IN-DEPTH / IN-DEPTH
US caught in a double epidemic and infodemic dilemma: Outrageous disinformation leads to proliferation of public cognitive dissonance and anti-intellectual behavior
In conspiracies they trust
Published: Jul 22, 2021 07:51 PM
Young attendees toss surgical masks into a fire during a mask-burning rally at the local statehouse on March 6 in the US state of Idaho. Citizens and politicians gathered in at least 20 cities across the state to protest COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: AFP

Young attendees toss surgical masks into a fire during a mask-burning rally at the local statehouse on March 6 in the US state of Idaho. Citizens and politicians gathered in at least 20 cities across the state to protest COVID-19 restrictions. Photo: AFP

As the United States continues to be overshadowed by the COVID-19 epidemic, powerful entities in the US, such as mainstream news outlets, government agencies, and celebrities, also appear to be infected with an incurable "information virus," causing disinformation about COVID-19 to spread faster than the coronavirus itself. 

Recently, American public fragility was once again wounded by Bloomberg's latest "COVID Resilience Ranking" released in late June. By way of ignoring the country's surge in new confirmed cases and falling vaccination rates as well as constantly adjusting the evaluation rules, the ranking finally brought the US to the top of the list.

"The US is now the best place to be as virus deaths plunge, the economy reopens, and travel restarts," Bloomberg proclaimed with relief on its Twitter account.

However, with the current number of COVID-19 infections reaching 34.4 million and deaths exceeding 610,000 in the US alone, most Americans questioned the objectivity of this ranking and regarded it as a joke.

"This ranking has further created a perception barrier for the American public," Tang Enyang, a New York resident and a naturalized American citizen for 20 years, told the Global Times. "By deliberately omitting key elements such as the number of confirmed cases and death toll, it highlighted the 'reopening progress' in an attempt to portray a thriving society that has emerged from the epidemic, but the truth is that skepticism, anxiety, conspiracy theories, and anti-intellectual behavior have currently pervaded the whole American society."

Experts and observers reached by the Global Times pointed out that the US government's slow response to the epidemic, along with the brazen shirking of its responsibilities, has led to a biased public perception of the COVID-19 outbreak. And established news outlets in the US, which uphold freedom, democracy, and human rights as their so-called key foundation, have become the social lenses of anti-intellectualism, not only failing to curb the rampancy of fake news but also further promoting the proliferation of rumors and epidemic escapism.

When will the authoritative voices and people of the US regain their sanity? Where is the US, currently caught in the double dilemma of an epidemic and infodemic surge, headed?

'Smoke screen' from authorities

Although Bloomberg's ranking has sent the wrong signal, experts noted that since the outbreak, it was the large amount of misleading information released by "authoritative sources" in the US that has led the public to misunderstand the dangers of COVID-19, and has contributed to an increasingly difficult situation in epidemic prevention and control.

At the early stage of the outbreak, former US president Donald Trump and his administration did their best to downplay the severity of the virus, saying the risk to the American public was low and kept calling the coronavirus disease the Democrats' "new hoax."

American journalist Bob Woodward, who conducted 18 interviews with Trump during his presidency, revealed that although Trump knew more about the severity of the disease than he had publicly stated, he continued to downplay the virus and promised that it was largely under control to demonstrate his remarkable leadership skills, BBC reported.

Claiming lack of demonstrable scientific evidence on the effects of wearing facial masks, in early 2020, US CDC and the mainstream US media kept reiterating recommendations of mask-wearing only to patients and suspected patients. It was not until March 2020, when the country gradually became the hardest hit by the epidemic, that the New York Times finally struggled to tell the public in a mildly suggestive tone stating experts had started to question whether masks may offer at least some protection.

However, according to the Guardian, as the US CDC finally updated its recommendations for people to wear masks in April 2020, Trump immediately undermined that guideline, insisting he wouldn't wear one.     What is even more absurd is that in subsequent press conferences, Trump offered Americans a series of inventive "treatments" including disinfectant injections, self-medicating with unproven anti-malaria drugs, and exposure to ultraviolet light.  

In addition to Trump and the US government, there are many other unhinged "authorities" in the US.

According to the UK media outlets Metro UK, for instance, famous American pop singer Keri Hilson once posted "research" she had found online to Twitter, claiming that COVID-19 was caused by the 5G networks.

In May 2020, Russell Blaylock, a retired neurosurgeon, published an article on technocracy.news, a website that advocates technology-driven theory, asserting that wearing masks can cause the coronavirus disease to enter the human brain. 

"Rumors and conspiracy theories have flooded the US. We once expected the country with the world's leading medical resources to quickly sort out the thinking behind the fight against the epidemic, but the result is that it has failed to give even the most basic respect for science," Tang sighed.

"The epidemic has intensified social conflicts in the US, and the media has become a tool for political parties' infighting," Steven Guanpeng Dong, dean of the School of Government and Public Service at Communication University of China told the Global Times. "In the US today, no one really cares about truth and science," he noted. 

Ludicrous farces among masses

As early as May 2020, FactCheck.org, a conspiracy theory-debunking website, had debunked allegations that Bill Gates planned to implement a mandatory vaccination program and use microchips to monitor people.

However, a recent poll conducted by the Economist and YouGov on July 10-13 showed that about 20 percent of Americans still believe the US government is using the COVID-19 vaccine as a means to microchip people.

For months, protests against vaccinations, masks, and lockdowns imposed during the epidemic erupted across the US, with angry Americans irately burning masks in the streets, and on the internet they impugned medical experts who advocated for stricter measures to control the outbreak, even as their hometowns became COVID-19 hot spots.

A protestor gestures during a No Lockdown in NYC demonstration at Union Square in New York on November 22, 2020. Photo: AFP

A protestor gestures during a "No Lockdown in NYC" demonstration at Union Square in New York on November 22, 2020. Photo: AFP

According to Business Insider, Anthony Fauci, who advises US President Joe Biden and leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently made public the threatening letters he had received, mentioning that it had become routine and the worst of the harassment was the death threats and "obscene notes" targeting his wife and daughters.

Hui C.Tsou, an attending pathologist working at New York Harbor Healthcare system, told the Global Times that she has never been able to accept that Fauci, who now represents rigor and science in the US, has been called a "fascist" by many American netizens, and she also never forget that last year, within 18 hours of Trump's ridiculous statement recommending people inject disinfectant as a treatment, the New York City health authorities had already reported 30 cases of disinfectant poisoning, requiring them to keep a close eye on the local area to see if there were any related cases.

"The anti-intellectual behavior of the public is inevitably linked to the failure of the US government," Tsou said. 

"The information about COVID-19 has changed so quickly, I can understand that it was difficult for the general public to form a coherent, systematic understanding of it. But even now, with so many deaths, there is still a large portion of the US population that questions the authenticity of the existence and spread of the virus," she noted. "How incredible!"

Dong believed that the root cause of the current chaotic situation in the US lies in the defects of the American political system. Currently, the US national education system is seriously out of balance. "Ordinary people lack high-quality education, real science and technology are monopolized by a few elites serving a chosen few instead of the general public," he said.

However, the so-called science and democracy touted by these political elites are no longer things that can guide the people to analyze and solve problems, but used by them as ways to cater to their voters and their parties, Shen Yi, professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs of Fudan University, told the Global Times.

"To gain more votes and support, they manipulate people's cognition to induce these people and even make them doubt scientific conclusions and amplify their anxiety," Shen said.

What made Tsou further worried is that subsequently after the short-term fight against the epidemic failed, the anti-intellectual phenomenon in the US gradually spilled over from the public health sector, as people's grievances against the government's negligence turned into a violent reckoning, such as racial hatred and vandalism.  

"The entire American society is in a downward spiral, which has not manifested itself before. However, the epidemic has made the country unable to conceal its structural failure," said Shen from Fudan University.

Huang Yuzhu contributed to this story
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