Opinion: Misinformation about COVID-19 is a crime that should have consequences
Simmons is the CEO and 18-year veteran of the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based public health organization that partners with communities to fight social inequalities and protect people’s health. She lives in Spring Valley.
Some people’s unwavering allegiance to disinformation about COVID-19 was sadly unequivocal at a San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting on August 31, when the board declared health disinformation a crisis. public health. Despite the opposition of nearly 200 people and the hostility of some speakers during a 3 p.m. meeting, the board of directors became the first in the country to take such a position.
Unfortunately, the resentment that supervisors witnessed was not unique. False narratives have taken their toll at town halls across the country. The rejection of science merges with patriotism. Violence and hate speech are masked by the American flag. And climate change is always questioned.
American Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned that people die because of misleading or inaccurate information about the effectiveness of vaccines, which have been shown to be very effective. Most people believe in science, but many, being misguided or uncertain, still resist vaccination, allowing more contagious variants of the virus to proliferate.
Made up of false narratives, conspiracy theories, distortions and outright lies, disinformation is created by special interest groups for political and / or financial gain. Then it is broadcast by the mass media without any regard for the consequences.
These false stories pose a threat to more than public health. They may also be linked to the record levels of violence currently plaguing the United States. The murder rate increased by about 29 percent from 2019 to 2020 – the biggest one-year spike in murders since national record keeping began in 1960 – so even though overall crime decreased last year, 2020 was the most violent year in the 21st century. There were approximately 21,500 murders in 2020.
During the same period, there were 7,759 hate crimes reported in the United States, the most in 12 years, targeting communities of color, the LGBTQ community and various ethnic groups, among others. Evidence shows that these events are motivated by hate speech, a type of false narrative that has increased all over the world, in online forums and even in political discourse. The fallacy behind hate speech is that a certain group poses a threat, which generates fear that the threats are real and affect them in some way.
Some question the willingness of people to believe such obvious propaganda. But history shows that when ideas are repeated often enough, the tendency of people to believe them increases. This is especially true when they come from a source that seems credible, such as someone in authority or an evening newscast. Even ideas that seem bizarre can be accepted as true if they are widely held in the population. This principle was used by Nazi propagandists during WWII to spread the idea that the Jewish people were a scourge on society and deserved to be eliminated.
False narratives also play a role in climate change events, including drought, ravenous forest fires and massive flooding that cause widespread death and destruction worldwide. In this case, the false narrative is denial. The science is well established and the counter arguments are completely baseless, reminiscent of when the tobacco industry tried to convince us that smoking does not cause cancer. Nonetheless, people who reject mainstream climate science persist, accusing reputable scientists of having hidden agendas and nefarious motives.
Some suggest that social media platforms like Facebook should filter out fake stories better. While this is probably a first step in the right direction, more attention should be paid to the role the mainstream news media play in spreading disinformation.
These media are relied on to give people the facts they need to make critical decisions about their health, safety and well-being. But many of them, some trusted by tens of millions of people, have clearly been responsible for perpetuating false narratives on a regular basis. Driven by financial gain, their entire business model seems to be focused on building their audience by creating fake news, based simply on conspiracy theories that are popular on any given day.
Fox News has by far the widest reach and the most misplaced trust, especially with its shows “Tucker Carlson Tonight”, “Hannity” and “The Ingraham Angle”. Other problematic broadcast media include One America News Network and Newsmax TV, but neither have the widespread and dominant influence of Fox News.
Perhaps more importantly, people need to be well informed for our democracy to work.
The news media have always been protected by the doctrine of freedom of the press. But when a particular outlet spreads lies that go against the public interest, it should lose that protection.
In such cases, we should hold these media to account by enacting the truth in the reporting laws, which could be modeled on the truth in the advertising laws that we currently have.
Most mainstream media are responsible, but if a dishonest operator continually and intentionally violates public trust, their broadcast license should be suspended. It’s that simple.