Immunizing Ourselves from Misinformation

False Choices

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health crisis that has devastated to one degree or another almost everybody in the United States and around the world.

All of the economic fallout from the shutdowns, from massive unemployment to shuttered small businesses, as well as the social isolation that has come from social distancing, is also a public health crisis that has led to immense suffering, depression, suicide and domestic violence.

We need to see this as one public health crisis with medical, economic, and social aspects.

Unfortunately, many of us have been led to believe that society only has two choices – protect people’s lives and health or protect people’s livelihoods. Either we choose to let people die from exposure to the virus or let people die from being financially and emotionally starved out by an economic shutdown. In these polarized worldviews, many people have been drawn into looking at the impacts of one part of the crisis, while thinking that the other part is exaggerated.

But this is a false choice that assumes the only way society can be organized is what we see today, one that prioritizes the profits of a few above all else. These are the terms that the extremely wealthy have imposed on us. Much of it is a reflection of the lack of organization of the population, particularly working people, to solve the problems that the bosses and government have created. Perhaps it is also a consequence of the crisis of imagination for what is possible. In the United Kingdom, furloughed workers can be subsidized 80 percent of their wages from the state’s social welfare program. Why not do that in the U.S.?

The debate that we should be having is “who should pay for this crisis – working class and middle-class people or the obscenely rich?” We should not be choosing between “open up and pay with our lives” and “lockdown and pay with our livelihoods”!

Looking for Answers from Anywhere

There is such widespread distrust of the traditional institutions that have discredited themselves, that a rapidly growing number of people are looking to conspiracy theories to make sense of what is really going on.

The attraction of conspiracy theories is nothing new. But the attraction of conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic over the past year has exploded. It is estimated that up to 30% of Americans believe in some conspiracy theory about the virus. This attitude can get pushed further to the extreme when there are public officials all the way up to the former President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Why are many people attracted to these ideas? There are very good reasons to be suspicious of what we hear from people in power, whether politicians of either political party, the “mainstream media” (with 6 corporations owning about 90 percent of the media), or big businesses (like pharmaceutical companies) that are driven only by profit. Do governments and mainstream outlets lie? Of course they do! There are many examples. One of the biggest lies in recent U.S. history, which was embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, was the claim that Iraq held “weapons of mass destruction.” This outright lie was uncritically repeated by media such as the New York Times and was used as a justification for a war on the people of Iraq that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. When the mainstream outlets discredit themselves, is it any surprise that one in five American adults get their political news primarily from social media?

The inconsistencies and seemingly arbitrary measures of agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can lead to a culture of suspicion among the population. The hypocrisy of politicians and public figures refusing personally to follow rules that they expect the rest of us to follow is a slap in the face. Is it any surprise that people are skeptical about what officials and politicians say about COVID-19?

In the U.S. and around the world, the elite have dramatically exploited this crisis to further their interests. Look at the massive amounts of wealth that have been transferred during the pandemic to those that are already obscenely wealthy. From early on, there was little time wasted to bail out major banks and corporations. Perhaps it is time for all of us to ask the question, “if these institutions can’t survive without massive support from public tax dollars, then why shouldn’t they be controlled by the public?” We have also seen how this crisis has been used to curtail civil liberties and embolden authoritarian regimes. But acknowledging that the elite have greatly exploited and benefited from this COVID-19 crisis does not imply or prove that the crisis is manufactured, exaggerated or faked as many conspiracy theorists suggest.

Many of those who have supported former President Trump believe that claims about the danger of the virus were used as a political tactic by his opponents, whether the Democrats, the Chinese, or others, to weaken him, particularly leading up to the 2020 election. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many of these conspiratorial claims have merged with already existing conspiracy theory movements such as “QAnon.”

As we start to educate ourselves and others around us about such issues, it is important to understand where they might be coming from and recognize that we are all susceptible to being misled at times. Whether we are looking at science, politics, history or anything else, whenever a claim is made, whether it coincides with our beliefs or not, we should to ask ourselves and others, “How do we know what we know?” We are right to question the various things that we are told. We should scrutinize information that we receive, whether it comes from official government sources, media outlets, corporations and other sources that raise conspiratorial claims. What’s in it for the people who make these claims?

The Real Conspiracy

But there is a massive conspiracy going on right under our noses that predates the coronavirus: How is it possible that a very small number of people are able to take enormous amounts of wealth and live off of the labor of the overwhelming majority of people? The One Percent have done so by convincing many of us that this way of organizing society is essentially normal and natural. They have also convinced many of us that other people among the 99 Percent, whether of different races, nationalities, and so on, are our enemies. This is called capitalism and it is the biggest conspiracy we face.