There’s a quote attributed to Sir Francis Bacon we’ve all heard a thousand times: “Knowledge is power.” And over the past 50 years, especially in the era of mass media, the phrase has been refurbished to include “information.”
Leaders all over the world have proclaimed that information, indeed, is power.
Coming from someone in the media business, whose chief role is to inform the public, I must admit we’re seeing a powerful exception to the rule.
As much as it pains me to spend any more time on this subject, it’s naïve to think we can avoid a quick chat on the coronavirus – or COVID-19, for those who are, for some reason, impressed by the use of meaningless acronyms.
At the time of this writing, here are some of the things we know about coronavirus: There is no toilet paper on store shelves. People are buying bottled water because, apparently, the virus is going to make it stop raining and our basins will soon empty. Surgical masks are now the most important fashion accessories on the market, even though they will protect absolutely no one from the virus. And some people won’t eat at Chinese restaurants – located in the United States – because the virus came from China.
True information may be power, but bad information breeds outright idiocy.
Not for a second should any reader think I’m downplaying the potential impact of the coronavirus, which is a threat to hundreds of thousands of people. I’m fearful for the elderly who are exposed to these germs. I’m worried about my baby girl at home, even though the early signs say the young and healthy will be fine after a brush with flu-like symptoms. And I’m fearful because this virus, much like the flu, can spread so easily.
You know what else has spread much too easily? Panic. Fear. Bad information.
A group called NewsGuard Technologies, formed by a media entrepreneur named Steven Brill, along with former Wall Street Journal Publisher Gordon Crovitz, built a website dedicated to tracking false stories about this virus.
In less than three weeks, NewsGuard says the number of websites reporting false and misleading content about coronavirus has climbed from 31 to 106 sites in the United States and Europe. But here’s what’s frightening:
“Content engagement, in the form of social media likes, shares, and comments, from the 75 U.S.-based sites on that list is many times higher than overall engagement on the official advisories and content released by the CDC and World Health Organization,” NewsGuard wrote.
That means more people are sharing false information than are sharing information from actual doctors who know what in the heck they’re talking about.
Maybe you heard about this one: The sale of Corona beer has decreased by 38 percent because people are associating the beer with the virus. For about a day, I fell for that one – seems like something beer drinkers would do. The story was even reported on local TV stations in Houston.
Of course, that’s bad information, too, thanks to a fake website image that showed Corona sales dropping. And in an effort to get the interesting story, that piece of falsehood shot faster than juice from a squeezed lime.
In fact, Corona sales have only dipped by 10 percent because people aren’t going out as much, especially in Asia.
Our national psyche, and the reaction to this latest health hazard, strikes me as a rather sad indictment on the state of information today.
Go back in time (those who are old enough) to 15 or 20 years ago, and imagine this same thing happening. Imagine there were a frightening virus spreading across the world, and think about how that information would have been passed along.
First, the foreign bureaus for some of our nation’s most prestigious newspapers would have heard about the illnesses and the deaths, and they would have written stories that would have quickly made it back to our national newspapers. The next day, those same stories would have appeared in local newspapers. And that evening, Sam Donaldson or Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather would have spent a full 90 seconds reporting on the emerging illness.
A couple of days later, the newspapers would have followed up with more stories, talked to health professionals and given readers information for how to combat the virus. Then TV would have sent a foreign correspondent to get live footage of hospitals.
Eventually (probably around the time summer hit), the stories would stop, the medical profession would have had time to find a vaccine, and we’d add a new illness to the list of shots we need each fall.
Today, the hysteria cannot be stopped. News organizations don’t control social media – people with conspiracy theories do.
Today, people don’t wait for guidance from public officials. They take the first nugget of information and share it to 500 people who share it to another 50,000 people, regardless of the information’s veracity.
Today, we don’t wait for political administrations to formulate a plan. We begin on Day 2, Hour 1, to start casting blame.
The benefits of social media platforms may be endless, but the danger and hysteria they produce are devastating.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all the hysteria and false information and greedy people selling hand sanitizer for $50 will save exponentially more lives. I’m certain it will keep us from repeating the Spanish Flu of 1918, when no one knew about the illness and more than 50 million people died.
In the end, I suppose there must be a balance. But just for once, I wish the balance meant taking our information from real sources, and not the ones zooming past your fingers on Facebook and Twitter.
Last week, our company released a website called HoustonCoronavirus.com. On it, we only publish the stories in this city that have been vetted by journalists, and I’d invite you to take a look at our daily compilation of news stories.
Until then, let’s all go have a Corona and some toilet paper.