Editors' note: This story has been updated to more clearly attribute promotional phrasing from Simon & Schuster
.CDC Director Robert Redfield dropped a bombshell in an interview last week with the Washington Post: The second wave of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, could be worse than the current one ravaging the country.
“There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” he said, because it would coincide with the annual flu epidemic, which killed 24,000 to 62,000 people last year and caused 18–26 million hospital visits.
A day later, President Donald Trump tweeted an attack on a CNN report about the Redfield interview. “CDC Director was totally misquoted by Fake News CNN on Covid 19. He will be putting out a statement,” the president wrote.
Several hours later, during Trump's daily coronavirus press briefing, Redfield was forced to walk back his statement.
“I didn’t say that this was going to be worse. I said it was going to be more difficult and potentially more complicated because we would have flu and coronavirus circulating at the same time,” Redfield said. “It doesn't mean it's impossible, it doesn't mean it's going to be worse.”
As the back-and-forth showed, there are at least two coronavirus narratives, and to be clear, they are not equal: One is backed by science, data, and objective reality, created by medical workers and the scientists, and another is distrustful of institutions, reliant on pseudoscience, and the product of the paranoid and the president.
As of Monday, 54,877 Americans had died from the coronavirus — more than the 47,434 Americans killed in combat during the Vietnam War. This week, the number of cases in the United States exceeded 1 million. The first four months of this crisis will assuredly mean that when we emerge, we’ll be different people in a very different world. But we aren’t even halfway.
If we can't agree that we are living through a life-threatening pandemic, then what can we agree on? And how are we not hopelessly, horribly broken?
Our new reality is as shared as the corpses buried in mass graves in New York City, and yet we have no common narrative about the pandemic. We still cannot find a consensus on what’s happening. If we can't agree that we are living through a life-threatening pandemic — and what it means to live through it — then what can we agree on? And how are we not hopelessly, horribly broken?
There are even larger disagreements, which turn on questions of value and meaning. Is the outbreak an indictment of untrammeled global capitalism, as leftists like Slavoj Zizek and Mike Davis have argued? A consequence of the US allowing China to grow too strong, as American conservatives point out? The convenient excuse for overweening tech companies and intrusive governments to build the panopticon? Or has it killed the techlash? Is this a moral test? No, it's an environmental justice crisis. A great spiritual awakening. The end of neoliberalism or the end of leftism.
Let's leave those harder questions aside, because we can't even agree on the basic, factual contours of the coronavirus. How bad is it? What caused it? What's the way out? Is it an inconvenience or an existential threat? Is it time to end the lockdowns, or should we stay at home for weeks and months to come? Are our institutions fighting this thing correctly, or are we on our own?
This is the Will Ferrell pandemic: "No one knows what it means. But it's provocative. Gets the people going."
We will never agree, in part because the science is genuinely unsettled, and in part because it's to Republicans' advantage to make it seem like those zones of uncertainty are much larger than they actually are.
One of the best examples of our already warped understanding is the persistent theory among the American right that COVID-19 escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The narrative is difficult to shake, especially since it marries legitimate scientific caution and doubt with the president's need to find a scapegoat.
“These conspiracy theories about the virus's origin are harming our ability to work together as a global community,” Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen told BuzzFeed News. “It's a pandemic, it's not China's virus. It's definitely [the world’s] virus at this point.”
In contrast to the corona bros — often men in tech and finance who push uninformed information via sprawling Twitter threads and Medium pieces — Rasmussen has become one of the leading sources on Twitter of reliable information about COVID-19.
“I don’t want to waste my time with people who won’t be convinced that this isn’t a dastardly plot to vaccinate everyone.”
While scientists have not yet ruled it out, Rasmussen said there’s also no evidence she’s seen that points to the lab in Wuhan. She also dismissed a related theory that the coronavirus had been created for warfare. “It would be a terrible biological weapon,” she said.
The lab origin theory, though, is part of a widening informational divide between Republicans and the scientists. According to Rasmussen, people who only listen to Trump’s nightly press briefings would be unprepared for another lockdown, if that's what's needed. “I think that there is certainly the possibility that we could be back to square one,” she said.
“We're going to be stuck with this for a long time,” she said. “There could be over a million deaths [worldwide] by this fall, but it's really, really hard to say right now.”
Rasmussen said that there’s a disconnect between how the scientific community conducts itself and how laypeople consume information. She’s found Twitter useful for sending facts out to her followers, but for every person reading her tweets who wants to actually learn, there are swarms of harassers, angry because scientific research doesn’t line up with their conspiracy theories. Recently, one Twitter user showed up in her mentions, demanding she prove that demonic possession wasn’t what was causing rabies, HIV, and COVID-19.
“It's important for people to have a basic good understanding of what we do and what we don't know,” she said. “[But] I don't want to waste my time with people who won't be convinced that this isn't a dastardly plot to vaccinate everyone.”
We will never agree, because trolls and kooks are pushing nonsense faster than anyone can clean it up.
If it feels like there’s a new conspiracy theory on the internet every day, that’s because there is. Before the coronavirus, an online fringe narrative would take 6 to 8 months to bubble into the mainstream, according to data from AI software company Yonder. During the outbreak, it has taken 3 to 14 days. The QAnon movement and the anti-vax community have moved, if not quite into the center of the national conversation, next door.
Take the toilet paper shortage, for example. In late February, toilet paper started flying off the shelves at supermarkets around the country as panicked shoppers stocked up, bracing for then-imminent statewide lockdowns.
“The way we track a narrative as it moves from one group online to another is using linguistic idiosyncrasies: Small snippets of text or phrases that are used in an idiosyncratic way,” Yonder CEO Jonathon Morgan told BuzzFeed News. “The one that caught our attention is the early signals from 4chan that there was panic buying at grocery stores at a time when panic buying wasn't happening.”
According to Morgan, those panic buying posts predated mainstream media coverage by almost two weeks.
By the end of February, influencers with larger followings picked up the 4chan posts and spread the toilet paper panic onto larger mainstream social networks like Twitter, which in part caused larger, legitimate news outlets to report on the story.
Not only did trolls spread a narrative about panic buying from the fever swamps to the pages of the mainstream press, but even now, 10 weeks after the first posts, it’s not clear what the intention was. The early signals on 4chan may have come because people noticed real panic buying quickly, but it could also have been an intentional effort to cause the headlines to spread. Here, there are at least two layers of confusion.
Morgan is watching other false narratives ooze to the surface, including that vitamin C could cure the coronavirus or foreign-born delivery drivers had spread the disease. He sees this problem worsening as anger and despair escalate — and trust in institutions declines.
“Instead of taking information from [institutions],” Morgan said, “we're taking advice from our peers who are getting informed by the least-informed, but most passionate, fringe groups.”
The institutions of the 21st century, the major social media platforms, have been waging well-publicized battles against COVID-19 misinformation. Facebook now alerts users who like, react to, or comment on debunked content with a message directing them to the World Health Organization's Myth busters page. Under its coronavirus policy, Twitter has deleted posts and suspended accounts. YouTube has outfitted search results and videos with coronavirus-related information featuring WHO data and links to official pages from agencies like the CDC around the world.
“There really is this sort of sense that the government is randomly doing things all over the world that don’t make any sense at all.”
Aviv Ovadya, founder of the Thoughtful Technology Project, told BuzzFeed News that anti-institutionalism is one of the main drivers of the narrative breakdown.
“[People] are not sure what to trust, and the authorities [and] the ways that experts are communicating with them, the media is communicating with them, are not helpful,” he said.
Ovadya said he thinks trolls spreading explicitly harmful disinformation are only a small part of the problem. Most of the rumors and hoaxes are shared by people who are genuinely trying to do what’s best for themselves or their families.
“There really is this sort of sense that the government is randomly doing things all over the world that don't make any sense at all,” he said. “I still don't feel like I have any sense of here's a set of milestones we need to hit, very concrete, here's a date where we intend to hit those.”
But if the problem is anti-institutionalism, then having the institution of Facebook — the closest thing we have to a functioning national government — tell you you're wrong is no better than having a scientist do it.
American chiropractors have used Facebook to promote fake cures and therapies for the coronavirus — with one video viewed over 20 million times. The celebrities John Cusack and Woody Harrelson have spread the hoax that 5G cellular technology caused the pandemic. A QAnon YouTuber told his followers to drink chlorine dioxide — the oxidizing agent used in bleach. A YouTube video accusing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and top-ranking member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, of being part of the “deep state” has been viewed over 7 million times.
In part, we will never agree because some of us simply don't want to.
Of all of the internet groups that have thrived during the pandemic, the QAnon movement may be the most virulent. Adherents believe that President Trump is waging a secret war against the deep state and a global cabal of pedophiles. In the last four months, pieces of that narrative have popped up on more mainstream platforms. Last month, Instagram influencers shared a hoax that the pandemic lockdown was a government cover-up distracting the world from a covert operation to break up a global child trafficking operation.
“It's a mess,” network analysis company Graphika’s cyber intelligence analyst, Melanie Smith, told BuzzFeed News. “We have seen a huge uptake in volume in certain issues that were pretty fringe.”
Smith said Q followers are responsible for conspiracy theories like the hoax that Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates created the coronavirus as a bioweapon and the idea that bleach could be a cure, and have promoted the unfounded claim that 5G caused COVID-19. According to Smith, these groups are filling a vacuum left by health professionals unused to combating misinformation in public.
Graphika published a report titled “The COVID-19 ‘Infodemic’” last week, analyzing social media data back to December 2019. In many countries, these internet-fueled fringe narratives are receding and better information taking their place — except for the US.
Another reason we will never agree: Social media platforms have built spaces in which those of us with the least amount of real information can marinate in falsehoods.
The anti-lockdown protests across the country were the culmination of months of paranoid rhetoric spreading across Facebook Groups. As thousands of demonstrators swarmed state capitols to protest stay-at-home orders, dozens of Facebook Groups appeared with names like "Indiana Citizens Against Excessive Quarantine" and "Operation Gridlock Tennessee" to organize them.
After one of those protests, Audrey Whitlock, a leader of the ReOpen NC Facebook Group, announced in a Facebook post that she had tested positive for COVID-19. But contracting the disease hasn’t deterred her from demanding an end to social distancing. “A typical public health quarantine would occur in a medical facility. I have been told not to participate in public or private accommodations as requested by the government, and therefore denied my First Amendment right of freedom of religion,” Whitlock wrote.
If you disagree with what the mainstream is thinking, saying, and doing about the pandemic, there’s safe harbor for you on Facebook Groups.
Some of those groups are the work of conservative activists. A network of pro-gun groups run by four brothers — Chris, Ben, Aaron, and Matthew Dorr — were behind five of the largest Facebook groups dedicated to to the protests, according to NBC News. Another one of the protests in Michigan was organized by a group linked to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
But the Tech Transparency Project, a research initiative of Campaign for Accountability, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization, published a report outlining how extremists were using private Facebook Groups to ramp up support for a violent anti-government uprising.
The Tech Transparency Project’s executive director, Daniel Stevens, told BuzzFeed News that the report looked at 125 private groups — some of which were created in the last couple of months.
“A lot of this stuff is really violent and really extreme,” he said. “Our impression is that they've been trying to use the outbreak to recruit people to their cause.”
The Tech Transparency Report found protest announcements promoted in private Facebook groups associated with the far-right “boogaloo” movement. “Boogaloo" comes from the 1984 movie Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and is short for “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo.”
One Facebook event spotted by the Tech Transparency Report encouraged people to attend a Wisconsin protest slated for April 24, even though the state is under a stay-at-home order until May 26. The event page listed more than 3,200 people as attending and another 12,000 as interested.
These Groups share information psychological warfare and celebrate when President Trump tweets about “liberating" states from social distancing, in addition to circulating specific information about how to carry out a violent uprising. “In these boogaloo groups, they upload all these files,” Stevens said. “Here's how to wage the war, here's how to attack supply lines.”
“A perfect driver for them to recruit people,” he said. “It shows the civil unrest is starting.”
But it’s not just far-right extremists that have their own warped view of the crisis. The fracture is global.
Another reason we'll never agree: China's leaders are making it harder for us to do it.
“This is the first time we've seen really aggressive disinformation attempts by China that look a lot like Russia's,” said Matthew Schrader, China analyst for the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan national security advocacy group formed in 2017 to combat Russian efforts to undermine democracy in the United States and Europe.
He told BuzzFeed News that for years China’s international propaganda efforts had been focused on influencing from the top down — as in Australia, where the largest donors to both of the country's political parties were proxies of the CCP. Now, China is using information warfare similar to the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency — engaging with users on platforms like Facebook and Twitter to shape public opinion through trolling and astroturfing.
Schrader released a report last week that analyzed China’s political interference during the pandemic. Up until 2020, there was a shared conversation between the US and China that was mutually beneficial. “China's leaders thought cooperation was a pretty useful means to the end of shared party power,” he said. “The breakdown we've seen is that shared narrative doesn't work anymore.”
Schrader said it’s incredibly hard for Americans to identify whether they’re looking at Chinese propaganda online. There is also an increasingly vocal contingent of Chinese nationalists using VPNs to push CCP talking points in English on Twitter, whether to troll or from sincere belief.
Rui Zhong, program associate for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, told BuzzFeed News that English-language Chinese propaganda spreading on American social media platforms is deliberate. “Within China, we're seeing more and more rewards and incentives given to people who are more overtly hawkish towards America,” Zhong said.
According to Zhong, China has the first mover advantage when it comes to international messaging about the coronavirus — because they were hit first, they had more time to develop a propaganda strategy. The country’s government has also co-opted hate crimes against the Chinese diaspora in countries like the US. “It’s definitely trying to paint China as a responsible actor given the circumstances of the virus and using opportunities where other states might not look as responsible like the UK and US,” she said.
Both Schrader and Zhong agreed that the overall impact of Chinese information warfare is probably small, even though the American right is becoming suspicious about it. But some of these efforts have caught on, like a story about a US Army reservist from Virginia falsely accused of being patient zero for COVID-19. Chinese internet users on platforms like Weibo and WeChat shared that hoax widely.
But for rival governments, acknowledging that China has stepped up its information offensive carries political risks, and so many have shied away from direct criticism. The New York Times obtained a revised European Union report last week that revealed officials had softened their criticism of China following pressure from Beijing.
But maybe the chief reason we will never agree isn't the commander in chief, the social media platforms, the infowarriors, or the Chinese propagandists. It's us.
A day after Redfield walked back his predictions of an impending deadly second wave, President Trump took the podium during his daily COVID-19 briefing and suggested that injecting light or disinfectants into human bodies might kill the virus.
"I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute," he said. "Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that."
On Facebook, conspiracy theory and pseudoscientific Groups promoted his remarks, according to NBC News.
The president’s remarks about the power of light to kill the virus also fell in line with a popular pseudoscientific article on Medium, “Coronavirus and the Sun: A Lesson From the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.” Written by British author Richard Hobday, whose books claim, according to publisher Simon & Schuster, "sunlight can help prevent and heal many common and often fatal diseases like breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and osteoporosis," it claims "sunlight is germicidal and there is now evidence it can kill the flu virus."
More than 100 years after the influenza pandemic, we still can’t agree on what happened.
Ravina Kullar, an infectious diseases researcher, told BuzzFeed News that you would literally need to fry yourself with UV light to rid your body of COVID-19.
In discussing “a lesson from the 1918 influencer pandemic,” Hobday’s piece actually regurgitated a popular hoax from that era: sunshine therapy, or the idea that sunlight could cure the flu.
“There were rampant false cures and treatments peddled by large firms as well as those who could best be understood as charlatans,” Christopher McKnight Nichols, history professor and director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, told BuzzFeed News.
Nichols said that in 1918, hospital wards often believed patients were responding well to sunshine therapy when, in actuality, they were probably already feeling better and thus able to go outside. “There were and are a lot of conflated factors there about this actual treatment as opposed to, for example, being a sign of a patient on the mend or with a more mild case of influenza,” he said.
In other words, more than 100 years after the influenza pandemic, we still can't agree on what happened. Little wonder, then, that we're so far away from understanding each other about the coronavirus. ●