Deciphering disinformation from dystopia

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While hopefully wearing a mask

If one were to draw a word cloud from our pandemic posts I imagine that the coupling of disinformation and dystopia would be prominent. These two bed fellows are pillars of this pandemic, framing our perception, and influencing our psychology.

Perhaps we should not be treating them as distinct, but as part of a set. A dynamic that shapes our experience, and a puzzle we need to work on if we’re to overcome this particular crisis.

The past week or so, it seems a lot of this revolves around masks.

The “Burn Your Mask Challenge” started in a private Facebook group called Reopen NC, which was created in early April, not long after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced a statewide stay-at-home order. The 81,000 members of the group generally believe that state measures to control the spread of the coronavirus infringe on their personal rights. When Cooper announced a mask mandate last month, they started a petition against it, which has so far accrued about 5,500 signatures. A mock-up of a face mask reading This mask is as useless as our governor is still shared regularly.

The pandemic has opened up a new front in the American culture wars. There have been protests against masks and lockdowns in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and several other states. In North Carolina, Facebook has served as a highly visible hub for both sides. Reopen NC has sparked more than 30 smaller, county-specific groups that started sharing its videos of mask burnings in the spring and have echoed its complaints about government “tyranny” all summer. It also has a number of antagonists, who bristle at the group’s flagrant disregard for public health and have spent the last several months becoming more and more embittered—often referring to those who don’t take the pandemic seriously as “plague rats.”

Watching these warring groups has been like seeing polarization happen in real time. Members of the Reopen NC group joined it to complain and vent with people who felt similarly to themselves, but soon they were naming enemies—the mask-wearing “sheep,” and the “socialist” governor who controls them. These North Carolinians were looking for online community in a moment when the offline world had become a pressure cooker, in a time when they were bored, and they found it on Facebook in the form of ever-escalating suspicion and anger.

The above is a fascinating but typical story about the role Facebook is playing to stoke fears and foster division.

In particular it highlights how people are determined to shape reality to their own perceptions and beliefs. A need to reconcile what they want with what they perceive.

Because of the intense polarization in our country, a great many Americans now see the life-and-death decisions of the coronavirus as political choices rather than medical ones. In the absence of a unifying narrative and competent national leadership, Americans have to choose whom to believe as they make decisions about how to live: the scientists and the public-health experts, whose advice will necessarily change as they learn more about the virus, treatment, and risks? Or President Donald Trump and his acolytes, who suggest that masks and social distancing are unnecessary or “optional”?

The cognition I want to go back to work or I want to go to my favorite bar to hang out with my friends is dissonant with any information that suggests these actions might be dangerous—if not to individuals themselves, then to others with whom they interact.

How to resolve this dissonance? People could avoid the crowds, parties, and bars and wear a mask. Or they could jump back into their former ways. But to preserve their belief that they are smart and competent and would never do anything foolish to risk their lives, they will need some self-justifications: Claim that masks impair their breathing, deny that the pandemic is serious, or protest that their “freedom” to do what they want is paramount. “You’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these Communist-dictatorship orders,” a woman at a Palm Beach County commissioners’ hearing said. “Masks are literally killing people,” said another. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, referring to masks and any other government interventions, said, “More freedom, not more government, is the answer.” Vice President Mike Pence added his own justification for encouraging people to gather in unsafe crowds for a Trump rally: “The right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

This dissonance is partly fueled by the narrative disorder that marks this pandemic. Contradictory messages of “we’re all in this together” that attempts to override the larger cultural norm of “everyone for themselves.”

However the dissonance is also fueled by the economics of disinformation, and how easy and profitable it is to just make up information that supports counter-factual arguments.

Household brands are inadvertently funding disinformation sites to spread COVID-19 conspiracies, thanks to ad tech companies that do not effectively screen the sites to which they provide ads services.

New research from the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) shows that Google, Amazon and other tech companies are paying COVID-19 disinformation sites at least US$25 million in ad revenues to carry ads for well-known brands such as Bloomberg News, Crest Toothpaste, L’Oreal,, Merck and many others.

The automated advertising system that currently operates almost all media incentivizes disinformation as a sensational form of attention.

Attention is the end justified by any means, and the ammunition for dissonance thereby becomes a valuable commodity to be pushed.

The primary problem however with disinformation, is that it distracts us from a real dystopia that is rising.

This story is a tragic yet powerful symbol of the dystopia emerging around us. A child with special needs, effectively abandoned once the pandemic shut down schools, and then punished for doing what all the other kids are doing, struggling with motivation to do work assigned remotely. The difference in this instance is that this child had an effective parole condition that she do her homework, and with it not done, she was institutionalized, in spite of an order that juveniles not be locked up during the pandemic.

This is a story that should result in outrage, in protests, heck, even in a jail break, but unfortunately it is lost in a sea of miserable stories, that are themselves subsumed in an ocean of disinformation.

It leads to the larger question of how do we get out of this. How do we fight the dystopia, how do we ensure that stories like the one above do not and cannot happen!?

A simplistic and reductionist answer might be as easy as wearing a mask.

Breathing in a small amount of virus may lead to no disease or far more mild infection. But inhaling a huge volume of virus particles can result in serious disease or death.

That’s the argument Dr. Monica Gandhi, UC San Francisco professor of medicine and medical director of the HIV Clinic at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, is making about why — if you do become infected with the virus — masking can still protect you from more severe disease.

“There is this theory that facial masking reduces the [amount of virus you get exposed to] and disease severity,” said Gandhi, who is also director for the Center for AIDS Research at UC San Francisco.

I’ll admit I love wearing a mask. I hope it becomes acceptable for me to wear a mask moving forward regardless of the pandemic. I’ve also been talking about the volume of exposure to this virus as being significant. Am I engaging in a kind of cognitive bias in finding this information and sharing it with you? Possibly.

However the growing evidence around the effectiveness of masks is overwhelming. Given what we know about the role of superspreaders, masks can make a substantial impact in curbing the spread and severity of this crisis.

Hence if there’s anything you can practically do to curb disinformation and help fight the dystopia, it’s wear a mask!!


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