The country hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War. This division stems from Americans living in two separate realities. One lives in a reality informed by facts, reason, and science. The other lives in an alternative reality based on “alternative facts” (i.e. lies and fabrications) and conspiracy theories. This distortion of reality has an effect on every aspect of society. Conspiracy theories are usually subscribed to by fringe groups, such as people who literally believe the earth is flat. However, with a perfect storm of Trump, the internet, and Fox News and company, conspiracy theories have seeped into the mainstream.
There are now tens of millions of Americans who believe Bill Gates is working on a coronavirus vaccine so he can put a microchip into the population. There’s a movement of people who believe wearing masks is unnecessary –some even believe it’s dangerous to wear masks. Tens of millions of people have watched a documentary that claims the virus was not an act of nature but is instead a grand conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies to make money off a vaccine. There are people who believe 5G cellular technology is the culprit. Some people believe China genetically engineered the virus to hurt America (and oddly themselves too). There’s a lot of people who believe the virus is no different than the flu –it’s simply the mainstream media hyping it up. And then there are others who believe there’s no virus at all.
Ordinarily, conspiracy theories are harmless: believing that we never landed on the moon isn’t going to hurt anyone. Yet, when it comes to public health, credible information is critical. The coronavirus spreads from person to person. You can spread the virus before symptoms emerge. You can be infected with the coronavirus and have no symptoms (i.e. asymptomatic) and still spread it. This is why it’s important that people take it seriously. There’s no vaccine and no reliable treatment for the virus. The only way to slow the spread of the virus is by social distancing and wearing face masks. If people don’t think there’s a threat, they’ll continue to live life as usual and potentially infect their family, friends, and neighbors.
It’s not surprising so many Americans are so poorly informed. Trump is the single greatest promoter of misinformation in the country and he’s the president. Most Americans know he’s a compulsive liar, but there’s a sizeable portion of the country (45%, give or take) who still support him, most of whom believe everything and anything that comes out of his mouth or Twitter account. He has Fox News –an entire “news” organization– that echoes, amplifies, and reinforces his lies. If he says something that’s too hard to twist and spin, they simply don’t talk about it.
If people don’t know the facts, they can’t make informed decisions. In order to have a functioning democracy, people need access to credible information. Trump creates and promotes misinformation to maintain power over his followers. He depends on them to maintain his own power. If the press reports on something that’s unfavorable to him, he simply calls it “fake news.” If he says something crazy that was recorded on video, which he can’t take back, he’ll lie to cover up a lie. For example, when he talked about injecting “disinfectant” as a treatment for the coronavirus, he simply said he was being sarcastic. It was obvious he wasn’t being sarcastic, yet even if he was, what kind of leader uses sarcasm during a public briefing for a public health crisis? It’s beyond irresponsible, it’s dangerous. And sure enough, poison control centers across the country received an uptick in calls following his remarks.
Twitter, which is his primary way of dispensing his misinformation, made an unprecedented decision to fact check his tweets containing misinformation. Trump is against mail-in voting. When people have more options to vote, they’re more likely to vote. Since Trump only has the support of a minority of the country, he views mail-in voting as a political threat. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and people need to socially distance, so governors in some states have made mail-in voting more accessible. He spread misinformation through his Twitter account and Twitter added a link for people to get the facts about mail-in voting. Trump was furious. He said Twitter was censoring him and therefore violating his First Amendment right to free speech. The irony is, his response, in and of itself, is misinformation. He wasn’t being censored. Twitter didn’t remove his tweet –they simply added a link to it so people could get the facts on mail-in voting. Trump responded by issuing an executive order that would seek to enforce oversight over social media companies.
Twitter hasn’t backed down, despite Trump issuing the executive order. They intend on continuing to post links to his tweets if they contain misinformation or if they egregiously violate their terms of service. This week a riot broke out in Minneapolis in response to the murder of George Floyd. Trump responded by threatening violence against American citizens who were part of the riot. He called the rioters “THUGS” and threatened to activate the military. He even used a quote that has been associated with the infamous white supremacist governor, George Wallace: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter decided they had a moral obligation to obscure the tweet since it was promoting violence. The tweet was still available to view with a simple click. Again, Twitter didn’t remove the tweet. They basically put a warning label over it, as they should have.
While Twitter has taken action, other social media platforms such as Facebook have decided inaction is the best policy: let people see the content and make their own judgements. This would make moral sense if the content were based on facts. After all, that’s how news should be consumed: give people the facts and let them form their own opinions. However, when people are being lied to and don’t have the capacity to fact check on their own, they have no way of knowing they’ve been conned into believing something that’s false.
Trump can only maintain control over his followers if they continue to believe whatever he says. The irony is his most die-hard followers are just pawns to him. He doesn’t care about them; he just wants them to believe he cares. He’s a terrible leader but a master manipulator. If there’s something he can’t con his way out of, he just changes the conversation by saying something controversial or outlandish. He knows it will force the media to move on to the next crazy topic. And while everyone is paying attention to the crazy puppet, the puppet master controls the strings for his own personal benefit. The internet is like the wild west. If people aren’t doing their due diligence to ensure the information their getting is accurate, they will continue to act and vote against their own best interest.
“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”Garry Kasparov