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On November 13, 2020, Logos president Helio Fred Garcia was quoted in Christian Science Monitor about how Americans are divided over factsThe article explored the way in which the country’s present political and media environment has created echo chambers of misinformation, which has lead to widespread distrust in the media. As a result, we have seen many  voters distrust this year’s election results.

The authors note that “there remains the wider problem, many scholars say, of the country’s massive media ecosystem unmoored from a common set of facts, and the tremendous amount of faith tens of millions of Americans place in President Trump over traditional and nontraditional news sources.”

Garcia noted the role that leaders play in creating worldviews that lead people to questions the facts: “Leaders influence the worldview their followers are in, and those worldviews define their private reality. Create a worldview in which the media is ‘fake news’ and that science is a deep-state conspiracy, and the evidence suddenly is irrelevant.”

He continued, “Leaders who lie persistently create a false worldview for their followers, who cling to those worldviews even when the leader moves on,” continues Mr. Garcia. “So, even after the Bob Woodward recordings revealed that Donald Trump knew that the virus was deadly, airborne, and worse than the flu, his followers kept showing up for rallies unmasked and undistanced,” even as many said they believed the coronavirus was a hoax. “When he said he was cured and that the nation was turning the corner, they continued to believe him and not the objective evidence.”

Read the full article here.

A version of this post appeared in CommPro.biz.

Last week Cornell University’s Alliance for Science published the first comprehensive study of coronavirus misinformation in the media, and concluded that President Trump is likely the largest driver of the such misinformation.

Lost in the News Cycle

In any other administration this would have led the news for at least a week.

But the report came five days after President Donald J. Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. It came four days after publication of a massive New York Times investigation that revealed that President Trump paid no federal income taxes for years. It came just two days after the debate debacle in which the President refused to condemn white supremacy and seemed to endorse the Proud Boys. And it came just hours before the news that the President and First Lady had tested positive for COVID-19.

I wish the President and the First Lady a speedy and complete recovery.

But it is important that this news not be lost, and that the President be held accountable for the consequences of his words, actions, and inaction.

Language, Inaction, and Consequences

I am a professor of ethics, leadership, and communication at Columbia University and New York University. This summer my book about Trump’s language and how it inspires violence was published. I finished writing Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It in February. But since then the effect of Trump’s language has been even more dangerous.

In the book, I document how charismatic leaders use language in ways that set a powerful context that determines what makes sense to their followers. Such leaders can make their followers believe absurdities, which then can make atrocities possible. If COVID-19 is a hoax, if it will magically disappear, if it affects only the elderly with heart problems, then it makes sense for people to gather in large crowds without social distancing or masks.

There’s just one problem. None of that is true. But Trump said all those things. And his followers believed him. And the President and his political allies refused to implement policies to protect their citizens.

What The President Knew, and When The President Knew It

As I write this, 210,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and the President is being treated for it at Walter Reed Military Medical Center.

But it didn’t have to happen. Three weeks ago Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University’s Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative, estimated that if the nation had gone to national masking and lock-down one week earlier in March, and had maintained a constant masking and social distancing policy, 150,000 of fatalities could have been avoided.

Trump knew about the severity of the virus in February and March.

In taped discussions Trump told Washington Post Associate Editor Bob Woodward what he knew about how dangerous COVID-19 is:

  • It is spread in the air
  • You catch it by breathing it
  • Young people can get it
  • It is far deadlier than the flu
  • It’s easily transmissible
  • If you’re the wrong person and it gets you, your life is pretty much over. It rips you apart
  • It moves rapidly and viciously.
  • It is a plague

But he was telling the nation the opposite.

“Infodemic” of COVID-19

The Report Cover

President Trump likes to label anything he doesn’t agree with Fake News. But it turns out that he’s the largest disseminator of misinformation about Coronavirus.

Cornell University’s Alliance for Science analyzed 38 million pieces of content published in English worldwide between January 1 and May 26, 2020. It identified 1.1 million news articles that “disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation related to the pandemic.”

On October 1, 2020 the Alliance published its report. It notes,

“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.”

Its conclusion:

“One major finding is that media mentions of President Trump within the context of different misinformation topics made up 37% of the overall ‘misinformation conversation,’ much more than any other single topic.

The study concludes that Donald Trump was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation ‘infodemic.’

In contrast only 16% of media mentions of misinformation were explicitly ‘fact-checking’ in nature, suggesting that a substantial quantity of misinformation reaches media consumers without being challenged or accompanied by factually accurate information.”

But Trump may be responsible for more than the 37% of the news stories that name him. The report says that

” a substantial proportion of other topics was also driven by the president’s comments [but did not explicitly name him], so some overlap can be expected.

Graphic from Cornell Alliance for Science Report

The most prevalent misinformation was about miracle cures. More than 295,000 stories mentioned some version of a miracle cure. (Note that the study looked only at stories that were published before the end of May, long before the president’s statements about a vaccine being ready by the end of October.)

The report notes that Trump prompted a surge of miracle cure stories when he spoke of using disinfectants internally and advocated taking hydroxychloroquine.

The second most prevalent topic, mentioned in nearly 50,000 stories, was that COVID had something to do with the “deep state.” The report notes,

“Mentions of conspiracies linked to alleged secret “new world orders” or ‘deep state’ government bodies existed throughout the time period and were referenced in passing in conversations that mentioned or listed widespread conspiracies. Indeed, President Trump joked about the US State Department being a ‘Deep State’ Department during a White House COVID press conference in March.”

The third most prevalent misinformation was about COVID-19 being a Democratic hoax, mentioned in more than 40,000 stories.

 

Human Consequences of Misinformation

The report closes with a warning: Misinformation has consequences:

“It is especially notable that while misinformation and conspiracy theories promulgated by ostensibly grassroots sources… do appear in our analysis in several of the topics, they contributed far less to the overall volume of misinformation than more powerful actors, in particular the US President.

In previous pandemics, such as the HIV/AIDS outbreak, misinformation and its effect on policy was estimated to have led to an additional 300,000 deaths in South Africa alone.

If similar or worse outcomes are to be avoided in the present COVID-19 pandemic, greater efforts will need to be made to combat the “infodemic” that is already substantially polluting the wider media discourse.”

In my book, I help engaged citizens, civic leaders, and public officials recognize dangerous language and then confront those who use it. I urge such citizens and leaders to hold those who use such language responsible for the consequences.

I wish President Trump a full and fast recovery. He and those closest to him have now been affected by their own denial of science. I hope that now he can start to model appropriate safe behavior.

But even as Trump is being treated in the hospital his campaign says it will stay the course, including an in-person rally for Vice President Mike Pence the day after the vice-presidential debate in several days. This is both irresponsible and dangerous.

I urge civic leaders, engaged citizens, and public officials, regardless of party, to stop having super-spreader events such as in-person rallies. And finally to begin modeling responsible behavior: Wear a mask, maintain social distancing. Masking and distancing are not political acts; they are a civic responsibility.

  • Managing information overload: In today’s media environment, it’s common for many of us to feel overloaded with information. But a new study from the University of Texas and reported on at Nieman Journalism Lab found that “the news platforms a person is using can play a bigger role in making them feel overwhelmed than the sheer number of news sources being consumed.”
  • Journalism today: Columbia Journalism School published a major new report by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky called “Post-Industrial Journalism.”  The report is a thought-provoking look at the present and future state of journalism.
  • A hoax and fake news: A press release sent out last week announcing a fake acquisition by Google was picked up my multiple media organizations before the hoax was discovered. Jack Shafer at Reuters argues that “Fake press releases are a public service.
  • More on law and social media: A couple of worthwhile posts on law and social media: “The essential guide to minimizing legal risks in Social Media Marketing,” and “Can You Libel Someone on Twitter?
  • Local stories and engagement: NPR did an interesting test with local content on Facebook to answer the question, “What is it about certain local stories that make them more social than others? To answer this, we conducted a study to define what types of local content cause the most sharing and engagement.” The results may be helpful for other organizations as well.

As we here in the NYC area wait for Hurricane Sandy to make landfall, a few items of note from the last two weeks (in case you need some extra reading material wherever you are). Stay safe, all.

  • Young adults’ reading habits: If the popular consensus seems to be that younger people don’t read books anymore, a recent Pew study found, “More than eight in ten Americans between the ages of 16 and 29 read a book in the past year, and six in ten used their local public library.”
  • Anonymity, free speech and the Internet: A Gawker article about a notorious anonymous user on Reddit, “Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web,” set off a wave of discussions about the dynamics and ethics of anonymity and free speech online. Nieman Journalism Lab has a good summary of the discussions that ensued.
  • Political misperceptions: We read an interesting academic paper, “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions,” which looked at the persistence of falsely held political beliefs despite corrections to the contrary. This study “conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”
  • The New York Times goes global: The Times announced plans for a Brazilian website edition to launch next year, and other elements of its global expansion plan are already in the works, including the launch of its Chinese edition this past June.
  • And Newsweek goes digital: The venerable news magazine said that as of January 2013, the magazine will be going entirely digital, after “80 years in print.”
  • Social media and customer service: New research from the forthcoming “The Social Habit” report found that “42 Percent of Consumers Complaining in Social Media Expect 60 Minute Response Time.”  (Also, a majority expect the same response time on nights and weekends.) These kinds of customer expectations have concrete implications for companies managing customer service issues through social media.
  • Geography and news consumption: A new Pew study looked at how geography impacts people’s news consumption habits, and a good post on Nieman Journalism Lab breaks down the findings. The study looked at the differences between urban, suburban, small town and rural residents, and looked at what types of topics people were interested in and what sources they turn to for news.
  • CEOs and Twitter: The Wall Street Journal had a much-discussed piece last week on CEOs fear of Twitter and a few notable executives who have embraced it so far. While some CEOs have taken the plunge, “Seven in 10 Fortune 500 CEOs have no presence on major social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Google+, according to a recent report by CEO.com and analytics company Domo.”
  • Company culture and social media: An excellent post from Shel Holtz on the challenges of not only implementing social media but truly adopting it across large businesses. As he says, “All the technologies in the world won’t make an organization social, nor will strategic plans for implementing those technologies, if the culture won’t support it.”
  • Apple apology: Apple issued a rare apology last week for problems with its new Maps function, unveiled recently in the new iPhone and operating system.