The Seduction of Misinformation

I received three texts like the one above last week. The first two came through last Monday, only a few days after the the initial sanctions started taking place (elbow bumps instead of handshakes, wiping down surfaces, etc.). We’d been in Charleston for a wedding over the weekend and honestly, if we didn’t watch the news down there, you would never have known anything was happening in the country. I’ll admit, it was a nice reprieve. A lot unfolded in the days that we were down there. By Sunday, I was anxious to get home at which point I knew we’d have to face some realities that we’d had honestly had the privilege of putting off until arriving back in Manhattan. The first thing I did when we got home on Sunday afternoon was go to the grocery store (three, actually). To my surprise, shelves were relatively well-stocked, there weren’t a ton of people in the stores, and everyone seemed rather calm.

Over the course of the next 18 hours, however, I received the text above and another one from an acquaintance in the neighborhood. Both mentioned having a connection to a government agency–a friend of a friend–who had it on good authority that serious actions regarding quarantines and possibly even the closure of state borders would be going into effect within 48-72 hours. Any confidence and self-assuredness that I’d been feeling about keeping my family in the city at least for the week quickly melted away. We left town that night.

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one getting these fear-inducing texts, nor was I the only one who succumbed to them.

The text messages have largely followed a pattern: The author claims to have a connection to someone working at a clinic or government agency — an aunt, a neighbor, a friend’s cousin — who has revealed unannounced plans for an impending lockdown or quarantine. They’re passing along a warning, telling recipients of the urgent need to stockpile food, gas, medicine or other necessities. They often contain pleas that they be forwarded to others.

And none of them are true.

– Mihir Zaveri, New York Times

Whether the information is true or not is almost irrelevant. The panic and anxiety that result from simply receiving these messages are real and dangerous.

In this second message that I received, I was struck by the fact that it explicitly says, “there is nothing to back up this claim,” multiple times throughout the message and yet, we’re still forwarding this messages to each other.

After reading the Times article, watching the local news, and chatting with friends scattered throughout the northeast, I realized that I’d been so caught up in the frenzy that I just took the information in the texts as accurate. For someone whose training is in media literacy — the practice of critically questioning and analyzing the media I consume and create — I am embarrassed and humbled by my knee-jerk response. In these moments of uncertainty, I completely failed to practice what I preach. I got sucked in and dropped my critical lens guard. Misinformation is potent. It’s powerful. It’s seductive.

Last week my family and I were watching too much news. There are a handful of events that I recall watching this much televised news coverage: 9/11, Obama’s election, Ferguson, and now this. There are two things, however, that set this event apart: the sheer ubiquity of social media and, more notably, Donald Trump. I found myself engaging in various self-sabotaging behaviors as a result of media over-saturation — last Wednesday I was literally sweating watching the news unfold and I don’t want to admit the number of times I Googled “symptoms of coronavirus” every time a nerve fired in my body.

In an era and wake of “fake news”, the call for media literacy has never been greater. The need for critical viewing and questioning. The need to pause and ask questions of the images and messages we’re consuming (and perhaps more importantly, that we’re creating and/or forwarding) is crucial at this moment in history.

A few basic tips and reminders moving forward:

It should be physical, not social, distancing. Just because we can’t be together doesn’t mean we should be alone. I know we’ve all seen the viral videos and stories surface in the last week about how people are connecting and staying in community with one another largely through the affordances of the internet. I love the video of the Italians singing together from their respective balconies. This woman led a neighborhood Zumba class. And this couple hosted what turned out to be a 60-person happy hour over Zoom.

Triangulate your news sources. Watch one station for 15 minutes then flip to another. For the most part, we jump from CNN to FOX to ABC. Be aware, however, that when all stations cover the same press conference, it’s easy to lose your sharpened edges of critical viewing.

Don’t just rely on television coverage. Make sure you are also reading and/or listening to other information sources — The Atlantic, New York Times, NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, etc. Podcasts are a fantastic way to get your news without the dog and pony show that mainstream TV news sources often fall subject to. Without the visuals (which are often dramatic and used to grab your attention and keep you there), you have the opportunity to focus on what is actually being said.

TURN IT OFF. While information seems to be unfolding constantly, it is virtually impossible for every minute of a newscast to contain “breaking news”. Just like I set “screen time” limits for my toddler, I’m trying to do the same for myself with the news. Watch for an hour tops and then turn it off. Go for a walk, do some work, workout, play with my kids. It’s crucial to maintain balance while also trying to adapt to this new normal.

The digital divide and participation gap persists. As schools across the country have closed (many for the remainder of the year), and education is shifting to distance/online learning, we’ve been hearing a lot about parents doing double duty of home-schooling or at least over-seeing their kids engaging in Zoom calls with their teachers, doing worksheets, keeping up with readings, etc. Many teachers too are overworked as they feverishly figure out how to transition in-person lessons to online learning experiences. This is no small task or easy feat. What we’re hearing less about, however, are the kids who don’t have an internet connection at home, let alone a device that is readily available. While it’s awesome that our education system was largely able to adapt with such short notice, it’s crucial to widen our scope and consider that not all students are going to be able to learn equally in the next few months. What kind of repercussions might that have on their schooling? On graduation? On high school and college/vocational trajectories? NPR recaps the country’s first week or nation-wide distance learning here.

Below is a brief list of resources — curated texts — that I have found helpful, informative, comforting, and inspiring.

Resources and articles:

  • The News Literacy Project: Get smart about COVID-19 information
  • New York Magazine’s curated articles, videos, etc. re: COVID-19 and life in quarantine from The Cut.
  • I know multiple pregnant women who are due in the next few weeks. This week both New York Presbyterian and Mount Sinai made an incredibly difficult decision to not only prohibit spouses into the delivery room but in the hospital altogether. This piece, Pregnant in a Pandemic, is from a writer for New York Magazine who is currently pregnant and making sense of these uncertain times, and this message from an L&D nurse to soon-to-be moms; both give me hope and serve as important reminders that motherhood (and parenthood) is the most rewarding, trying, terrifying, exhilarating, and crazy experience. This current situation only reaffirms how strong and resilient women are especially when it comes to bringing babies into this world. Mamas, I see you and love you.
  • Teaching Tolerance provides some trauma-informed tips on teaching through the coronavirus outbreak.
  • Here’s just one example of the curated resources that educators have put together for children at home. My heart is warmed by the ways that people are coming together, lifting access restrictions like membership fees to provide people with learning and entertainment resources.
  • Related to my point above about the digital divide and participation gaps that exist with the online learning happening nationwide, this piece from the Chicago Tribune highlights the pandemic as a “white-collar quarantine.”

I will continue to update this list of resources. In these coming days, weeks, and possibly months, remember to prioritize self-care, exploration, movement, cooking, reflection, and deep breaths! Stay safe and healthy, everyone, I’m sending you lots of love and light.