Back in the day, scientist James Burke commented that “Never before have so many people understood so little about so much.”
Sadly, this is too true today, as 3 in 10 Americans refuse to be vaccinated or wear a mask. Dig deeper into why these folks are so opposed to scientific facts, and the glimpse behind the memes reveal lies and false studies.
So how did this happen, how did so many come to know so little about so much?
It comes down to communications: Pew tells us that more than eight-in-ten Americans get their news from digital devices. Less than 32% get their info from a printed publication, and 68% get that info from television.
But of that digital majority, where do they get their information? More than half said social media, and 68% said from news websites and apps. But, a mere 26% of those apps are news apps. Some 52% get their news from Facebook, making it the most popular social platform for news, followed by YouTube and Twitter.
It comes down to this — many Americans get their news from post headlines on Facebook. And, there we find the problem’s root.
Yes, we know that Russian agents used Facebook to influence American politics. And today, the fringe movements are using Facebook to give strength to their views, and make outlandish lies seem to be truths.
So, how does this tilt the table to support the baseless arguments against masks or vaccines? Take a look at leading news sites on Facebook and see the comments posted whenever the topic comes up: Insulting, often racist memes, links to false “news” websites “with misleading articles, flat out false statements, and lots and lots of false statements. These posts tend to be the most populist on any news Facebook pages, and the controversy is clearly generated by the same people. Attacks with masks don’t prevent the spread of COVID, they insult people who are vaccinated are more likely to die of COVID, and they tell us that the healthcare worker crisis is fueled by the vaccine mandate.
All these statements are wrong, and all further fuel the social divide that has led to the death of more than 700,000 Americans from COVID.
By giving a platform to conspiracy theorists, racists, liars and fringe groups, Facebook is continuing to harm America’s democracy. It is enabling the spread of bad information that has already led to illness, death and conflict. And, the media outlets that allow lies to be posted share in the responsibility too. Having a debate on your Facebook page is great, but when that debate includes lies that encourage people to make poor decisions, like the taking of horse dewormer instead of being vaccinated.
I remember a history professor I had in college who pointed out that the Weimar Republic in Germany was one of the purest democracies in world history — but in failing to censor Hitler’s lies and hatred, it cast its own fate.
Free speech, and a vibrant discussion of issues are keystones of democracy — but lies, hatred and false promises do nothing more than further divide our already badly divided society. The time has come for the media, Facebook and other platforms to police the truth, cast out hatred and racism, and work to educate and inform.