As a fresh-faced kid in journalism school, I readily embraced the idea of the free marketplace of ideas, where theoretically the best ideas would prevail. Freedom of speech would ensure that all those great ideas could be easily disseminated.
Uh huh. Perhaps too easily, given we now have an angry digital mob overrunning the free marketplace of ideas, turning over the tables of purveyors of legit information and screaming fire in the theatres. You see this from everything from the 2016 and on political disinformation campaigns to the coronavirus cures for sale online.
See also: when did death threats become so fashionable? Why are so many people inclined to spew bad ideas across the digital realm? Back in the old days, not that long ago, the preponderance of information was disseminated by newspapers and TV news and was filtered. That is to say that there were gatekeepers. I am arguing that was a good thing because it limited exposure of the general public to snake-oil salesman and foreign state-sponsored propaganda. Sure, bad and malicious information was out there, but it was at what used to be called the fringes.
There no longer is any fringe. Heck, I logged onto NextDoor to read about a lost dog and a bunch of people were sharing false info on coronavirus. They were downplaying the risks, of course. Considering I am on a drug that can render patients more susceptible to infections (this disclaimer will sound familiar if you have watched TV in recent decades), I am not taking medical advice from the people of NextDoor or Doctor Google.
For quick reference on COVID-19, I like to check this CDC page and this World Health Organization page. I signed up for text alerts from my county government and I follow legit news outlets (see Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, our local Fox News affiliate, etc.). I do not care what random Uncle Crazy on NextDoor says. Except I do, in that the easy flow of bad information is so damaging to our society and democracy. As an aside, please don’t inject silver to attempt to cure COVID-19, which is one of the modern day snake oils being cracked down on by the FTC and FDA, according to the Washington Post. Do not make fun of the pandemic on the floor of the House of Representatives, only to find yourself exposed at a political function and under self-quarantine.
Do not claim it’s no big deal and not as bad as the flu when we have not seen the extent of it (ahem, you know who). Do not assert this is overblown by the American liberal media when foreign governments are imposing travel restrictions – Italy just locked down all travel there and school is closed until April 3 – and responding appropriately to a new virus that has killed many at an alarming rate. Should we all panic? No. Should we all be concerned and careful? Yes. Absolutely. Here’s today’s tally from WHO: global cases, 109,578 confirmed, including 3,994 new in the last 24 hours, and 3,809 deaths, 225 new in the last 24 hours.
Meanwhile, a crowd on NextDoor is actively arguing for and against caring. Those pitching the bad ideas say you could also die from a snakebite (see snake oil sales), the flu, from a vaccine, or from being aborted. Or, they are contending for most people, it’s a mild reaction. As for the latter notion, that is something close to something that even CDC says, but for many people, it’s dangerous.
Now, there is another dynamic at play with the peddlers of bad ideas. They fancy themselves contrarians who know better than conventional wisdom. They want to tear down the institutions that promote subject-matter experts because the falsity peddlers would never qualify as real experts. For that, they would need to be smart and educated. Instead, they find some quack with inflated credentials and cite them as an expert. This puffery could extend to themselves.
The question now before us is whether people will return to embrace truth from experts and cast aside the falsity peddlers. How much truth can be ignored when people around the world are sick from a novel virus, markets negatively respond to supply chain disruptions and lowered demand for some key products and the flow of business slows? This outbreak might give many of us the chance to break out and away from bad information.
The Sage Leopard, firstname.lastname@example.org