This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
“Well that was a weird week.”
That’s been the general sentiment among my friends and family. Few of us even know how to talk about presidential sedition, Capitol Hill mobs and the worst pandemic America has faced in a century. But I think there’s a general source for all these things: our social media disinformation complex is poisoning our health, politics, and the ability to act like a rational society.
My sister is a doctor in Central Florida. Over the weekend she attended a medical conference and texted me this:
I don’t think her experience is an anomaly in the medical field. Every day a series of nurses check on my dad, who has suffered multiple strokes. There’s usually one nurse who arrives in the morning and then an afternoon shift of nurses. They spend time feeding my dad, checking his vitals and talking. In the last few months conversation has turned from idle chit chat and has slid into conspiracies about vaccines being used to corrupt humankind or plant computer chips into people. They’re reading this disinformation on their phone. It’s not clear if they believe it or not, but they mention these theories as provocative questions, like: “mmm …this could be true. It sounds true emotionally. It at least feels like it’s a worthy debate topic.” My mom casually tries to steer them in the direction of facts. But they’re glued to their phones and reading shared social media videos. They drive around all day treating patients and their only source of consistent information is their phone. Their phone is linked up to social media as their main source of news.
Two weeks ago, Wisconsin pharmacist Steven Brandenburg was arrested for allegedly tampering with 500 vials of COVID-19 vaccine. Brandenburg was an “admitted conspiracy theorist” who believed the vaccine could harm people and “change their DNA,” according to the police in Grafton, Wisconsin.
A recent Wall Street Journal survey reported that up to 72 percent of certified nurse assistants don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine. These are people who work in the medical industrial complex, see the results of COVID-19, know people who have died and they’re buying the anti-vaxxer spin. What the hell is going on? Medical workers believing in anti-vaxxer nonsense is like NASA astronauts becoming Flat Earth nuts. Sure, we expect crazy from non-experts but what happens when people who know the truth go along with disinformation? Disease and chaos spreads.
While a virus ravaged our hospitals, right-wing Trump supporters laid siege on the nation’s Capitol building earlier this month. They flooded Washington, D.C. on the promise of revolution, change and drama. After months of repeating “stop the steal,” January 6 was perhaps meant to be some sort of “Braveheart” moment for the alt-right. “Stop the Steal” is a recycled Roger Stone slogan from the 2000 Florida recount. It is the right-wing’s version of “Candle in the Wind”: every so often they dust it off and substitute in a few words and they’re good to go. The slogan was a lie in 2000 and it’s an even bigger lie now.
All good disinformation mixes a smidge of truth with a bucket of lies. For instance, anti-vaxxers say that the COVID-19 vaccines have side effects. Yes, that’s true. All vaccines have side effects. There are side effects to aspirin. The vaccine placebo has caused testers to black out, break out into rashes and experience dizziness.
People actually die from Tylenol every year. There are side effects to the polio and smallpox vaccines. But we decided that the societal good of mass inoculation far outweighs the extremely rare side effects. And we have quantifiable evidence that our society is better as a whole when it does not have to deal with outbreaks of polio and smallpox crippling and killing kids in superspreader explosions in densely compact urban areas. It was one thing to know data, but it’s quite another thing to know how to interpret it. That requires critical thinking or experts to explain statistics, two elements lacking on social media.
Voter fraud disinformation is catnip for right-wingers. For decades, and accelerating since the Supreme Court neutered the Votings Rights Act, the GOP has waged an aggressive battle to limit the number of black and brown people voting. Of course, they can’t outright admit what statistics show, so they’ve come up with this mythical boogeyman of rampant voter fraud. To be clear, there is no voter fraud. There are stray errors in ballots, but our voting system is an intentionally decentralized network of thousands of precincts. That hasn’t stopped right-wing media from using this claim as a cover to convince its followers that any close election the Republicans lose is due to voter fraud. They cheat by accusing the other side of cheating and then unleashing their angry followers on our democratic process in order to thoroughly wreck, damage and confuse the proceedings. Right-wing media further wraps these lies in a cloak of moral righteousness and evangelical Christianity. That’s why they believe God sent corrupt real estate developer Donald Trump as the messiah.
I decided to try an experiment: watch and listen to right-wing media post-election.
Over the course of the last few months of the election I started tuning into Fox News, OANN and Newsmax. I wouldn’t yell at the screen or run to Twitter to refute the claims. I would just listen, take in their message, and record it. There were a lot of Hunter Biden allegations bouncing around the echo chamber along with claims that Biden was a Chinese Communist or a Marxist. I sat and listened. When I turned back to CNN or MSNBC I noticed something: regular news was now boring. My attention waned. The constant fact-based reports about COVID-19 with doctor interviews and scientists was harder for me to stay focused on. The disinformation had not only managed to be entertaining in its conspiracy nonsense, it dulled my ability to go back to calm factual reporting that didn’t have soap-opera plot twists.
Disinformation is amusing. It titillates, intrigues, poses provocative questions with no grounding that allow the mind to run like wild horses. It’s even entertaining when you know it’s false. There’s a certain pleasure in screaming at the TV or radio, feeling superior to the people who are buying the lies. Disinformation has a stickiness to it. It keeps you watching like those nurses watching anti-vaxxer conspiracy videos on their phone. In its amusement, disinformation subtly moves the goal post of reality. The fauxnews that sounds like a “crazy colleague” whispering in your ear all day starts to feel like an eccentric friend who “might be onto something” after time and repetition. As the viewers reality slowly shifts with each click and “like” they move into a fantasy land of George Soros, QAnon and secret international cabals.
If we are voluntarily agreeing to live in a city and in human civilization we have made a pact with each other. There has to be some baseline of 1) truth 2) protection 3) and protection of the group. Without that a city cannot exist, without this compact human civilization’s greatest creation (cities!) cannot exist. The center cannot hold if each person says “I’m going with my own facts right now” and cherry picks medical information (i.e. someone gets sick from taking aspirin, therefore throw out all aspirin). When that happens, we are spreading the virus of misinformation which undermines our foundation. We are seeing outbreaks of diseases which were eradicated generations ago because people are not willing to fulfill this basic social compact to each other. Social media is backing up our worst fears and fostering selective ignorance of cherry-picked data to create conspiracy videos that are based more on our animistic emotions than an overall rational awareness.
If we have to convince nurses and medical workers about the vaccine, how are we going to get to vaccine herd immunity? Marco Rubio, Mike Pence, and Dr. Fauci getting injected on camera does not sway them. It isn’t even included in their social media news stream. All they know is shaky camera videos with scary music that play on POC’s historical abuse and torture from modern medicine. The narrative is very strong and it’s not being undone by calm talk and photo shoots of smiling people giving the camera a thumbs up.
1.6 million people around the world have died in a year. What happens when there’s an infectious disease that is 10 percent more serious? Or that has a mortality rate that is just 5 percent higher?
Social media disinformation is a public health crisis. One day we’re going to face a disease that is going to wipe out hundreds of millions in the blink of an eye. Or a much better organized coup attempt that could wipe out our government. These disasters are going to be aided by social media barons playing on our past traumas and mistrust.
All cults end in death because they are based in lies and fear. What we are seeing is nothing less than a cult spiraling toward chaos and tragedy. The cult is America or, more accurately, the cult is a certain segment of the population so committed to an identity of false supremacy that facts, information and news does not penetrate. Deaths of their own will not change them and many die filled with fear, anger and lies. Those who are fortunate to survive will bear witness to their obstinance, ignorance and poison.
Aurin Squire is an award-winning playwright, reporter, and multimedia artist. He is a two-time recipient of the Lecomte du Nouy Prize from Lincoln Center and has received residencies at the Royal Court Theatre in London, Ars Nova, Lincoln Center Lab, National Black Theatre, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Brooklyn Arts Exchange.