In May the head of the Food and Drug Administration warned that misinformation has become the leading cause of death in the United States.
The January 6 Committee hearings are making clear that misinformation is a leading cause of political division. And that it is a growing threat to American democracy.
In both COVID misinformation and the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen, there is another common factor: People who knew about the misinformation, who saw the consequences of that misinformation playing out, and who may have been able to raise the alarm in time, eventually spoke out. But by then it was too late to prevent the harm.
Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward knew that President Donald Trump understood how dangerous and contagious COVID was and that he was lying about it.
Attorney General Bill Barr knew that Trump’s “Stop the Steal” narrative was, in his own words, “bullshit,” and that Trump was told so. So did many in Trump’s inner circle, whom campaign manager Bill Stepien referred to as “Team Normal,” in contrast to “an apparently inebriated Rudolph Giuliani” and his minions. None of these people spoke out until well after the January 6 attack.
And Trump continued the lies, even to today. And Americans continued to die.
Duty to Warn?
This dynamic raises a moral, ethical, and civic question: When does a public official or public figure have a duty to warn? At what point should civic leaders, public officials, and even engaged citizens sound the alarm when leaders are behaving in ways that put lives and civic order at risk?
For example, on February 7, 2020, before a single American had died of COVID, Trump told Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward that he knew that COVID is airborne, transmitted by breathing, and more deadly than the flu.
This was a turning point moment in the pandemic: a moment when a responsible president would share that news with the American people so that they could begin to understand the risks and take precautions. And a moment to begin a whole-of-government public health response to address those very real risks. But Trump did not. Instead, he lied to the American people about what he and the government knew about the virus. And Americans started to die.
On March 19, 2020, when 265 Americans had died of COVID, Trump repeated to Woodward what he knew about the dangers of COVID, and added that even young people can get it. In addition, Trump told Woodward that he was intentionally playing down the risks. Trump continued to lie to the American people, and Americans continued to die.
Trump’s firehose of COVID misinformation in the spring and summer of 2020 had at least two effects. First, Trump failed to emphasize the need to take basic public health measures, such as masking, distancing, testing, and contact tracing. Instead, he focused on miracle cures, on discrediting science and scientists, and on disparaging those who challenged him. Second, many of his followers and others believed the misinformation and acted on it, including failure to trust science and scientists. Their belief in the misinformation has persisted well beyond Trump’s presidency to include refusal to get vaccinated or to wear masks.
The World Health Organization has long warned about the dangers of misinformation:
“Misinformation costs lives… Misinformation can circulate and be absorbed very quickly, changing people’s behavior, and potentially leading them to take greater risks. All this makes the pandemic much more severe, harming more people and jeopardizing the reach and sustainability of the global health system.”
Cornell University’s Alliance for Science conducted the first comprehensive study of COVID misinformation. It reviewed more than one million articles with COVID misinformation published in the first six months of the pandemic. It found that Trump was directly quoted in 37 percent of all instances of misinformation. But when the researchers included Trump misinformation that was retold by others, they concluded that he was responsible for fully 50 percent of all misinformation statements about COVID.
The study concluded that Donald Trump was “likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’”
It further noted that,
“These findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.”
We saw just this phenomenon play out in the summer of 2020.
And in all that time, Woodward said nothing.
Then, on August 14, Woodward finally said something. With the launch of his book Rage, Woodward released recordings that revealed what Trump had told him. By then 167,000 Americans had died of COVID; more than one thousand Americans died that day alone. And pandemic response had become thoroughly – and seemingly irreversibly – politicized.
In Rage Woodward asks, “Who was responsible for the failure to warn the American public of the pending pandemic?”
Woodward is right to ask the question. And he should look in the mirror.
From both a moral and ethical perspective, I believe that Woodward shares some culpability here. He knew when the death rate was low that Trump was privately acknowledging the severity of the virus and its form of transmission, but publicly saying the opposite. In doing so, the president was putting American lives at risk. But even as the death rate soared, Woodward kept silent until the release of his book in mid-August.
When does the duty to warn overtake the journalistic convention of storytelling? Or the commercial possibilities of a best-selling book? Before any fatalities? At 256 fatalities, as in mid-March? At 167,000 fatalities, when he launched his book?