Posts

GUEST COLUMN: Trump Leading Source of COVID-19 Misinformation, Says Cornell Alliance for Science

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.

Worth Reading, Sept 24, 2012

  • Media and quote approvals: There’s been an intriguing series of discussions in the New York Times (and Vanity Fair and elsewhere) about the practice of allowing interview subjects to review quotes due to be used in articles prior to print. The Times covered this aspect of political reporting back in July; David Carr explored it more recently in “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval” and in a follow-up article asking participants in the process to weigh in; and then finally on Sept. 20th, the Times issued a new policy that “forbids after-the-fact quote approval.” From our experience, this is a practice that has become somewhat common in the world of financial and business reporting as well (not just relegated to politics), and it will be interesting to see the effects of the Times’ new policy, if any.
  • Distrust in media: A new Gallup poll found that “Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Distrust is up from the past few years, when Americans were already more negative about the media than they had been in years prior to 2004.” As Gallup points out, this lack of trust has particular implications during an election year. (via Romenesko)
  • Fortune 500 and social media: The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research issued its latest report on the use of social media by the Fortune 500, which it’s done every year since 2008. Adoption and range of use continues to grow in this group, and the annual study provides a good comprehensive look at global business adoption of social media.
  • New Pew Internet research: The Pew Internet and American Life Project issued two recent reports of interest, one on smartphone ownership in the United States (they found that “45% of American adults own smartphones”), and one on “Photos and Videos as Social Currency Online.”
  • Cultural critique, Gangnam-style: It’s almost impossible to escape the Internet meme of the late summer/early fall – Gangnam Style, a music video by the South Korean artist Psy that’s overtaken the U.S. and much of the world. But The Atlantic provided one of the more interesting cultural insights into the video in the article “Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation.”

Worth Reading, Apr 23, 2012

 

A few useful research reports have been published in the last two weeks, in addition to the usual interesting commentary that caught our eye.

  • Pew Internet on “Digital Differences”: The Pew Research Center summarizes the findings by saying, “One-in-five [American] adults do not use the internet. The difference between that group and the majority of Americans who do go online remains strongly correlated with age, education, and household income, which are the strongest positive predictors of internet use.” The full report is here. This is helpful research to remember when thinking about communicating with audiences, and one question to ask in communication planning: who might your organization be missing and how can they be reached if not through online means?
  • Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report: NTEN, Common Knowledge and Blackbaud released the “2012 Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report,” its 4th annual report on how nonprofits are using social networks. Additional analysis and data highlights in a guest post on Beth’s Blog.
  • Pulitzers and Online Reporting: The Nieman Journalism Lab blog has a good analysis of the impact and effects of online journalism in this year’s winners.
  • Why Is Trust in Media Falling?: Jay Rosen breaks down the question of why Americans have such low trust in media today, asking “What Explains Falling Confidence in the Press?
  • Local News: Despite lower trust in media overall, most Americans still turn to local news sources. Pew’s recently released study on local news found that “72% of Americans follow local news closely,” and the report details additional media consumption habits of this group.
  • USC Annenberg Gap Study: USC Annenberg published its “Communication and Public Relations Generally Accepted Practices (GAP VII)” study, on the “current state of the PR industry.” A helpful breakdown of key findings and what they mean for corporate communicators and agencies is also on PR Squared.
  • On Reputation: A thought-provoking article from the Economist on corporate reputation is worth reading, “What’s in a name? Why companies should worry less about their reputations.” Not surprisingly, many disagree, and Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross has a thoughtful response on her blog.
  • Corrections and Broadcast TV: David Carr of the New York Times commented on the curious disparity in how broadcast news handles corrections versus print news, in light of how NBC handled the correction to its use of an audio clip on the Today show that was “misleading, incendiary and dead-bang wrong.”
  • The Navy and Twitter: The US Navy was a recent victim of self-inflicted harm, when someone mistakenly sent a personal tweet from the Navy’s official Twitter account. However, the damage was contained early and was minimal, and they shared some lessons learned from the incident.

Worth Reading, Mar 19, 2012

  • Pew State of the News Media: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released the newest, 9th edition of its “State of the News Media” yearly report. Beyond the overview, Key Findings and Trends, there’s lots more detailed information in breakdown reports by platform/venue.
  • Dharun Ravi Trial: The former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was convicted of 15 charges related to the webcam spying of his roommate Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide in 2010. danah boyd has a thoughtful piece, “Reflecting on Dharun Ravi’s conviction,” looking at some of the implications of social media, privacy and bullying the case presented.
  • Mike Daisey and This American Life: We mentioned in an earlier blog post a recommendation to listen to Mike Daisey’s show excerpt about Apple’s manufacturing that aired earlier this year on This American Life. This weekend, This American Life retracted the show after discovering the show contained “numerous fabrications” and aired an hour-long piece about the retraction. On his blog, Mike Daisey said in a statement that he stands behind his work, and “What I do is not journalism.”
  • CEOs and Social Media: This survey from BRANDfog looked at the use of social media by CEOs and the impact that use had on trust and reputation: “2012 CEO, Social Media and Leadership Survey.” The results: “The survey results demonstrate that executive engagement in social media raises the brand profile and instills confidence in a company’s leadership team. It builds greater trust, brand loyalty and purchase intent. Respondents overwhelmingly confirmed their belief that C-Suite executives who engage in social media are better equipped to lead a company, communicate values and shape a company’s reputation in today’s changing world. “
  • Twitter and Credibility: Academic research from Microsoft and Carnegie Mellon in the report “Tweeting is Believing? Understanding Microblog Credibility Perceptions” looked at credibility factors on Twitter. In short, good grammar matters. (But other factors do too, such as the image you use, your following/follower ratio and more.)