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Fighting Misinformation

Published on July 1st, 2020

Kaiser Health News had an article about Summit Hills, an assisted living facility in my hometown of Spartanburg, S.C.  The article explains the difficulty of preventing and containing the coronavirus when some people believe it is a hoax.  Since the start of the pandemic, the public has been barraged by conflicting messages in part because some politicians and scientists deliver conflicting advice. That is particularly true in the United States, where the coronavirus has somehow morphed into a right-wing political issue — and Americans increasingly reject information that doesn’t match their leanings.  Rumors, misinformation and outright falsehoods — some intentionally propagated — have flourished in the vacuum of leadership.

The article uses Administrator Regina Fargis who operates Summit Hills.  She took obvious precautions: no visitors, hand sanitizer everywhere and regular reminders for residents about the importance of social distancing. Summit Hills remained COVID-free until mid-June. Three residents and four employees have now tested positive and are being quarantined.

By mid-May, two residents had become convinced that the COVID-19 death count — which has surpassed 130,000 people in the U.S. — was a hoax manufactured by the media and Democrats. Some people may be dying, they said, but it wasn’t actually that severe. They didn’t think her precautions were necessary.

I don’t know how to respond, to tell you the truth,” Fargis said. “If someone has that kind of mindset, what kind of conversation do you have” to convince them of the pandemic’s severity and the need for strict precautions?

The misinformation includes the “Plandemic” video, Facebook posts claiming 5G cell networks cause the virus and articles suggesting it can be cured with garlic or using a combination of hot water with baking soda and lemon.

Research shows people who support Trump and rely on Fox News are more likely to believe the virus has been exaggerated. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to think that COVID-19 was never a threat and that the worst is over. That contributed to the push for early reopening in some states that had not met the requirements recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for doing so. And Republicans are less likely than Democrats to don protective masks, which are believed to reduce the spread of the virus. (President Donald Trump famously has refused to wear a mask in public.) Now daily case counts are spiking.

In fact, political figures like Trump have held outsize influence in shaping public understanding. “The news feed abhors a vacuum,” said Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Stanford University who has studied the implications of COVID misinformation.  Misinformation spread by political figures and celebrities made up only 20% of the sample but accounted for 69% of engagement.

At Summit Hills, the politicization of COVID-19 has “without a doubt” made it harder for Fargis, its executive director, to convince her residents — many of whom would typically look to the federal government for credible information — of the pandemic’s severity.

When South Carolina began opening up, Fargis decided to see if the numbers of new COVID-19 cases declined significantly before lifting precautions. Now, with the virus in her facility, she has no intention of letting up social distancing rules and other prevention strategies.

And since May, at least one of her residents has since come around to understanding the pandemic’s severity. But another, she said, still emails her arguing that the virus has been overblown or that social distancing does not work and suggesting that unproven medicines — like hydroxychloroquine or beta-glucans — can treat or prevent the illness.

We’d all be far better off if we kept those nonsensical remarks out of the news,” she said. “The more misinformation we have, the more likely we are going to have lives at stake.”

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