By Brett Wilkins

Coronavirus misinformation is making me sick. Conspiracy theorists and armchair epidemiologists are running rampant on social media. This, despite tech companies’ best efforts to cure this cancer.

If you’re familiar with the work of Ethics In Tech, you know that we are highly and incessantly critical of technology companies, and that we vociferously condemn social media platforms that censor user content without strictly-defined justification. If you’re a regular visitor to this website then you may also recall that we recently called out Facebook for blocking links to legitimate coronavirus news. We are neither friend nor foe of Big Tech; we strive for a more ethical tech industry, and we firmly believe in giving credit where credit is due to technology companies when they do what’s right and good for society.

And so while we have many issues with social media companies — including their failure to adequately address the pernicious scourges of fake news and hate speech, we salute their earnest efforts to tackle the pandemic of medical misinformation that is threatening to exacerbate an actual pandemic that has infected millions of people around the world, killing more than 268,000 people of all ages, including nearly 75,000 people here in the United States.

Crisis of Credibility

Battling the relentless avalanche of COVID-19 misinformation is a Sisyphean struggle for social media companies, which are engaged in a seemingly never-ending game of high-tech whack-a-mole in which fresh fake news rears its ugly head as soon as the last bogus post gets the ban hammer beat-down. This was a pressing problem even before coronavirus. Pseudo-science sites like Natural News have rightfully been banned not only from social media platforms but from Google search results because they peddle bunk “cures,” discredited theories linking vaccines to autism and countless other conspiracies-du-jour.

The current pandemic has compounded the credibility crisis. This is somewhat understandable, given how much we just don’t yet know about this novel virus. Fear and uncertainty commingle with unprecedented access to information, both good and bad. It can be a challenge for even some astute observers to discern what’s credible from what’s not. The task is not made any easier by the fact that doctors and other medical professionals can be just as guilty of disseminating misinformation as the most rabid right-wing conspiracy theorists. Armed by the former with an arsenal of false “knowledge,” the latter in turn spread dangerous misinformation to their millions of fringe followers. Inevitably, even well-meaning everyday folks seeking reliable news and information find themselves unwittingly bamboozled by the barrage of bullshit.

No One Is Immune

One of the most alarming aspects of the current fake news pandemic is how, like the coronavirus itself, it does not discriminate among its victims. Whereas conspiracy theorism is typically imagined as a fringe affair —  the province of reactionary “wing-nuts” and the “lunatic left,” victims of pandemic misinformation run the gamut from the ignorant to those who should certainly know better. I expect the former high school classmate with no medical expertise and rudimentary scientific knowledge to share easily-debunked “expert” opinions riddled with statistical and other errors. I do not expect my otherwise sophisticated friends, some of them with advanced and even medical degrees, to do so. Yet there they are, sharing the same wildly popular — and wildly inaccurate — stuff.

It doesn’t help matters at all when vaunted visionaries like Elon Musk are part of the problem and not the solution. It is even less helpful when the president of the United States is the world’s disseminator-in-chief of fake news, and that countless millions of Americans take his word as second to that only of God. That Donald Trump is an endless font of lies is no surprise. After all, his presidency is built on a foundation of racist fallacies and conspiracy theories. Still, his every pronouncement, as incredible as it may seem to the sane, has a tremendous impact that ranges from deceit — coronavirus was “created in a Chinese laboratory” — to deadly — that injecting household disinfectants might be an effective COVID-19 treatment. What kind of world has come to pass, dear reader, when our leading health officials are compelled to implore us to not mainline Clorox?

Telling Fact from Fiction

By the way, this author is by no means averse to conspiracy theories, if they are actually true. But then those aren’t conspiracy theories, they’re facts. It doesn’t take a professional journalist like myself to be able to tell the difference. Sources matter most. While Ethics In Tech would certainly never advise anyone to place their blind trust in a mainstream media owned by a handful of corporations that control almost all of the information we consume, as a general rule of thumb major media outlets employ rigorous fact-checking as part of the editorial process. If the most reactionary Fox News opinion hosts are the only ones airing voices that call COVID-19 lockdowns an overblown reaction to a “Democratic hoax,” you should probably most definitely take what you hear with a grain of salt. If YouTube or Facebook repeatedly deletes that COVID-19 “truth” video you keep trying to share with your skeptical friends, it’s probably not because the “truth” is too dangerous to spread, it’s because it’s simply not the truth. If the comment section of your favorite COVID-19 YouTube video is a semi-literate cesspool of senselessly virulent vitriol against a sinister cabal of “globalists” plotting to lure your children into Hillary Clinton’s pedophile ring, well, then… what’s that they say about the company you keep?

Another good general rule of thumb is to trust the leading experts in their field, at least for nuts-and-bolts information relating to that field. The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed an army of armchair epidemiologists upon the world, each one reaching for whatever fringe pseudo-scientific bunkum that confirms their particular bias. If you are one of these, I beg you to stop for a moment and think: You wouldn’t attempt to perform open-heart surgery on an ailing relative, would you? Nor would you try to diagnose the cause of their chest pain. So why on earth do you think you know better than the leading luminaries of epidemiology, or any other highly specialized experts, no matter how much “research” you do?

And about that “research:” for goodness sake, please check your sources. As a trained journalist, I can almost immediately spot a credible source from a dubious one, but I also understand how difficult this can be for the general public. A good place to start are any of the credible non-partisan fact checking sites. Media Bias/Fact Check is my go-to arbiter when I am in doubt about a source’s credibility. There are other generally solid options, although the impartiality of some of them has been called into question. Peer-reviewed scientific journals and studies are excellent primary sources. Professional scientific and medical organizations, while not always without their own biases and agendas, are also usually very good sources. These, too, are fighting the fake. For example, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) issued a joint statement “emphatically condemning” the popular (and repeatedly deleted) YouTube video referenced in this article — it shall not be named here to avoid undue publicity — as “reckless and untested musings” that “do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19.” Pretty damning stuff indeed!

Skepticism Is Healthy. Stupidity Is Not.

As has often been said, you are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts. Unyielding intransigence in the face of irrefragable fact is a telltale sign of intellectual bankruptcy. Yet we see so much of it today, and not just in regard to COVID-19. Take climate change, for example. Fully 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists concur that it is not a “Chinese hoax,” as President Trump claims, but that it is caused and exacerbated by human activity. Nearly every major scientific organization in the world agrees with this, as do fossil fuel companies, some of whom have known all about it as far back as the 1970s. Even under the Trump administration and its various climate gag orders, the US Defense Department has called climate change a serious national security threat. Even hard-core Republicans say we must act — especially the ones in areas where rising seas, severe storms, prolonged droughts and raging wildfires are already harming, and in many cases, killing their constituents. Yet according to a recent Yale University study, tens of millions of Americans do not believe that climate change is happening, and the vast majority of the population would not be willing to spend $10 per month to combat what scientists believe could be an existential threat to humanity.

Skepticism is healthy. Stupidity is not. Stupidity is deadly. Witness the return of vaccine-preventable diseases, including some of the worst historical scourges of humanity, thanks to the well-organized, well-funded “anti-vaxxers,” who are encouraged by unscientific reactionaries under the insidious guise of “medical freedom.” Yes, you are free to drink bleach, Silver Solution or any of the other various and sundry quackish coronavirus Kool-Aids, but they are not going to cure you of COVID-19. The only surefire “cures” to a viral pandemic are quarantine and vaccine. Any student of medical history will tell you the reason why places like Milan during the Black Death or St. Louis during the 1918-19 “Spanish” influenza (the outbreak actually started in Kansas, not Spain) escaped the worst ravages of those pandemics is because they instituted and enforced early, effective social distancing rules. It is a telling commentary on the state of human cognitive development that measures which are ineffective at best and harmful — even deadly — at worst are as seriously considered by many people as measures which are actually effective at mitigating pandemics.

In addition to flattening the curve of coronavirus infections, it is up to all of us to flatten the curve of misinformation. The two are intimately entwined. Ignorance is deadly. Willful ignorance is something approaching criminal.

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