He’s a 36-year-old research coordinator for the department of biostatistics, epidemiology and informatics at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine who’s made a stay-at-home hobby out of defending states’ pandemic-era restrictions and combating coronavirus misinformation on social media. Posting resources for his friends and diving into the online communities where misinformation thrives, he’s part of an everyday line of defense against the deluge that’s overwhelmed even professional fact-checkers — comments from family, friends or total strangers on the lookout.
The efforts can feel futile, even as research suggests that average citizens of the Internet are a real force in correcting misperceptions. One person’s trusted source in the crisis is another’s political hack.
“My biggest thing is, there is this outright rejection of science and what our best scientific knowledge is able to impart,” Cochetti said in an interview.
Lots of people have been using social media during the pandemic to provide “observational correction,” where others are watching and potentially benefiting, said Emily Vraga, an associate professor in health communication at the University of Minnesota. She co-led a March survey in which more than 1 in 5 Americans reported having told someone during the previous week that they shared misinformation on the coronavirus.
That’s slightly higher than other research has found for corrections in general, according to Vraga — maybe because there’s simply so much to debunk with covid-19, or maybe because “any decision you make is inherently about your community.”
“Any choice you make has implications for everyone you might come into contact with,” Vraga said. “And so that could be motivating people to engage in more correction than they might on other issues or topics.”
Those kinds of fact checks have an impact, she said — along with social media platforms’ efforts to debunk and remove falsehoods — and are usually most effective when people point to a credible expert.
“I don’t know how well the CDC, for example — which has long been that gold standard, trusted-across-party-lines organization — I don’t know if that’s still the case with how political this has become,” she said.
Some people are trying to create online bubbles where “NO POLITICS” is the explicit rule. Discussion in a roughly 2,700-member public Facebook group called “COVID-19: Scientific Sources and Reputable News” is filled with Nature articles, trackers and a pinned “hoax post” thread. Comments below a Sunday post promoting a “fireside chat” with infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci made no mention of the drama unfolding as the White House moved to discredit its own adviser.
Creator Elizabeth Lilly, a 56-year-old Santa Cruz-area resident, said she wanted to attract and benefit people “across the aisle,” though admins say they’re reevaluating whether “NO POLITICS” is possible when scientists are under political attack.
She says she made the group with two friends after watching another online group — despite a similar mission — struggle to weed out posts about unproven miracle cures. She’s given up trying to convince the few anti-vaxxers on her timeline, and one of her fellow admins has had people in an environmental Facebook group dismiss news articles from a variety of countries as “corporate media” with an agenda.
“You always have to consider that you’re talking to the people who are listening quietly,” Lilly said.
She explains her ideal approach to a fact check: “If you can be diplomatic and reasonable — ” then pauses.
She’s a newly laid-off library worker with extra health concerns, a history enthusiast who’s read extensively about pandemics.
“It’s sometimes hard to be diplomatic when you’re really frustrated, when you really feel that there is a lot riding on this.”
Into unfamiliar territory
Cochetti, the medical school employee — he works on clinical trials, sometimes interacting with patients and other times analyzing the data — quickly became a member of “Scientific Sources and Reputable News” in March. The coronavirus had been on his radar early, he said, thanks to an epidemiologist friend who posted Jan. 3 on Facebook about a mysterious respiratory disease emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
In April, he ventured into a much more political online space that sprung up around covid-19.
He read about the pro-gun activist siblings behind some of the biggest Facebook groups calling for protests of stay-at-home orders in the United States, including “Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine” in his home state. Cochetti started Googling, joined the Pennsylvania group and recalls he was eventually kicked out after posting articles about rising infection rates in Kentucky and about the siblings. (Administrators did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post.)
That was the start of a crusade to bring the quarantine-critical crowd around to his views — maybe an exercise in “self-flagellation,” as he admits, all while he worried: about his mom, his dad, his stepmom whose elementary school-age niece told her she valued her life too much to come visit.
It was “a way to vent my own anxiety about what’s going on and hopefully to change some minds about the root of what we need to do next,” Cochetti said as he worked from home.
Next came Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland, where he has family, friends or work connections. In “Marylanders Against Excessive Quarantine,” instead of being barred, he found members willing to engage.
Much of Cochetti’s disagreement with members came down to policy and the right course of action. How much risk justified shutting down society? How serious was this?
“I feel like we have, you know, no voice, no advocacy, no lobbying,” Mike Stewart Jr., a 36-year-old martial arts teacher who co-founded the Facebook group, said in an interview when his academies were still suffering under closure orders. “I think some of the shutdown protocols have been pretty heavy-handed and unfair to small businesses while allowing the bigger businesses to stay operational.”
But Stewart’s group was also, like many of its counterparts in other states, a freewheeling forum containing falsehoods and distortions: conspiracy theories about vaccines; a video about “murder” at a hospital that YouTube took down; accusations that a federal health official’s statements are just meant to distract from the woman behind a viral debunked film called “Plandemic.”
“This is chock-full of half truths, fraud, bad medical advice, and just poor quality,” Cochetti wrote below the hospital “murder” post.
It was the start of a four-paragraph response, but if it swayed anyone, it’s not clear. Victory, to Cochetti, looked like someone saying they watched the video he posted, or having a polite back-and-forth in the comments (“I agree to a point … ”) or messaging privately and eventually agreeing they’d be fine to one day “have a beer” together.
Stewart affirmed that virtually no content would be removed, saying he’s not there to police viewpoints or determine accuracy: If you’re an adult on the Internet who drinks Lysol because someone told you to, he said, “I don’t have a terrible amount of sympathy for you.”
Asked about Cochetti, Stewart said he was unimpressed with someone “reposting any article you have" and “just repeating everything that you’ve been hearing.” He’s not sure he’d trust even a scientific study, though he’d listen to an infectious-disease specialist friend of his at Johns Hopkins.
“I do not trust the police. I don’t trust the media. I don’t trust doctors. And I don’t trust the government,” Stewart said. “I trust my friends and my family.”
It’s a common sentiment in “Marylanders Against Excessive Quarantine” — no longer publicly visible because it was archived a few weeks ago, after restrictions lifted — and in other groups that have persisted as states with spiking cases tighten back up, in some cases swelling to more than 100,000 members. It’s also an outlook that’s stymied Cochetti again and again.
Once, in the Maryland group, Cochetti shared a link to a report about a “superspreader” choir practice in Washington state. One person went with coronavirus symptoms; 87 percent of the other 60 people in attendance ended up as confirmed or “probable” covid-19 patients, the report stated. Two died.
“Median age was 69,” someone commented, directing some profanity at Cochetti.
“This was in Washington state what exactly does it have to do with Maryland?” said another further down. “Also i don’t believe this is a true article more propaganda BS by the snowflakes.”
“Trump’s CDC released it … ” Cochetti wrote below.
There was no reply.