There’s plenty of unique personalities in the climate denial world, but the reality is that disinformation is, unfortunately, far from a unique phenomenon. Three new investigations show that the same institutional organs spreading climate denial are also pushing voter fraud, pandemic disinformation, and the coronavirus itself.
We’ll start with a new study in ScienceAdvances, which finds that regions with less education, more Trump voters, and more climate deniers were less compliant with lockdowns. The researchers set out to test whether areas with greater social links to China and Italy — where the first major outbreaks occurred — were more likely to follow lockdown rules. That more or less bore out as true, but they also found that people were more likely to ignore COVID-19 restrictions in places that voted more heavily for Trump, were less educated, and were less accepting of the consensus on climate change.
The study authors point out that this means that improving public health messaging alone isn’t going to suffice, because it’s not that Republicans are just interpreting the information differently. Instead, because of their social media feeds showing them denial content, the study “suggests changes in the information environment can boost the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions” (like wearing masks and practicing social distancing). Essentially, since social media is such an effective means of spreading disinformation, efforts to clean up the digital ecosystem of just a handful of platforms could produce outsized public health improvements.
While social media moderation improvements would address the demand for disinformation, there’s also the issue of supply. A new report from Harvard (covered in the Times) took that approach, and because pseudo-news outlets like Fox and Breitbart spread even the rankest of lies with impunity, found that the “primary cure” for the spread of false voter fraud myths is “unlikely to be more fact checking on Facebook.” Instead ,“aggressive policing by traditional professional media,” is needed, increased efforts in educating audiences on the disinformation campaigns that “the president and the Republican Party have waged.”
The report traced the voter fraud disinformation campaign waged by the right in an attempt to suppress democracy and further entrench their minority rule, and we see it followed essentially the same pattern we see in climate denial and other manufactured controversies, referred to as a propaganda feedback loop.
First, rightwing websits posing as media outlets, like the Dailies Caller, Signal and Wire, the Washingtons Times and Examiner, Breitbart, the Gateway Pundit and others publish something scandalous (and false), and then heavily promote it around social media. Then, conservative politicians point to the supposed scandal and pressure real news outlets to cover the story. At this point, mainstream outlets often feel compelled to address the issue, sometimes by covering the controversy and others by debunking it. Either way, that provides further fuel for those with a vested interest in the lie to keep spreading it.
Even since his early entrees into the political realm, from calling for the death of the DNA-exonerated Central Park Five to questioning the legitimacy of the first Black president, Trump himself is a master of this. The report explains how he exploits three core journalistic norms: “elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and balance, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side.”
These messages are also given a surround-sound effect with amplification and repetition from the Republican party and Trump campaign staff, feeding the rightwing propaganda ecosystem, with “Fox News and talk radio functioning in effect as a party press.”
And even while they spread disinformation, that doesn’t mean they’re immune to its downside. (Just ask Herman Cain.) Yesterday Fox News heads informed staff there have been “a few” COVID-19 infections among staff, while a USA Today investigation showed Trump’s campaign rallies across the country have “left a trail of coronavirus outbreaks in his wake.”
Exposing the disinformation as intentional and harmful is really key, because inoculating its intended audience is the only way to prevent its spread. And unfortunately, their bad decisions impact all of us.
Denial propaganda is killing its audience. And if we're not careful, it may take the rest of us, and democracy itself, with it.
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