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Misinformation about coronavirus is more troubling than you think

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The novel coronavirus and its global spread are garnering more coverage than any other news event in the modern era. And rightly so — the virus is quickly becoming one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and beyond.

But as grave a threat as the virus poses, with increased attention comes opportunities for the spread of another unwanted threat: misinformation. 

Whether they are debunked conspiracy theories about the cause of the virus or promises of cures that may actually cause harm, increases in public interest always seem to be met with outlandish explanations. How else could we explain the recent finding that nearly 30 percent of Americans believe the virus was created in a lab?

News outlets have been waging noble efforts to debunk these false or misleading claims. Also,  social media companies have taken steps to slow their spread. They have even gone a step further than they’ve been willing to go previously: temporarily censoring influential political figures for sharing information that will inevitably add to the damage caused by the virus. 

Misinformation and disinformation threaten a great many core societal functions — most famously, the sanctity of American elections.

Health-related misinformation is particularly troubling, especially in the face of such a contagious and deadly virus. As studies have shown, false information spreads faster than the truth.

It is reasonable to wonder what drives such dangerous distortions. Aside from the Russia-backed conspiracy theories about 5G technology, which emerged well before the rise of the novel coronavirus, the bulk of the problematic information making its way around our public sphere appears to be home-grown. 

Clearly, many are driven at least in part by profit. While Google and Facebook, the two largest digital advertising providers, have both taken steps to cut off content-providers’ access to advertising revenue streams once they are flagged for misinformation, there is little they can do to stop the initial spread.

And if purveyors of problematic information have already developed a dedicated audience on their own sites, they can use the sensational claims to direct audience attention toward a slate of other content, including overpriced and underperforming products.

Political motives are less clear. Still, it is not impossible to imagine how a certain American president might benefit. As some have argued, a fractured, confused, and distrusting public can hardly unite around a shared body of facts. Thus, they stand little chance of holding the Trump administration accountable for its failures regarding the threat of coronavirus. 

Given how much dubious information about the virus has come from Trump himself, as well as the fact that the majority of Americans still prefer to get their news from professional journalism outlets, there is no debating that the problem of health misinformation is bigger than social media companies. 

It took the nation’s leading cable television news network, Fox News, weeks to take the outbreak seriously, instead of shirking their public responsibility in favor of the Trump administration and (ostensibly) the short-term health of the American economy. Because of this coverage, Fox News viewers were recently shown to be more likely to question the threat posed by the virus and to believe that news media are exaggerating the public health risks.

But right-leaning media are not the only ones complicit in the spread of misinformation. Just as news media provided Trump with an unprecedented amount of free coverage during the 2016 primaries, the coronavirus crisis has provided an unusual opportunity for him to hit the campaign trail without ever leaving the White House. After going nearly a year without a press briefing, he now holds one almost daily. These events give Trump and his team a platform to shape the public’s thinking on the pandemic while providing the Washington press corps with the footage and soundbites they need. 

To be clear, Trump does not need to hold briefings to garner attention from the public and the press. As my research has shown, his Twitter posts are extraordinarily effective at reaching members of the public and the journalism profession alike. But, in an election year when the stakes are elevated, the American public is (rightly) looking for a leader. The competition for their attention is at an all-time high, it should not be surprising that the president, a former reality television star, is looking to seize the spotlight.

That strategy may have helped him temporarily increase his approval ratings. But given all the falsehoods and partial truths he’s uttered while standing on the nation’s biggest stage, it may be costing us all a great deal more. 

Stephen R. Barnard is an associate professor and chair of sociology at St. Lawrence University. He is the author of Citizens at the Gates: Twitter, Networked Publics, and the Transformation of American Journalism and co-author of All Media Are Social: Sociological Perspectives on Mass Media.

Tags Coronavirus misinformation News media Technology

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