HomeOpinion | What We Pretend to Know About the Coronavirus Could Kill UsTechOpinion | What We Pretend to Know About the Coronavirus Could Kill Us

Opinion | What We Pretend to Know About the Coronavirus Could Kill Us

Other than a vaccine or an extra 500,000 ventilators, tests and hospital beds, reliable information is the best weapon we have against Covid-19. It allows us to act uniformly and decisively to flatten the curve. In an ideal pandemic scenario, sound information is produced by experts and travels quickly to the public.

But we seem to be living in a nightmare scenario. The coronavirus emerged in the middle of a golden age for media manipulation. And it is stealthy, resilient and confounding to experts. It moves far faster than scientists can study it. What seems to be true today may be wrong tomorrow. Uncertainty abounds. And an array of dangerous misinformation, disinformation and flawed amateur analysis fills the void.

We’ve grown accustomed to living through an information war fought largely by hardened political operatives and trolls. But while the coronavirus crisis is political and will continue to be politicized, its most consequential fights will take place in the “fog of pandemic” where so much of our data — from health statistics to economic indicators — is flawed or evolving. Today’s propaganda could be tomorrow’s truth. Or vice versa. Even the good guys are working with limited information and hoping for the best. We are not prepared for what’s coming.

The best illustration of this challenge is the changing consensus and public messaging on wearing masks.

At the end of February, as the coronavirus was spreading in the United States, Surgeon General Jerome Adams argued that masks were not effective for the general public, tweeting, “STOP BUYING MASKS!”

Now it seems that information was, depending on your interpretation, overly simplistic, misleading or just wrong. “I’m not sure it’s that the knowledge changed, but that our priorities changed,” Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the chairman of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told me over the phone this week.

He suggested that the priority was always to reserve masks for health care workers. “But I don’t think we understood or put in context how masks might affect physical distancing in public,” he said. “You’re trying to juggle a number of considerations in real time, and the wrong balancing act was struck.”

Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reviewing whether to advise Americans to wear masks. Reports suggest the White House will soon urge Americans to wear cloth ones. As of this writing, the consensus is that, provided people fashion their own masks and preserve factory-made ones for professionals, they might reduce transmission.

But the reversal may prove costly for the World Health Organization’s and the C.D.C.’s credibility. As Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor, wrote in a Times Op-Ed weeks ago, a lack of transparency up front created its own information crisis. “What should the authorities have said?” she asked. “The full painful truth.”

Renée DiResta, an expert on disinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory, suggested to me that the mask fiasco was a result of bureaucracies’ responding on the fly to a new threat. “What you have is an institution that’s not designed for real-time communication or the modern information world,” she said.

Ordinary citizens aren’t used to operating on the same timeline as the scientific method. We struggle to understand how to interpret epidemiological models and misread them. And we’re unsatisfied with uncertainty, especially when it comes from our experts.

Since entities like the C.D.C. are used to making pronouncements when science has reached a consensus, a virus can run around the world before they update their guidance.

“In an ideal world they’d say, ‘Here are the spectrum of possibilities informing our guidance,’” Ms. DiResta said. “Instead you see reticence. And whether that’s media or government institutions, you rarely see a formal revisioning.”

Masks aren’t the only object of contention. Take the controversy around the anti-malarial drug chloroquine. In late March, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of chloroquine and a related drug, hydroxychloroquine, for emergency use for hospitalized patients. But chloroquine is not an approved treatment for the coronavirus, and its side effects include potentially fatal complications.

Without solid evidence of chloroquine’s efficacy, it is irresponsible to promote anecdotes about its curing the virus, as Silicon Valley elites and even President Trump have done. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is also a big chloroquine proponent; last month Facebook took down a video of him making unproven claims about the drug.

But it’s also still well within the realm of possibility that rigorous clinical trials could show the drug does work, and months from now it could be approved in some form for use with Covid-19 patients. Should that happen, the Trump administration and the drug’s other champions could easily weaponize the current criticisms and social media takedowns as dangerous, partisan censorship.

A similar story regarding rumors that ibuprofen (Advil and other brands) might be dangerous as a fever reducer for Covid-19 patients played out last month. The concern, first aired in a speculative letter from health researchers, was eventually echoed by the French Ministry of Health, which circulated a warning against using ibuprofen for Covid-19 fevers. The information ripped through global media, forcing the W.H.O. to issue guidance that “based on currently available information, W.H.O. does not recommend against” the use of ibuprofen.

The fear and uncertainty around the coronavirus is, of course, fertile ground for extremists and hucksters. Alex Jones of Infowars is pushing a conspiracy theory that the virus is an American-made biological weapon and directing viewers to purchase any number of overpriced vitamin products from his stores. People who believe the myth that 5G wireless signals are harmful to health have falsely linked the technology to Covid-19.

The anti-vaccination movement is also capitalizing on the pandemic. The New York Times used the analytics tool CrowdTangle to survey 48 prominent anti-vax Instagram accounts and found that video views spiked from 200,000 in February to more than two million in March, just as the pandemic took off globally. Another Times analysis of anti-vax accounts showed a surge in followers during the last week of March. In private groups on Facebook, junk science and unproven treatment claims proliferate.

But you don’t have to be a science denier to end up seduced by bad information. A pandemic makes us all excellent targets for misinformation. No one has natural immunity, leaving us all threatened and looking for information to make sense of the world. Unfortunately, the pace of scientific discovery doesn’t match the speed of our information ecosystems. As Wired reported in March, researchers are moving faster than ever to understand the virus — so fast that it may be compromising some of the rigor.

“This is an issue that’s bigger than Covid-19, which is that knowledge evolves and things we thought for sure end up being wrong,” Dr. Emanuel said. “This is the way science progresses. Most professionals believe that no single study is definitive. If you’ve done them yourself, you know no study is perfect and they are, at best, a partial picture of the way the world is.”

Public health experts like Dr. Emanuel tend to be cautious about predictions and transparent about what they don’t know. In the case of the coronavirus, that can cause a dearth of definitive information — and an opportunity for reckless information that’s partly true but politically skewed.

The dynamic is on display during the daily White House news conferences, where President Trump’s claims are often hedged or corrected by public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Misinformation is a spectrum. The most outlandish claims — that the Obama administration engineered and sold the coronavirus to China — don’t require a medical degree to debunk. But much of the pernicious false news about the coronavirus operates on the margins of believability — real facts and charts cobbled together to formulate a dangerous, wrongheaded conclusion or news reports that combine a majority of factually accurate reporting with a touch of unproven conjecture.

The phenomenon is common enough that it already has its own name: armchair epidemiology, which Slate described as “convincing but flawed epidemiological analyses.” The prime example is a self-published Medium blog post titled “Covid-19 — Evidence Over Hysteria” by Aaron Ginn, a Silicon Valley product manager and “growth hacker” who argued against the severity of the virus and condemned the mainstream media for hyping it.

Conservative pundits, who’d spent weeks downplaying the seriousness of the virus, were drawn to Mr. Ginn’s conclusion that “shuttering the local economy is a distraction and arbitrary with limited accretive gain outside of greatly annoying millions and bankrupting hundreds of businesses.” The Fox News political analyst Brit Hume tweeted the post, and then so did the anchors Bret Baier and Laura Ingraham. Within hours, the blog post was amplified across conservative media.

At first glance, the piece looked quite convincing. Mr. Ginn drew heavily from charts from the C.D.C., Johns Hopkins and the Financial Times. “You don’t need a special degree to understand what the data says and doesn’t say,” he claimed.

Epidemiologists disagreed, pointing to some of Mr. Ginn’s assumptions as “unsubstantiated” and ignorant of “first-chapter-of-the-epidemiology-textbook stuff.” After a 31-tweet thread from the infectious-disease expert Carl Bergstrom debunking Mr. Ginn’s data as cherry-picked, Medium took the post down, prompting a backlash in conservative spheres. More than two million people had already viewed it.

“In a crisis event, one thing people do is engage in sense-making — seeking out facts and coming up with explanations,” Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington, told me this week. “It’s a way of psychologically coping with the uncertainty and anxiety of the event, and of having agency in the response.”

Mr. Ginn’s post, which seems informed by his reflexive skepticism of the mainstream media, filled two needs for readers: It offered a scientific-seeming explanation that real scientists would not provide. And it provided a political foil, the media.

“The online dynamics allow others to seize upon that sense-making process and to use it to further their own political objectives,” Dr. Starbird said. In this case, it drew political lines around a public health issue.

Without a deeper knowledge of epidemiology or evolutionary biology, it would have been easy to be seduced by Mr. Ginn’s piece. This, according to Dr. Bergstrom, is what makes armchair epidemiology so harmful. Posts like Mr. Ginn’s “deplete the critical resource you need to manage the pandemic, which is trust,” he told me. “When people are getting conflicting messages, it makes it very hard for state and local authorities to generate the political will to take strong actions downstream.”

It’s this type of misinformation on the margins that’s most insidious. “I am seeing this playbook more and more,” Dr. Bergstrom said. “Secondhand data showing a crisis narrative that feels just a bit too well crafted. Mixing the truth with the plausible and the plausible with that which seems plausibly true in a week.” Dr. Bergstrom argues that the advances in available data make it easier than ever for junk-science peddlers to appear legitimate.

“Statistical analysis is a black box to most of us,” Dr. Bergstrom said. “And it’s like, ‘I can’t challenge a multilinear statistical regression because I don’t know what that is,’” he said. “And so a form of authority gets imposed on a reader and we tend not to challenge data the way we’ve learned to challenge words.”

This kind of misinformation also worries Robert Evans, a journalist who covers online extremism and misinformation for the investigative website Bellingcat. Mr. Evans has spent time analyzing information amplified by the right about China’s covering up the virus. Mr. Evans argues it’s quite difficult to know who is behind the claims.

“A lot of the information isn’t wrong” he told me. “It seems clear that the Chinese government was irresponsible in early stages. There’s a good chance they’ve underreported the infected and dead.”

While that much appears true — on Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that American intelligence officials believe China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, and Chinese diplomats are spreading false conspiracy theories online suggesting the virus didn’t originate in China — Mr. Evans says believable information is interspersed with unverifiable claims. One popular theory, in a video posted by an exiled Chinese billionaire and political activist, Guo Wengui (and debunked by PolitiFact), suggests that the Chinese government is incinerating thousands of bodies to hide the true death toll.

“Some of the accounts feel like legitimate open-source investigation,” Mr. Evans said. “There are maps, pictures and people doing calculations about the sulfur content in the air as an indication of cremation. And it isn’t until you get five or six tweets down that it starts to look a bit like a conspiracy cork board.”

Mr. Evans is concerned that ultimately important nuance will be lost and pro-Trump pundits will use the news to exclusively scapegoat China and divert blame away from domestic failings. “What’s scary is how smart the false stuff is,” he said.

This hybrid of true and false information is a challenge for social media platforms. Covid-19 and the immediate threat to public health means that networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been unusually decisive about taking down misinformation. “In a case of a pandemic like this, when we are seeing posts that are urging people not to get treatment,” Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said recently, “that’s a completely different class of content versus the back-and-forth of what candidates may say about each other.”

Facebook took down a video of Mr. Bolsonaro when it became clear he was using the platform to spread unproven claims that chloroquine was an effective cure for the coronavirus. Similarly, Twitter temporarily locked the account of Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York and Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, for violating Twitter’s rules on Covid-19 misinformation with regard to hydroxychloroquine treatments. Depending on how you feel about technology companies, this is either heartening progress or proof that the companies could have been doing far more to tamp down misinformation over the past five years.

The platforms are slightly more prepared than they once were to counter public-health myths, having changed their policies around medical misinformation after measles outbreaks in 2019. “With measles there was a lot of available authoritative information about measles,” Ms. DiResta told me. “The difference with coronavirus is that until months ago, nobody had seen this virus before.”

But as the pandemic spreads during an election year, public health decisions will inevitably become more politicized. Conservative media outlets may have stopped calling the pandemic a Democratic hoax, but many are still demanding we reopen the economy, in defiance of health experts’ recommendations of extended social distancing.

Such tactics are most likely only the beginning. The Trump administration and right-wing media watchdogs will weaponize changing facts about the virus, pointing to them as proof of a deep state bent on damaging the president or a media apparatus trying to swing an election. Others will try to pin the blame for the pandemic solely on the Trump administration (which deserves intense criticism for its disastrous, slow response, but obviously didn’t create the virus).

As for the American press, it was slow to accept the reality of the pandemic and is often overly defensive and allergic to introspection. We’ll continue to learn more about the virus, but as the death count rises, so will political and social tensions, all of which will be seized upon by trolls, opportunists and even foreign actors trying to sow division. What we don’t know about Covid-19 will degenerate into ever more intricate conspiracies — some almost believable, some outrageous but all dangerous.

“We’re in a stream of ever-evolving data, and it’s being shaped around cognitive biases, partisanship and preferences embedded in our cultural identities,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” told me. I called Mr. Pomerantsev because the information vacuum around the virus made me think of the title of his earlier book on Russia — “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” In the absence of new, vetted information, reckless speculation takes its place, muddling our conception of the truth.

A pandemic seems like a unique opportunity to set aside our differences and focus on the facts. After all, we’re in this crisis together. And we need to trust experts — epidemiologists, doctors and scientists — because they’re all we’ve got. But in crisis situations — especially early on — our desire for information exceeds our ability to accurately deliver it. Add to this the complexities of epidemiology: exponential growth; statistical modeling; and the slow, methodical nature of responsible science. Together, they create the ideal conditions for distrust, bad-faith interpretations and political manipulation, the contours of which we’re only beginning to see.

“The really big question that haunts me is, ‘When do we return to reality?’” Mr. Pomerantsev mused over the phone from his own quarantine. “Or is it that in this partisan age absolutely everything is chopped, cut and edited to fit a different view? I’m waiting for society to finally hit up against a shared reality, like diving into the bottom of swimming pool. Instead we just go deeper.”

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