Over the past four months, anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 Americans have died from a widespread virus. But it didn’t come from China. It was the plain old-fashioned flu. So why haven’t we declared a national emergency? Largely because few Americans consider it to be a lethal risk. They think of the flu as a familiar, everyday problem, easily addressed through a shot you can get at the local pharmacy.
How many people have so far died from the Wuhan virus? As of this writing, 565 that we know of.
But it’s that phrase “that we know of” that’s key. It’s the uncertainty and the fear surrounding the Wuhan virus that have made it a global news story. The Chinese Communist Party reacted to the initial outbreak just as it has in the past — by suppressing any information from the source of the epidemic, including cracking down on a doctor who revealed it early on.
That has created a fertile environment for overheated media coverage, half-truths and conspiracy theories. No, the Wuhan virus almost certainly didn’t emerge from Chinese bioweapons research. And no, you can’t cure it with oregano oil.
Some economists have said the outbreak could shave several percentage points off China’s gross domestic product — based not on damage caused by the virus so far but on projections of what it might do. This meets the definition of self-fulfilling prophecy. (On Wednesday, an unconfirmed report that researchers have found a cure to the virus sent global markets soaring — an example of exuberance just as irrational as the hysteria.)
Why? Because rational analyses have a hard time cutting through the noise in an age when social media and 24-hour news allow just about anyone to weaponize dark emotions.
Anti-vaxxers, playing on the fictional anxiety that vaccines spread autism, have spread non-science-based claims online for years. Heidi Larson, head of the Vaccination Confidence Project, warned in a 2018 paper against the dangers of “emotional contagion” online, saying that social media “should be recognized as a global public-health threat.” Aware of the problem, social media platforms have tried to set up mechanisms to prevent the spread of health hysteria.
Yet the Wuhan outbreak shows that those efforts have failed miserably at preventing the spread of counterfeit stories — including one that claims U.S. officials registered a patent for the virus.
Which brings us to Iowa. The state Democratic Party’s catastrophic mismanagement of the caucus vote count would have been bad enough in its own right. On Thursday, the chair of the Democratic National Committee said that he wants to see the results recounted. Yet the spreaders of disinformation have been working around the clock to exacerbate the damage — and here, too, Facebook, Google and Twitter have proved completely incapable of reining in the falsehoods.
Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) claimed the dysfunctional app used to tally caucus results was actually part of a plot by the Democratic establishment to torpedo his candidacy. The conservative group Judicial Watch disseminated the false claim that eight counties in Iowa had more voter registrations than the number of people living in them. President Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and Trump’s sons have gleefully declared that Democrats were “rigging” the process, falsely asserting that the developer of the app had worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016.
No matter what happens next, Iowa has already established an ominous precedent for this year’s presidential election, which is likely to see a tsunami of disinformation — mostly of entirely domestic origins. Yet no one — neither the tech companies, the political parties nor state and national governments — appears to have any realistic idea how to prevent it. And on some level, it’s hard to blame them. Research has shown that concocted narratives travel faster and more widely than the truth.
The Russians didn’t need to sabotage the Iowa caucus app and they certainly didn’t have anything to do with the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. But they’ve been happy to capitalize on both, busily spreading pro-Sanders conspiracy theories on Iowa as well as blaming the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for creating the Wuhan virus.
And what’s to stop them? The downsides are nonexistent, the gratification immediate. The reality is that too many people have figured out that undermining the truth is easy, fun and profitable.
The agents of chaos have the upper hand. We’d better figure out a way to fight back, and soon.