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Wack: Disinformation crippling nation’s ability to respond effectively to COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

Congratulations, Carroll County, with our COVID-19 case numbers still among the state’s lowest, and almost universal mask compliance, so far, we all seem to be passing the Marshmallow Test.

The Marshmallow Test refers to child psychology experiments performed at Stanford University in the early 1970s which attempted to measure how much self-control a child displayed when presented with various temptations. If they successfully resisted, they got a larger treat. The experiments have become a metaphor for people’s ability to endure short-term hardship for long-term gain, also known as deferred gratification.

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On the national level, we’re failing the Marshmallow Test spectacularly. But instead of a mouthful of sugar and the disapproving frown of an adult, this failure results in unnecessary deaths.

The simple task of wearing a mask, despite minor personal inconvenience, is now demonstrably the single most inexpensive and extremely effective way to contain the pandemic and get back to normal. Other countries with universal mask requirements are clearly doing better than we are. Why can’t the rest of the country do as well as Carroll County at this? And what does this mean for vaccination efforts?

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The reason is that disinformation is crippling our national ability to organize a rational, effective response to the pandemic.

The negative impact of disinformation is not new. Former CIA analyst Cindy Otis’ book, “True or False,” relates the history of disinformation and fake news. It’s been a tool of intelligence agencies for centuries, including our own. Long ago, famed journalist Walter Lippman, in his 1922 book “Public Opinion,” describes similar phenomena, based on his experience as a propaganda officer in WWI.

Three big changes enlarged the role of disinformation in our national discourse. The first was the effective use of disinformation by corporate public relations to avoid liability. It started with pesticides and attacking environmentalists like Rachel Carson in the 1960s and ’70s. The massive disinformation efforts around tobacco and cancer by the cigarette manufacturers followed shortly after. Then it was climate change and the oil industry.

In each instance, the tactics were similar: create false equivalence between the truth and a lie by elevating crackpot opinions as if they were credible; plant doubt in the truth by focusing on “the controversy,” attack the credibility and intentions of the scientists; lastly, discredit the entire effort to develop science-based conclusions as being too complex, too expensive, with inconclusive and confusing data. Science is too hard!

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The second development was the monetization of disinformation, both in corporate media, as well as in political fundraising. This is also not new. Turning lies into money is as old as the history of con men, grifting, and swindling.

Starting in the 1960s, conservative groups used newsletters pushing outrageous stories to stoke fear and anger, mostly to raise money. Richard Viguerie pioneered this with his newsletters, first used to support Barry Goldwater. The practice gradually expanded, then exploded with the internet. At the same time, the media figured out, especially with the advent of 24-hour news on cable networks in the 1980s, that controversy keeps people glued to the television. The fantasy worlds of reality television came shortly thereafter. In both cases, pressing emotional buttons with controversy makes money.

Social media is the third development, and unfortunately the most powerful. With a smartphone and just a few keystrokes, any fool, with any agenda, can create and amplify disinformation blasted out to millions within seconds. Online, rumor blends imperceptibly with factual coverage, and all of it is designed to provoke emotions, from rage to love, all of it to collect ever more personal data from users, develop ever more effective ways to manipulate you, whether to click on an advertisement, buy a promoted product, or to vote a particular way.

Traditional media have great difficulty reporting the nuances of complex subjects because of the lazy tendency to focus on horse races, “both sides,” and false equivalence, all to create the appearance of objectivity. All of this is made more difficult by the profit motives of big media companies. Controversy sells, quite simply. The boring truth, not so much.

The real benefits and costs of vaccinations is just one example where disinformation causes actual harm. Science literacy is undermined, objective reality is now in jeopardy, and there are fewer trusted sources of factual information.

The road back to sanity is not short or easy. We have to become better, more intelligent consumers of media information. We need to hold media outlets accountable for crappy reporting. We need to be more skeptical, without becoming cynical, which can be a very fine line. As Ronald Reagan said about the Soviets and nuclear weapons, “Trust, but verify.” The same can be said about health information, COVID, and social media in general.

Dr. Robert Wack writes from Westminster. He can be reached at Robert.p.wack@gmail.com.

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