Wednesday, June 17, 2020

COVID-19 Inspires Renewed Interest in Facts and Science

In the era of COVID-19 people want facts and this is driving a shift towards a renewed interest in science and away from partisan sources of information. For a time disinformation succeeded in hijacking the popular narrative. Led by organizations like Fox, some media outlets declared war on reality.The use of targeted disinformation on social media succeeded in gaming the system.

This allowed anti-science attitudes to proliferate and creep into the political discourse. In countries like the United States and Brazil, opposition to science played a central role in the electoral successes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsanaro. However, Trump's response to the coronavirus has made the importance of science abundantly clear. Trump seems to think that if he ignores COVID-19 it will "magically go away". More recently he has said that it will "fade away" even thought the rate of infection is increasing in almost half of U.S. states. Nonetheless, the facts are hard to dispute. This includes the fact that his slow response is being blamed for tens of thousands of cornavirus deaths and his ongoing failure to manage the crises is expected to kill many more.

The Trump administration is also contributing to the death toll from this pandemic in other ways. Their roll-back 100 environmental protections makes Americans more vulnerable to the virus. The systemic racism and environmental injustice in Trump's America has proven to be especially devastating for people of color. As evidenced by the widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement, people appear to be moving away from the administration's narrative towards a fact based apprehension of the world.

When faced with a life threatening virus and an economic collapse Americans are turning to established media brands for credible information. This is the conclusion of a New York Times analysis which drew upon SimilarWeb's assessment of internet usage in the United States. The readerships of CNBC, The New York Times and the Washington Post have all increased while interest in more partisan sites are flat or waning. This includes opinionated publications like The Daily Caller, on the right, and Truthdig on the left. Even Fox News appears to be losing market share. People are also looking for hard science as evidenced by the increased popularity of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Trump has been consistent with his resistance to science. His disdain for science and desire to co-opt the facts was evident in 2018 when he tried to hide a report by his own government scientists and again in 2019 when he made a series of inaccurate statements about Hurricane Dorian. His administration has become notorious for purging scientists and blocking scientific dissent. Trump's budgets in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, have repeatedly called for reductions in support for science at almost every level.

By now it is becoming apparent that Trump's presidency will be defined by the mendacity of the commander and chief. It is clear that facts don't matter to this president as indicated by the more than 20,000 lies he has told since 2017. The subterfuge of this administration is not restricted to the White House. Trump's Department of the Interior is at war with science, so is his EPA.

Trump did manage to undermine the credibility of popular media for a time as journalists struggled to find a strategy to fight his lies. However, in the era of COVID-19 the need to discern facts from spin is taking people out of Trump's orbit. The coronavirus has highlighted the deadly implications of a commander and chief that flouts science. People want the facts as evidenced by new research which reveals that PBS is the most trusted and unbiased source of news in the nation.

We need to put Trump's dishonesty in an historical context.  Republicans were disseminating disinformation long before Trump and they take their cues from the fossil fuel industry, the most destructive and deceitful industry on Earth. The API's long history of disinformation and the dishonesty of the entire fossil fuel industry is now a matter of public record. However, in 2019 polls started to show that these disinformation efforts were faltering.

Lies, denial and deception do not make for a good long term political strategy. One day in the near future Republicans will have to embrace the facts as a matter of political survival. Despite our foray into a maelstrom of political spin we are returning to a place where reason prevails as we acknowledge that science is the best method we have of apprehending reality. This pandemic does not acknowledge politics and the evidence shows that leaderships that eschew the facts make the situation worse. The coronavirus appears to be helping us to realize that rather than being a point of division science can be a bridge that unites us.

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