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Trust in US government was at an all-time low. Then came the pandemic.



photo of skeptical person by Oleg Gamulinsky courtesy of

We have a tsunami of information, some real, some unreal, threatening to drag us under.  First, some definitions: Nature magazine, May 27, titled “The epic battle against coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories” introduces us to the ocean of information washing over us and helps with terminology.

The story describes “infodemic” as follows: “The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the situation an infodemic: ‘An over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — rendering it difficult to find trustworthy sources of information and reliable guidance.’ ”  The story defines mis- and dis- information: ” ‘misinformation’ … is wrong but not deliberately misleading … ‘disinformation’ … [is] organized [deliberate] falsehoods … intended to deceive.”

From the Nature story, an example of disinformation:

On 19 March, the website falsely claimed that [Bill] Gates planned to use a coronavirus vaccine as a ploy to monitor people through an injected microchip or quantum-dot spy software.

This false claim was picked up by a YouTube video, which eventually was viewed more than 2 million times.  The notorious Roger Stone discussed it on a radio show and claimed he’d never take a vaccine “funded by Gates.”  Then the New York Post (a dodgy right wing newspaper) picked up the story and repeated it without contradiction.  The story spread to Facebook, where it got “more than a million” likes, comments, and shares.  The whole story is ridiculous– first of all, there’s no such thing as quantum-dot spyware.  Yet many people believe it or share it.

What has changed to make matters worse in recent decades?  Not just the internet.  Social media like Facebook (which started in 2004) is designed to maximize user “engagement” or “clicks”, and scary or shocking items make for increased interest.  There is no filter on this kind of media, no moderator to stop errors and falsehoods.

Information spreads orders of magnitude faster than before, when print or radio were controlled by people with money and power.  Now the average person can make statements that are potentially read worldwide.  The more shocking the statement, the more likely it is to spread, and the more an advertiser will pay to append a message to it; this creates an incentive for people to exaggerate or even falsify to increase the impact of their statements.

In parallel to the spread of the internet, those who are dismissive of the power of government to do good have amplified their messages and their distortions.  These people have spread the notion that “government is bad” (mostly because they don’t like progressive taxation) and, as Ronald Reagan said when he was inaugurated as president in 1981: “Government is not the solution to our problems.  Government is the problem.”

From the story in the May 23 New York Times, titled:Will the Coronavirus Kill What’s Left of Americans’ Faith in Washington?: “Just 17 percent of Americans [in 2019] trusted the federal government to do the right thing “just about always” or “most of the time,” according to the Pew Research Center.”

In the 1950’s, when the question was first asked by pollsters, about three-quarters of people trusted the government implicitly.  Then came the new “conservative” movement, spearheaded by the actor, paid spokesperson, and man of average intelligence, Ronald Reagan.

Now, in the pandemic, people have more faith in government, especially local.  This is partly because many have received the federal $1200 stimulus checks into their checking accounts.  It is also because people are looking to government to help protect them from the virus.

Confused messaging about face masks and reopening guidelines have impaired this newfound trust; daily briefings from the president have not helped.  This distrust comes from both sides of the political spectrum.  On the usual left, there are “science-based” people who distrust a president who uses a drug that, in studies, causes a higher death rate than taking nothing.

On the far right, there are many people who fear the “deep state” (which consists mainly of committed public servants who belong to no political party.)  Most of those on the far right actually trust the president because of incessant propaganda, especially from talk radio and Fox “news”.

There is a small but vocal group of people who believe in conspiracies; this has been exemplified by the QAnon movement.  Estimates of those who subscribe to these conspiratorial views range from 5% of adults to as high as 40% who agree with at least some statements from Q-Anon.  Conspiracy theories from Q-Anon and others include the belief that the coronavirus was genetically engineered to eliminate the excess population, or that the response to the virus is designed to control people and prevent them from dissenting.

Some have claimed that bills now in Congress will allow the government to take children from their families or to place people in concentration camps for having contact with virus carriers.  A particularly pernicious theory holds that contact tracers intend to delve into people’s phone contact lists (confusing phone contacts with personal contacts) and that the new 5G network system actually causes the virus.  A few have tried to burn down cell phone towers.

The cultural conflict has naturally played out on social media.  Attempts by moderators to take down posts that stoke conspiracy theories and false information about the virus have been only slightly successful.  I previously posted about the conspiracy theories in the video “Plandemic”, which was erased from parts of the web; the video lives on in the dark web, inaccessible to moderators.

Many more than eight million people have viewed this video, and the number serves as a good starting point for estimates of how many people believe in this alternative to reality and other conspiracies.  That number represents roughly two or three percent of Americans.  It is this two or three percent who believe implicitly in every conspiracy theory they hear about who are most dangerous.

People who are predisposed to believe in these delusions will not be swayed, neither by logical arguments nor by events that would seem to contradict their beliefs.  This is a dangerous group of people, and there is little that can be done to change their minds.  The only recourse is vigilance against armed attacks by aggrieved and desperate individuals; repeated debunking of their theories is necessary but not sufficient to stop them.

One thing that will help in the long run is if the government is headed and directed by people who value the truth above all else and avoid any temptation to lie or hide the facts.  Maybe if someone else is elected to lead the country in November, this will happen– but don’t relax even if the leadership does change.  Conspiracy theorists and new “conservatives” (like the Tea Party) will continue to attack our notions of reality and responsible government.

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