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Wednesday, August 12, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Margaret Sullivan: This was the week America lost the war on misinformation

By Margaret Sullivan Washington Post

You may have heard about the viral video featuring a group of fringe doctors spouting dangerous falsehoods about hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 wonder cure.

In fact, it’s very possible you saw the video since it was shared on social media tens of millions of times – partly thanks to President Donald Trump, who retweeted it more than once, and who described the group’s Stella Immanuel, also known for promoting wacky notions about demon sperm and alien DNA, as “very impressive” and even “spectacular.”

Given this and a few other hideous developments, it’s time to acknowledge the painfully obvious: America has waved the white flag and surrendered.

With nearly 150,000 dead from COVID-19, we’ve not only lost the public-health war, we’ve lost the war for truth. Misinformation and lies have captured the castle.

And the bad guys’ most powerful weapon? Social media – in particular, Facebook.

Some new research, out Thursday from Pew, tells us in painstaking numerical form exactly what’s going on, and it’s not pretty: Americans who rely on social media as their pathway to news are more ignorant and more misinformed than those who come to news through print, a news app on their phones or network TV.

And that group is growing.

The report’s language may be formal and restrained, but the meaning is utterly clear – and while not surprising, it’s downright scary in its implications.

“Even as Americans who primarily turn to social media for political news are less aware and knowledgeable about a wide range of events and issues in the news, they are more likely than other Americans to have heard about a number of false or unproven claims.”

Specifically, they’ve been far more exposed to the conspiracy theory that powerful people intentionally planned the pandemic. Yet this group, says Pew, is also less concerned about the impact of made-up news like this than the rest of the U.S. population.

They’re absorbing fake news, but they don’t see it as a problem. In a society that depends on an informed citizenry to make reasonably intelligent decisions about self-governance, this is the worst kind of trouble.

And the president – who knows exactly what he is doing – is making it far, far worse. His war on the nation’s traditional press is a part of the same scheme: information warfare, meant to mess with reality and sow as much confusion as possible.

Will Sommer of the Daily Beast took a deeper look this week into the beliefs of Stella Immanuel, the Houston doctor Trump has termed “very impressive” and “spectacular.”

“She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches,” Sommer wrote. “She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said the government is run in part not by humans but by ‘reptilians’ and other aliens.”

Immanuel said in a recent speech in Washington that the power of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment means protective face masks aren’t necessary. None of this has a basis in fact – but try telling that to the tens of millions who have not only seen it but been urged to believe it.

The video featuring Immanuel and others eventually was taken down by Facebook. But as usual, it was far too late.

And Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted it out calling it a “must watch,” got his hand slapped by Twitter – briefly losing his power to sully the truth and jam the gears of reality.

A low point, certainly, in a long series of them over the past few years – all happening even as congressional Republicans tried to turn Wednesday’s appearance by four titans of tech at a landmark antitrust hearing into a politicized rant about how social media doesn’t give conservatives a fair shot.

This is patently untrue, also.

Week after week, Fox News, Breitbart News, and others of their right-wing ilk reign at the top of Facebook’s list of the most engaged-with content. And Facebook doesn’t do nearly enough to keep harmful lies – often promoted by the far right – off its platform.

In a sweeping piece on disinformation and the 2020 campaign in February – in the pre-pandemic era – the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins concluded with a telling quote from the political theorist Hannah Arendt that bears repetition now. Through an onslaught of lies, which may be debunked before the cycle is repeated, totalitarian leaders are able to instill in their followers “a mixture of gullibility and cynicism,” she warned.

Over time, people are conditioned to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” And then such leaders can do pretty much whatever they wish.

With the lies in a viral video, a president’s stamp of approval, and the confirmation that social media is how more and more Americans get their supposed “news,” we’ve moved a big step closer to that reality.

And we should be afraid.

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