Propaganda, Coronavirus-style

One byproduct of the enforced downtime most of us are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic is a surge in electronic co-mmunication. In my case, that has meant exchanging emails with people I have not seen in many years, especially college classmates. Those conversations have been interesting and, in some cases, enlightening because I hear alternative viewpoints that I find credible and not attributable to any ideological echo chamber.

I am not referring to Facebook or Twitter or any popular social media platform because I remain a steadfast nonparticipant in those abysses of interaction. Long ago I concluded that the social media platforms have gone far beyond their original function of connecting existing social circles and expanding them modestly and logically. Instead, they have become vehicles that are rife with misinformation, trolling, and efforts at “personal branding,” not to mention ad-soaked indoctrination. I am continually astonished at how much time today’s younger generations spend on creating and posting a polished version of themselves (or sometimes a fictitious self). I’m extremely troubled at how people can be influenced by the views of some completely anonymous person whose credentials and credibility are completely unknown.

Will the coronavirus experience elevate or diminish these outside influencers? I certainly hope it is the latter, but only time will tell. It is already easy enough for misinformation to penetrate a legitimately affiliated social group even apart from social media.

Last month, I received an email concerning preventative steps to take against the coronavirus from a friend and passed it on. Shortly thereafter, I learned it was a hoax. Inasmuch as nothing very damaging was suggested, it wasn’t a big deal, but several recommendations were simply inaccurate. Another of my friends corrected me almost immediately and I sent a retraction.

That benign experience reinforced my skepticism about information sources. But it also caused me to pay closer attention to viewpoints from sources I know and can calibrate.

One dismaying initial new observation was how the mainstream media has been able to plant questionable information in even the most intelligent people. There is clearly too much information being pedaled that is put through an ideological prism, or is simply misleading, careless, or dysfunctional; and nobody is immune to it.

I received one chart showing the purported number of coronavirus cases per thousand population (i.e. virus penetration). The source was extremely credible, but the data were misleading without the context, which is that the relative testing levels were not incorporated. So, seeing that Switzerland, with case density over six times that of the United States, tops the list might only signify that they are the most diligent in testing. If you test, you find.

That is a case of improperly presented data that is of little consequence. But when the topic turns to government or public health, misinformation can have real effects.

I was disheartened by seeing at least two of my classmates refer to President Trump as having called the virus outbreak a hoax. The genesis of that belief is surely the mainstream media. In truth, on February 28, the president said that he fully expected the Democrats to refer to his coronavirus actions as a hoax. Despite documented evidence to the contrary, the media had improperly influenced people whose intellect I respect.

There are meaningful implications from this situation. If you believe the media’s version, it will contribute significantly to any negative feelings you have about President Trump—what we call “selection bias”—and his policies. Could it cause you to doubt his sincerity or the appropriateness of his actions to the point of ignoring them? We should hope not, but who knows? But the real lesson to me is how pervasively bias can infect information consumed by the general population who are perhaps less able or willing to commit the mental cycles to question what they hear.

Dr. Anthony Fauci summed up the situation as it applied to him in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association on April 8. To paraphrase, when asked about his relationship with the president, he said that while he sometimes disagreed with Trump’s style of presenting information, the president listens to him very carefully and responds accordingly.

Yet we hear time and again that there must be a rift between the two men. That narrative gained momentum last weekend, as Fauci’s comments on a Sunday news show were spun to support it. The second-guessing about the timing of responses to the coronavirus and the invocation of 20-20 hindsight instantly spiked.

There is a timeless adage: “Judge me not by what I say, but by what I do.” Sadly, the media have reversed this wisdom, relentlessly judging the president by what he says, not by his actions.

To paraphrase Fauci’s April 13 remarks, it is almost a universal axiom that in facing any crisis, earlier action or better preparation would help to mitigate it. Leaders, whether in government, corporate CEOs, or opinion leaders, can only act upon what information they have at the time, and must judge its quality and implications. In so many of us, foresight is a highly imperfect sense and all too easy to judge with the benefit of that hindsight.

Without question, the administration has made mistakes in judgment, though it is difficult to be sure which were serious and which were not. Overall, it appears to me their actions were mostly completely appropriate given the information on hand at the time. Since no decision is made without concern for the consequences, it is naïve to believe that differing viewpoints do not exist. That they may make it to the public forum is irrelevant.

It is also true that President Trump is often guilty of excessive bloviation and an excess of self-congratulatory happy talk. But I can accept those faults as part of the broader context of the challenges we face in the current public health crisis. I simply throw them into the stew of information I get and attempt to judge the taste of the mixture. It is disheartening to see other thoughtful people who are more focused on the ingredients than the resulting outcome.

Perhaps I have too much time for thinking on my hands, but I hope more fervently than ever that experiencing this crisis will refocus people on things that matter and make them more discerning about their information feeds. Finally, we should all appreciate communicating with real friends and colleagues whom we respect, rather than jumping into the social media miasma.

About Andrew I. Fillat

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases.

Photo: Bulat Silvia/Getty Images

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