before, but not with this kind of speed and not in this kind of context.”

Carnahan cited an April study by Democracy Now and UCLA finding that about one third of Americans think a vaccine that is being withheld from the public.

“Despite what I think is unprecedented efforts on the part of social media to do something about misinformation, there are things that can still fall through the cracks and generate huge amounts of attention in a brief time,” Carnahan said. “That’s what’s most disconcerting to me at the moment.”

He tells his students that blatant lies in the public arena are nothing new. He takes his class all the way back to the election of 1800, when allies of Thomas Jefferson claimed that his opponent, John Adams, was a closet British loyalist who would take the nation to war with France and even that he was a hermaphrodite.

But Carnahan said the current “infodemic” is different, even from more recent conspiracy theories asserting that 9-11 was an “inside job” or the moon landing was faked.

“You hear stuff like that and you roll your eyes and move on with your life,” Carnahan said. “But here, we’re talking about a situation in which misinformation can cost lives.”

Michael Stern, chairman of MSU’s Media and Information Department, agreed that while misinformation has always been around, there is something different about this moment.

“The fatigue of the stay at home order makes us all question what is safe, what is real,” Stern said. “Once an idea takes off, it spreads fast. Trust levels are low all around because we’ve never been in a situation like this.”

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin framed the issue as a matter of national security in a virtual town hall.

“The disinformation machine is in overdrive with COVID-19,” Slotkin said. “In Mid-Michigan, we’ve seen some pretty concerted campaigns of distrust and division around the issue of the coronavirus.”

Misinformation on life-and-death health matters is harmful enough, but Slotkin said the infodemic also threatens “the peace between us.” She cited confrontations between angry store customers and clerks enforcing mask rules, including two assaults on clerks and the fatal shooting of a security guard at a Flint Family Dollar.

Such incidents, Slotkin said, “represent the kind of mistrust and anger and even violence that malevolent actors are trying to spread.”

“A lot of people in my district watched this ‘Plandemic’ video,” Slotkin said.

Renèe DiResta, a researcher at Stanford who investigates the spread of disinformation on the internet, told Slotkin at the town hall that “disinformation has never been only about fake news.”

“In fact, the most convincing disinformation is often grounded in emotion, whether it comes from foreign actors, elected officials politicizing the crisis, or Internet hucksters selling snake oil cures.”

Digital literacy and ‘deep fakes’

Nina Jankowicz, a “disinformation fellow” at the Wilson Center in Washington, told Slotkin at the town hall that the United States is “losing” the COVID-19 information war. She called for more government investment in digital literacy education and “common sense social media regulation.”

A key countermeasure to the spread of misinformation, in Michael Stern’s view, is “digital literacy.”

“Information literacy, digital literacy, is a commodity that’s strongly related to education and wealth,” Stern said. “How to use the web, how to seek out information, and who you’re connected to through Facebook or Instagram.”

Stern said that teaching people how to distinguish credible websites and “not see a meme and immediately assume that’s true” can help combat even the most attractively packaged misinformation. A recent study by MSU’s Quello Center found a strong connection between digital literacy and students’ SAT scores.

But the product is only going to get slicker. Carnahan predicted that in five to 10 years, the world will enter the era of “deep fakes,” when technology will allow video fakers to program a speaker’s facial expressions, blinking patterns and speech inflections smoothly enough to fool most viewers.

“For now, the problem isn’t so much deep fakes as cheap fakes,” he said. He cited a slowed-down video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seeming to slur her speech that had right-wind commentators speculating that she was ill or drunk.

“You’re already seeing videos of Joe Biden exaggerating his pauses, slurring his speech and those types of things,” Carnahan said. “Those kinds of things could have a big impact now, even though deep fakes are five or 10 years away.”

Whether that will sharpen public skepticism in a constructive or destructive way is impossible to foretell. Stern thinks that teaching more people digital literacy can train them to home in on reliable information, even with the advent of “deep fakes,” but Carnahan isn’t so sure.

“The scary part is you’re going to have this skepticism toward anything and everything,” Carnahan said. “You have to wonder how we can operate in that kind of society.”

Baked-in trust

Will the current pandemic mark a historic turning point in the way information is consumed? Stern, a self-described “optimistic pessimist,” thinks it might be.

“I believe that when we look back on this, we’ll have a different way of viewing information, and, hopefully, a very different way of understanding the importance of science in our daily lives,” he said. “We’re going to start teaching our students about what is information in ways we never had to, or never thought of, before. I don’t think we’re going down a drain we can’t come back from.”

Stern said the change might only be evident in retrospect, perhaps years after the pandemic is over, but he’s already seeing signs of it.

“The ‘Plandemic’ video has been taken down,” he said. “I’ve seen a change in the last month or two of a more rapid response to misinformation.”

But the purveyors of misinformation are opening new fronts. At her town hall, Slotkin expressed mounting concern over a new wrinkle: text messages “that have reached Americans” giving false narratives about the origin of the coronavirus.

DiResta, the Stanford expert, told Slotkin she first saw the tactic when Ukrainian soldiers got text messages from Russian sources urging them to abandon their positions because their country “doesn’t care about them.”

The tactic is hard to fight, DiResta said, because text messages have a “baked-in level of trust.” Last week, messages sowing panic over impending national lockdowns were shared and forwarded on private platforms like What’sApp, “which are becoming more and more popular in the United States.”

“I’m sure you all had friends and family who were forwarding those messages to each other, and there’s no real way to verify the source, except from the back end, and most people don’t have that access,” DiResta said.

To curb the spread of such texts, and other forms of misinformation, DiResta borrowed a term from the public health field.

“The best thing for you to do if you see something that’s fishy, or makes you mad, is to practice informational distancing,” she said. “Put the device down, calm down a little bit, and then do some basic fact checking.”

Carnahan had similar advice.

“If something evokes a very strong emotional reaction, that’s the first red flag,” he said. “You should pause and say, ‘OK, this was meant to make me angry or anxious.’ Then the onus is on you to verify.”

The next step will be more difficult for a lot of people.

Carnahan tells his students that gentle yet firm engagement with friends and family members who spread disinformation is crucial.

“I have people very close to me who are very active pushing conspiracies,” Carnahan sad. “You don’t have to call them an idiot. ‘I just want to help you out and let you know it’s not true.’ That can still have a positive effect even if you don’t change their mind.”

He, too, couldn’t resist borrowing another epidemiological term. “It may lead them to slow down and share things less readily — flatten the curve.”

Jankowicz gave the same advice at Slotkin’s town hall. She cited research showing that calling people out as liars or correcting them on a public platform only tends to harden their original opinion. Private “person to person” communication, buttered by respect for the other person’s engagement in the issue, is more likely to be effective.

“We’re not going to fact check our way out of the crisis of trust and truth we face,” Jankowicz said. “We have to bring humanity back into the equation.”

A sampler of COVID-19 myths:

Drinking or injecting bleach or other disinfectants protects you from COVID-19

“Drinking methanol, ethanol or bleach DOES NOT protect you against COVID-19 and can be extremely dangerous” — World Health Organization

There is a vaccine for COVID-19 now

“False. There is no vaccine.” — Johns Hopkins Medicine

The COVID-19 virus was deliberately created or released by people

“False. The new coronavirus most likely originated from a virus that is common in an animal such as a pig, a bat or bird underwent changes and passed to humans.” — Johns Hopkins Medicine

Ibuprofen products worsen the effects of COVID-19

“At present there is no evidence of severe adverse events, acute health care utilization, long-term survival, or quality of life in patients with COVID-19, as a result of the use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).” — World Health Organization

Microwaving mail, money or protective masks kills the COVID-19 virus

Prolonged heat, not radiation, can kill the virus, but it takes so long for paper and cloth to get hot enough in the microwave that you’re more likely to burn through your money, literally. (Summary of information from multiple sources)

Adding peppers to food kills the COVID-19 virus

“Hot peppers in your food, though very tasty, cannot prevent or cure COVID-19” – World Health Organization

Houseflies and mosquitoes spread COVID-19

“There is no evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 virus is transmitted through houseflies or mosquitoes” — World Health Organization

Sunshine and hot weather protects you from COVID-19

“You can catch COVID-19, no matter how sunny or hot the weather is” — World Health Organization

If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds or more without coughing, you don’t have COVID-19

“Being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds or more without coughing or feeling discomfort DOES NOT mean you are free from COVID-19 or any other lung disease.” — World Health Organization

Hand dryers kill COVID-19

No.” — World Health Organization

5G mobile networks spread COVID-19

“Viruses cannot travel on radio waves/mobile networks. COVID-19 is spreading in many countries that do not have 5G mobile networks.” — World Health Organization

Rinsing your nose with saline prevents infection from the new coronavirus

“No.” — World Health Organization

Garlic kills COVID-19

“Garlic is a healthy food that may have some antimicrobial properties, but there is no evidence from the current outbreak that eating garlic has protected people from the new coronavirus” — World Health Organization

COVID-19 only affects older people

“People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus” — World Health Organization

Adults should drink human breast milk because it has antibodies that fight COVID-19

“There is no proof that breast milk can cure COVID or give you antibodies” — New York pediatrician Dyan Hes, quoted on CBS News

“Not only will it not work, but you’re taking it away from the babies and perverts that really need it” – “Last Week Tonight” commentator John Oliver

African-Americans have a natural immunity to COVID-19

“Diseases can make anyone sick regardless of their race or ethnicity” — U.S. Centers for Disease Control

“Absolute nonsense” – MSU Professor and CNN national security consultant Shawn Turner

(Cole Tunningley contributed reporting to this story.)


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