Man with Shovel

Sometimes it takes some digging to get to the truth

I guess you might call this the era of fake news, so our biggest challenge as informed citizens is to get real and not live life like a reality show.

It’s about exploiting our biases with adulterated or downright phony stories that get passed along until they amass hundreds of thousands, even millions, of believers. The 21st Century version is nurtured and promulgated by social media and lightning-fast access to information on the internet. It is convincing people to accept as fact what they want to believe, the world of contradictory alternate facts, and it has been weaponized by politics. It helps explain why partisanship is so unyielding. Both sides succumb to fake news of sorts, and it is almost impossible for Republicans to agree with Democrats and vice-versa.

So far, even a national disaster, impending destruction of our way of life, cannot shake loose this intransience and unite us against a common enemy. “We’re all in this together,” is an expression we hear every day in warm and fuzzy public service ads featuring celebrities, news network personalities and television commercials from every kind of vendor of products and services. There are daily tributes to first responders, health care providers, public utility workers, food store checkout clerks and all of those who put their lives and health on the line to get the rest of us through this pandemic.

There are all sorts of heartwarming and heartbreaking stories and video feeds that restore our faith in humanity. The heroes are not Democrat, Republican, liberal or conservative. They are just people like us with hearts and souls. And yet the great divide continues. As soon as politics becomes part of the equation, everything erodes and common ground slides away.

We’re a house divided and the partition is between left and right.

What do Americans really think? What do they believe in?

Perhaps the place to go is the Pew Research Center, which studies and surveys what We the People really think about politics, governmental policy, social trends, religion, science and the rest of the world. Will it reveal any ultimate truths? Maybe not. But it should be enlightening. Polls by the Pew Research Center are as nonpartisan as any can be, considering that we’re all human, but I thought it might be instructive to explore some recent findings published within the past week.

Keeping It Real about “The Virus”

Let’s start with The Virus (you know which one I mean) and what a cross-section of Americans polled by Pew (sounds a little smelly but it’s okay) think about their early impressions of what is now a pandemic. Almost half (48%) said that during the early days of the outbreak they had “encountered at least some completely made-up news” about The Virus. About 12% of that group said “a lot” and 35% said “some.”  The rest (32%) responded “not much” or “not at all.” Of course, this included what people have come to believe is true since (more on that later), including those who think the threat was overplayed and those who think it was downplayed. Chief fake news topics among four in 10 who provided examples: magnitude of risk (41%); details about The Virus itself (30%); surrounding events (18%), and politicians’ responses (10%).

The survey period, by the way, was when confirmed cases ranged between 650 and 3,400-plus. Both Fox News and its greatest fan and primary source, the President, were playing it down while other news sources were predicting a pandemic. Both couldn’t be true, but each side had its alternate facts.

A typical critique from among those who felt they should have been better informed depicted Trump as “a primary purveyor” of fake news while others felt criticism of the President “was untrue and unfair.”

An increasing number of people, whatever their politics, were becoming less trusting, if not downright skeptical, of any news conveyed about The Virus, its impact and who was doing and failing to do what. An amazing 22% felt that the news media was falsely elevating the risk, with a typical comment being, “This is not a serious threat and is like the flu.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Trump’s leading infectious disease expert, previously stated that the coronavirus is “10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.” The latter claims a mortality rate of .01%, or one out of every 10,000 people. Dr. Fauci, by the way, still ranks in the polls as the most trusted person in America on this issue.

The confusion at the top, not counting what is going on in each of the states, has made a lot of people, as they shelter in place, feel rebellious about the loss of personal freedom due to stay-at-home orders, mandatory face masks and being told what to do by the government. They are protesting and proclaiming their rights of personal choice, accusing governors of being dictators with the apparent blessing of the President who placed the burden in the hands of the governors in the first place. It was reminiscent of complaints decades ago about being required to wear seatbelts, despite all the evidence that they were saving lives and averting more serious injuries.

Where do you draw the line between public safety and personal freedom?

There is no question that there has been plenty of contradictory information to sort through since the invasion of The Virus. Some of the reported fake news cited by those surveyed were:

  • It was “a made-up hoax to throw the election.”
    • It was “a biological weapon” created in China.
  • “Black people can’t get it.”
  • You don’t have the virus if you can hold your breath for 15 seconds.

Even though it may appear that Americans are evenly divided about restrictions imposed by sheltering in place, social distancing and closing nonessential businesses that may never recover, survey results published by the Pew Research Center on April 16 indicate where the majority of Americans stand on these measures.

About two thirds of the respondents (66%) expressed concern that states “will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly,” with 32% stating concern they “will not be lifted quickly enough.”

The one reassuring aspect of this is that the public is seemingly not so rigidly split along party lines as many of their legislators are. What’s real and what isn’t shouldn’t be determined by politics, whether from the left or right. Fake news has done its damage and was most effective early in the crisis.

Making people distrust the credibility of the news media has always been a preliminary to curtailed freedom of the press and eventual governmental control of any information imparted to the citizenry.

It is up to us to hold our news sources and our elected representatives accountable. Fact check.