“I just want to say, in Florida there will be no lockdowns, there will be no school closures,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said late last week. “Floridians have been, are and will remain free to choose what’s best for themselves and their families.”
While no one can say “what’s best” for someone else and their family (in Florida or anywhere else), what we can say is that contracting a dangerous virus typically doesn’t make the cut when people conjure mental lists of good outcomes. And Florida is now breaking records for daily new COVID cases. The state had more than 21,500 cases on Friday, exceeding the previous record logged in January.
For the US as a whole, the daily figure is back to 100,000, according to the CDC (figure below). The US is experiencing more daily infections this summer than the country did last summer, during the second wave. And that’s with three highly effective vaccines available to anyone who wants them. Hospitalizations were up 73% nationwide as of August 1, according to data compiled by The New York Times.
This is a tragedy, yes. But, it’s also a testament to educational shortfalls and the perils of misinformation spread on the internet. I have some potentially distressing “news” (with the scare quotes there to suggest this shouldn’t be a surprise): At least some of the portals pushing misinformation want you to get sick. Not “you” personally, and not your family specifically, but the country more generally. Because that’s good for clicks. And, depending on the portal, it could be the outcome desired by a foreign backer.
After a quick and dirty scan of recent content published by the usual suspects on Saturday evening, I can say that vaccine misinformation in some cases emanates from sources which also pushed election misinformation not just in the US, but also in France and Germany (e.g., pro-Le Pen and pro-AFD propaganda), engaged in Brexit cheerleading and published copious amounts of anti-immigrant content during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015. At least a couple of these portals routinely publish misinformation about financial markets and economics too.
In almost all cases (I add the “almost” qualifier not because I believe any of these portals publish good content on purpose, but rather to cover cases where they accidentally publish something worth reading), the goal is twofold: 1) To sow confusion, possibly at the behest of some financial backer with an interest in undermining societal cohesion in western democracies, and 2) to monetize web traffic by tapping into the country’s vast store of rage capital using similar tactics to those which helped get America’s last president elected.
Time and again I’ve made it clear that I don’t deal in normative statements. I’m not big on “right” and “wrong” unless we’re talking about history’s worst atrocities. That’s important when it comes to misinformation and modern propaganda. In many cases, the purveyors of this content are largely agnostic when it comes to party politics and ideology. It’s not so much that they’re “nihilists” (Donny). They may have partisan leanings, for example, but more than anything, they just want the clicks and the money. Those beholden to state actors (and I think there are some of those out there) are riding the proverbial tiger. They may actually be “decent people” (whatever that means), but pushing someone else’s agenda for a living is a perilous business — much like the mob, it’s impossible to quit without putting yourself in some kind of jeopardy.
The reason I revisit this topic once every couple of months is simple. Most Americans who think they can identify misinformation can’t. I see it every, single day in the financial blogosphere and on so-called “Finance Twitter.” It’s not just day-traders who get duped, either. Fund managers, newsletter writers, podcast hosts and even some sell-side analysts fall hook, line and sinker. Even those who recognize it for what it is still countenance it, reference it or try to rationalize it: “I’m just there for the charts.” That latter excuse isn’t a very good one. You wouldn’t attend a Klan banquet no matter how good the mac n’ cheese was.
Of course, obscuring the true nature of the outfit is part of the business. A misinformation campaign that’s easily identifiable isn’t likely to be very successful. Most people know a bad Photoshop job when they see one and would-be copycats quickly discover that becoming a propaganda profiteer isn’t as simple as buying a domain, choosing a patriotic-sounding name and testing out a few conspiracy theories.
Like any other business, the misinformation racket takes time and diligence to master. A willingness to lie is a necessary but hardly sufficient part of the gig. In fact, easily disprovable lies are sometimes unwelcome in the propaganda arena, because sowing confusion very often entails publishing carefully crafted, eminently plausible counternarrative. In that respect, Alex Jones is actually an anomaly. Most successful misinformation outfits don’t have the luxury of saying just any crazy thing that comes to mind. If it’s wholly implausible, it likely won’t work, and even those who would otherwise be inclined to support it won’t be able to. Just ask Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, whose election claims were so far-fetched that the likes of William Barr were forced to disavow them, not on principle, but because there just weren’t enough kernels of truth to make propaganda popcorn.
Propaganda is as old as the hills, of course. But thanks to the internet and social media, it now has the capacity to infect everyday life in western democracies in a way it didn’t previously. It nearly cost America its system of governance and now it’s claiming lives by way of vaccine misinformation.
One person who understands all of this is Mitch McConnell, which is ironic because, in an indirect way, he’s also the biggest enabler.
McConnell won plaudits recently for a radio ad encouraging Kentuckians to get vaccinated. “I contracted polio. Back then, it took decades for us to develop a vaccine,” he said. He called the COVID vaccines “nothing short of a modern medical miracle” and implored “every American” to “take advantage of this miracle and get vaccinated.”
He surely meant that. But he was being at least a bit disingenuous when he told Fox News (last week) that “it never occurred to me we would have difficulty getting people to take the vaccine.”
Part of the problem is the so-called “Trump wing” of McConnell’s party, some of whom perpetuate vaccine hesitancy either by railing against virus containment protocols or by trafficking in tangential conspiracy theories. This goes unchecked by the House GOP “leadership” (and I use that term very loosely).
McConnell has, at times, suggested that some rank and file Republicans are silly, even dangerous people. In February, for example, he called Marjorie Taylor Greene “loony” and branded her rhetoric “a cancer for the party and our country.” He didn’t name Greene, but he didn’t have to. The reference was clear and purposeful.
The sad part is, Greene was almost surely a misinformation victim first and a facilitator only later. Although it’s obviously impossible to know what she truly believes and doesn’t believe, Greene seems genuinely convinced that at least some of the theories she promotes (either tacitly or explicitly) have a basis in reality.
In an interview with Reuters late last month, McConnell blamed misinformation for vaccine hesitancy. “There’s bad advice out there, you know,” McConnell said. “And that advice should be ignored.”
That’s classic McConnell. He knows undereducated Americans, many of whom are Trump voters, don’t always have the wherewithal to identify “bad advice” and summarily dismiss it as “loony,” as he branded Greene’s rhetoric just a few months ago. Instead of making a public show of shaming members of his party who perpetuate the “bad advice” or (gasp!) telling Fox that as long as any of the network’s anchors are trafficking in similar “advice,” he’ll be calling them out daily at press conferences, he simply states the truth in his usual monotone and goes back to ensuring the Senate permafrost stays frozen.
I doubt seriously that there’s a “solution” for any of this other than education and legislation designed to quickly pull the millions of working class voters vulnerable to propaganda out of economic precarity.
And maybe that’s the real tragedy. The portals, news outlets and politicians responsible for spreading misinformation are, by and large, the same people working to undermine the Progressive agenda.