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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

When Coronavirus Misinformation Goes Viral

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be hard to keep track of what's real and what's not. There is a constant deluge of news from across the world, some of it based on false assumptions or panicky reactions that fail to put data or science into the proper context.

This week on Gadget Lab, a conversation about all the misinformation swirling around the coronavirus pandemic. We talk with WIRED editor in chief Nick Thompson about how to parse the information coming out of the White House, whether ibuprofen is harmful to people sick with the virus, and the sometimes surprisingly helpful responses of social media platforms.

Show Notes

Read Maryn McKenna’s story about the controversy over ibuprofen here. Read more from Steven Levy about the possible end of the techlash here. Read Tristan Harris on how Silicon Valley could control the direction of the pandemic here.


Nick recommends the Techne soccer training app and also The Naked Gun. Lauren recommends the Headspace meditation app. Mike recommends Bandcamp.com as a way to support your favorite music artists.

Nick Thompson can be found on Twitter @nxthompson. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our consulting executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

How to Listen

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[Intro theme music]

Michael Calore: Hi everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED, and with us is my cohost, WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode.

Lauren Goode: Hello from the home studio.

MC: Hello from my home studio. We are also joined by WIRED's editor in chief, Nicholas Thompson, our boss. Hello Nick.

Nicholas Thompson: Hey Mike, how are you?

MC: Pretty good. We are all recording remotely, so again, just like last week and probably next week, we want to apologize in advance for any weird sounds and reggae tone and sirens and cat meows you may hear during the show. Today we are going to be talking about a sort of secondary epidemic that has come along with the coronavirus—that of misinformation. There's a lot of misleading chatter out there from armchair epidemiologists, with supposed miracle cures and conflicting reports on exactly how long we need to continue practicing social distancing.

We have brought Nick on the show to talk through that with us. Let's start the conversation by talking about what information is getting out in the first place. It's hard to get accurate data about the virus's spread out of hospitals and clinics, since so much is happening so quickly. So if data and facts about the pandemic can't actually be recorded or communicated adequately, how do we know what information to trust?

NT: Well, as you say, Mike, it's hard to know. The information is coming so quickly because we're all on such high alert. We're so emotionally primed to react to everything and because the whole danger of Covid-19 is that it's a new virus, we fundamentally don't understand it. That said, the way you can triage information is, we know stuff that's coming directly from the Worldwide Health Organization and the CDC is the best we've got. Trusted news organizations are giving us the best information they can. There are a whole lot of scientists out there trying to give us the best information they can, swatting down false rumors. So there's a lot of good stuff and a massive flow, and there's some bad stuff coming in too.

LG: Nick, how should people put this information they're getting into context? One of the things that I've been looking at and refreshing, and I'm sure lots of our listeners have been too, is the Johns Hopkins website that shows total confirmed cases around the globe as well as deaths from coronavirus and total recovered folks. And the thing is, just by refreshing those numbers each day, it's rather alarming to see, even on the county level here. I've been monitoring Santa Clara and San Mateo County, where I happen to live, and we see these numbers come out every day, but it seems like it's difficult to put that into context when there is such a lack of testing going on, particularly in the United States, and it's hard to know how … Is this good? Is this bad? Are things scaling downward? How should people be thinking about it with regards to context?

NT: Well, first I would say that you don't need to be constantly checking. I think because we're all at home, we're all obsessed and we're scared. We're maybe taking on too much of the burden of having perfect information and too much of the burden of feeling like we need to really understand everything that is happening, because the truth is, what you and I need to do for ourselves, what we need to do for our communities, what we need to do as reporters doesn't change based on the Johns Hopkins chart every day or even every three days.

We know we're in a terrible situation where we have to socially distance, take every precaution, and do the best reporting that we possibly can. So that's one thing I would say. I think there's a risk for a lot of people becoming emotionally debilitated by spending too much time seeking out perfect up-to-the-second information when that's not what most of us need.

The second thing is, there's a very good question you just asked, which is impossible to answer, which is the main thing we're looking at and the main thing we're thinking about is the infection rate, which until we have universal testing means almost nothing. It's just a proxy for the number of tests in any given area. It's basically the number of people who are infected, multiplied by the prevalence of tests, and tests have been distributed unevenly in different places.

Why does the pandemic look so much worse in New York city today, as we talk, than in other places? Partly it's spread there. It's a very dense area. Bad luck, it started there. Lots of people come through there, and also it's one of the first places that had lots of tests, so it's very hard to read that particular line of data specifically as well.

MC: Well with particular note toward testing and perfect information: We heard the president bragging this week about how our testing numbers are up and how they're better than South Korea's numbers, but of course that's a flawed count, because what we really need to know is testing per capita. We have a lot more people in this country than we do in South Korea. And that really makes me think that this is an interesting thing to talk about, because so many Americans are getting their information about the spread of the coronavirus directly from the White House. Every day there was a briefing, and every day millions of people are watching. So can we examine to what extent the president's comments in general have contributed to the spread of misinformation?

NT: I mean, they've played a major role in the spread of misinformation, starting from the very beginning, where he said, "We have it completely under control. There's one case from China." And "It will just disappear." There's a series of factually incorrect statements that he made from January through the middle of March that were contradicted by the scientists and the epidemiologists.

In the middle of March, he seemed to understand that it was in his political interest to start taking this more seriously, and his tone changed. With that, I believe it was the press conference on March 12 or March 13, the sort of somber one where he didn't seem like he had his focus, but where he actually seemed to have changed the way he was looking at this, from a political nuisance to a serious issue that he had to deal with. But since then, you're right, he's gone back and forth, and he has said a whole bunch of things that aren't true.

He's been a little more excited about chloroquine then the scientists are. He's been a little more enthusiastic about our response than maybe he should be, and his statement that we should all go back to work by Easter. If it holds, and people do actually go back to work by Easter and if a miracle hasn't occurred between now and then, that will be extremely dangerous. So he has poisoned the information ecosphere. On the other hand, he has started also to point in the right direction.

LG: How so?

NT: In that he is now clearly focused on this, working on it, and he's not denying it. He's no longer tweeting statistics about how much worse the flu is. Right? He now clearly recognizes that this is a risk to the American economy, a risk to his reelection, and a risk to all of us, to our health.

LG: That leads me to my next question, which is that we're also receiving information from government leaders outside of the United States right now and I'm wondering how much of that you think that we should sort of take at face value. China in particular comes to mind because China's exposure to this was on the early curve of things. Now there are some reports suggesting that China could be getting back to work sooner than the US and I'm wondering, given the flow of information that traditionally we've had out of China, how much you believe we can trust that right now.

NT: I trust the numbers in China. The question is, do we trust the China got the coronavirus under control? I would say I do believe that. I mean the story of information in China is fascinating because in the very beginning there's the authoritarian blocking of information, right? And prosecuting people who are telling the truth about it and famously doctors in Hubei province. But I actually think that China has played since that moment, a very responsible global role, both in taking incredibly strong action that then quiets down the pandemic at home and then sharing resources with the world.

Now, there have been some awful moments. The press secretary for Shujing Ping tweeted out, some conspiracy theory nonsense about the US creating the virus, right? That was utterly despicable. But as for the numbers, I do trust that there has been a substantial decline in China, both because it's the Chinese government reporting those, but it's also the World Health Organization is over there too.

MC: So the president and the White House in general have expressed a great distrust of the mainstream media. Of course, we work in media and we feel this every day. There are also a lot of people who support the president in his policies who share that mistrust of the media. In what ways is this general mistrust of the mainstream media effecting the spread of bad information, and is it sort of inhibiting the spread of good information?

NT: Oh yeah, it's extremely unfortunate. One of the most tragic consequences of not just the Trump administration, but over the last 10 years has been the decline in trust in mainstream journalism. And so now you can see that a percentage of Republicans who believe that coronavirus is a great threat to this nation is much lower than the percentage of Democrats and that's in part because society has been filtered into a subset of people who read the free balanced press that WIRED is a part of and people who don't. And the breakdown of the civic trust that our profession had as absolutely made it harder for people to get good information.

There was a period the first two weeks of March, which were crucial weeks in this period when we go back and we tell the story of coronavirus in the United States of America, if we had acted on February 15th the way we acted on March 15th thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved. Now. Why didn't we act on February 15th the way we acted on March 15th? There are a lot of reasons, but one of them was that there was a sense that half the country didn't trust that this was a real thing and that there were a lot of right-wing pundits and people on Fox news and to some degree, the president himself saying that this is the media trying to bring down Trump, which it was not, but because that story was believed that absolutely helped us slow down our response, quite unfortunate.

LG: Nick, do you anticipate that this kind of… I don't know, partisanship, misinformation and distrust is also going to affect the way that we approach potential antibodies, vaccines and cures for this?

NT: I hope not. I mean, my hope is that the whole world is going to be different when this is over. All sorts of things are going to be changed from the way we organize our societies to the way we think about working from home to a million different things are going to change. One thing that I hope happens is maybe it's an opportunity for journalism to rebuild its trust with the public.

Maybe when this is over, people who didn't trust the New York times because they think it's too partisan. We'll realize whatever you think of the politics of the editorial board of the New York times, that the science reporting has been spot on, right? Or if you think that the Atlantic has… It's too critical of your favorite political candidates, you'll realize, Oh wait, they've done really tremendous reporting on coronavirus. So it's possible that the mainstream press will win back some of its trust.

To the specific question about a vaccine and antibodies or treatments, I think that what will happen inevitably is that the hype cycle will get ahead of the mainstream press. So as soon as there's any progress towards a vaccine, there'll be tweets that go viral and get people extremely excited before there's a story, because the reporters will be going more slowly, right?

We've seen this with the president and chloroquine where he's like, "This is … I think this is going to work, right?" Which maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong and there's some immediate bad consequences where people who actually need the medicine for their current conditions aren't able to get it because everybody's hoarding it where there's one couple out West that drinks a concentrate that's meant for a fish tank and one of them dies, the other is hospitalized.

There are some negative consequences to getting ahead of the Science. So I think what we'll see as we start to make progress towards treatments, towards vaccines, you'll see journalism going much more slowly than social media inevitably.

MC: Well actually let's take a break right now and when we come back, we'll dig into that question of social media. We'll be back in just a minute with more from Gadget Lab.


LG: We're back with Nick Thompson, editor in chief of WIRED on this weeks Gadget Lab. And of course we're talking all about Covid-19 again, in particular, misinformation. So Facebook and Twitter have both reported that their traffic is soaring. That doesn't necessarily mean good things for their advertising businesses. However, more people are using these platforms perhaps to nobody's surprise. And both companies say they're making efforts to tamp down misinformation, but at the same time, these social media platforms are still pretty notorious for this. So Nick, who do you think we can trust right now in terms of social media?

NT: I've actually been pretty impressed with what social media has done, right? You go to Google and there's a little thing and it's like, "Hey, wash your hands.. Right? When you go to google.com those valuable internet real estate in the world. WhatsApp has set up a direct line to the World Health Organization. Facebook and Instagram, both trying to push people to high quality information. So I think much, like I said earlier, it's possible that the media will rebuild its trust. It's possible that the coronavirus crisis will end the tech lash, or at least slow down or counter the tech lash to some degree.

That said, misinformation is an impossible problem that they can't solve, right? There's this amazing story that Maryn McKenna wrote for us today, and it's about why did we all panic about ibuprofen? Why do we suddenly decide that ibuprofen was a risk for coronavirus? Well, it's because there was one study about one part of the coronavirus self that maybe understood a little bit differently and then one French minister was like, "Well, perhaps ibuprofen interacts with the virus and this way." And tweeted about it and suddenly everybody thinks that I ibuprofen is really dangerous if you get coronavirus.

So what do they do? They go and get acetaminophen, which means A, going to CVS, which is dangerous in and of itself and B, acetaminophen probably kills more people a year than ibuprofen. So suddenly you're getting people to do a risky thing to get a drug that may not be better based on misinformation. That was not false. It was not a Russian operative trying to get us all sick. It was a French minister tweeting something he thought, you know, for reasons Maren gets into the French kind of don't like ibuprofen. So it's complicated.

If you're Facebook or Twitter, do you stop that? The most interesting case I thought was media, right? Where a guy, Aaron Guinn, right? He's a a Silicon Valley VC type and he writes this long essay about why actually we shouldn't be as scared about coronavirus as you might think. And he embeds all of these charts and you read it on first glance, it looks quite convincing and gets millions and millions of readers, epidemiologists say no, this is dangerous misinformation, to get misunderstand statistics. And then media has the really complicated choice.

Do we take this down? This viral story that people want to read. Not because he said something, hateful, he hasn't said something, racist, he hasn't doxed somebody, he's just done the math wrong. Do you take it down in this situation? And so it was a real example of potential harm versus free speech. And I don't know the internal debate at medium, I haven't seen anybody report it. Maybe they have, but they clearly chose blocking something that could prevent people from taking preventive action to spread coronavirus over free speech, which is a very interesting trade off to take. And I think in general, the one that the platforms have been taking.

MC: I think that to the point of the platforms, helping people find information like you were saying the do the five recommendation from the WHO that shows up in the Google homepage. I would argue that the platforms need to be more aggressive. Like for example, I opened Facebook on my phone this morning and I didn't see any information about coronavirus. I saw like a GoFund me that somebody had posted. But other than that it was business as usual on Facebook. So I went to the desktop and I opened it there and it was the same thing.

I didn't see any information about, diagnosis or testing or even just an urge to wash your hands. I would personally like to see the platform start to like drop. Covid-19 and coronavirus informational stories into like Instagram stories and Facebook stories so that people see them as they're scrolling through their feed and as they're flipping through stories.

NT: I mean, this is the argument interest on Harris makes in WIRED in a piece he wrote two days ago, which is at this point, there is no force in the world besides the social media platforms that can get us to do the things we need to do to prevent the spread of this virus. And so his argument is they should be doing what you're saying and more every time you open up one of these platforms, you should be instructed to stay at home, wash your hands, get a test if you have these symptoms, but not a few of these symptoms. So there's definitely an argument to be made for what you're saying. My argument is not that they shouldn't do that, but that what they are doing is way better than what I would have thought they would do at a moment like this.

LG: All right. It's all about that baseline. What they were doing before.

NT: I also think that the Silicon Valley companies also get credit because they were all ahead on this. They sent their employees home from work before everybody else did, by a week or two. They stopped shaking each other's hands, right? They were worried before the rest of the country was. So they spotted this and they understand the nature of viral growth, right? That's how their products were built. They understand exponential functions, so they get credit there and then they also get credit for some personal actions, right? They've all given their supplies of masks to hospitals in the shortage, which isn't enough, but it is something,

LG: Well, to your earlier point, Nick, when I asked you about… When I admitted, I've been monitoring the Johns Hopkins website perhaps a little too frequently. It's probably an interesting balance too because do people want to spend time on social media platforms if every time they open up their Instagram stories, they're getting some type of information about coronavirus or at some point, is the value of these platforms providing a form of connection to family and friends and escapism.

I imagine if what you're doing is in the form of a social media PSA, wash your hands, make sure you're still staying away from other people. Now is not the time to go back to having parties of 10 people or more. That's probably helpful. At some point I wonder… I just wonder at what point we become just too inundated and do not get the kind of emotional distance we need.

NT: Yeah, it's true, right. This, social media platforms are doing two things for us. They're providing us with information, ideally truthful information. WIRED's referral traffic from Facebook, it's up between 400 and 40 000% depending on the number of stories that go viral, right? The platforms are sending people to good and trusted information more than they have in the past, but the other thing they're providing for us is some human connectivity and something to do as we all sit in our apartments unable to go outside.

MC: I agree with you that it has been a really heartening to see the platforms be so vigilant about tamping down misinformation in ways that we've seen in just the last few weeks. And I wonder is this pandemic and their response to it going to significantly alter the way the platforms approach misinformation in the future? Like once everything goes back to a state of relative normalcy.

NT: That is a great question, right? So God willing six months from now where this is at least a bit in the rear view mirror and the executives at medium are sitting there and there's a viral post and it's about… I don't know, economic policies and it's full of misleading charts and it's full of things that are getting people riled up about stuff that's not quite accurate. Will they take it down? My guess is no. And also maybe that's the right policy. Maybe you do deprioritize speech when there are lives on the line. Maybe this is like maybe posting a misleading medium essay is like yelling fire in a crowded movie theater. Maybe they are. Maybe the right thing to do is to deprioritize speech in favor of accuracy now and when there's not a risk of mass death reverting to where they were.

LG: Nick, I'm curious, what personal measures are you taking right now to try to stay both healthy and informed?

NT: Well, to stay healthy, I went to the Catskills with my three little children, so as soon as this podcast ends I'm going to be playing soccer with them. We have space miraculously, so that's how I'm staying physically healthy. The way I'm staying emotionally healthy is just focusing on the value of what we're doing and try not to… When I find myself in Twitter, just getting to an ever darker place, reading about overflowing morgues, I'm trying to step out and just focus on what I need to know right now to edit the stories that are on my plate. But it's hard.

I think every single person. I mean everybody who's following this closely, everybody who's involved in it, sort of breaks down and cries or loses it at some point. It is so frightening what's happening, particularly when you're right in the middle of it. In New York city as you're starting to see people ever closer to you getting sick and seeing institutions that you care a lot, right? I love the Javits Center. I run by the Javits Center all the time. I used to run by it every single day on my way home and it's now being turned into an emergency ward. I used to be the host of, Comic Con, the New York Auto show, New York city Marathon, all these wonderful things and now thousands of people that are going to go there possibly to die. It's heartbreaking whenever you let yourself fall into, it was heartbreaking.

MC: Well, we're glad that you're keeping yourself healthy and that you're spending time with your family in a beautiful environment, then that must help things considerably and thank you for spending time with us today. We're going to take a break and come back with recommendations. Are you going to join us for that?

NT: Of course.

MC: All right, great. We'll be right back.


MC: All right everybody, welcome back to the show. This is the final segment where we give our recommendations. Nick, you are our guest, so you go first.

NT: All right, well I have three little kids here so my recommendations are very much focused on them. The first is the Techne app, just an app for training kids in soccer. And what it does is it sets up a bunch of goals, right, left foot, juggling, cross the line drills, and then you map your progress against other people. And my kids have become wonderfully obsessed and that they're now able to buy themselves to school practice soccer in a meaningful way that will make them better, that helps them engage with their friends and is great because then I can do my zoom conference calls. And then the second is my boys are 11, nine and six. And so we've watched a number of movies since we've been in sequence station and the best one so far for all three of them plus dad is, The Naked Gun. So kudos to The Naked Gun. They absolutely love it and they've all now watched it twice. We're going to watch Naked Gun 33 1/3 on.

MC: Lauren, what is your recommend?

LG: I can't top that. I can't top Naked Gun. Okay, my recommendation pertains to some of what we've been talking about, which is taking a little step back once in a while and trying to calm yourself. I really liked the Headspace app I used. You use it and then I gave it up for a while and now it seems like as good a time I've ever to pick up a little bit of meditation again and Headspace, like many other apps right now they're offering more free content, right?

We're seeing this come from fitness apps and meditation apps and just anything else that typically requires a subscription. They're going to rope us all in and then God willing, we all survive this. We're all going to have a lot of bills to pay and three to six months from now, once all these subscriptions start kicking in, but they have this one section of Headspace called weathering the storm, which includes meditations, sleep and movement exercises, and I really liked that. So that's what I've been using for about 10 minutes a day and I recommend that you check it out as well.

MC: All right, well my recommendation is Bandcamp.com you may know band camp. It is a platform for independent musical artists to post their work and all those bands that you were going to go see this spring and this summer have had to cancel their tours. They've had to cancel recording dates and now they're streaming from home. So if you on YouTube or on Facebook or on Instagram and you see an artist streaming and you watch it and you enjoy it, one way that you can support that artist is to go to Bandcamp.com and they are probably there because it is the most popular sort of publishing platform for bands and for like singer songwriter people. And if you go on there you can buy their albums.

They usually offer them for, you know, less than $10 you can get digital copies, you can get physical copies. It's a great option for supporting artists who are missing out on all of the revenue that they would get from touring and for merchandise sales on the road who are now sitting at home wondering how they're going to pay the rent. So Bandcamp.com remember last week they had one day where they were going to drop all of their transaction fees that they charge artists, and that day was Friday of last week and the site really suffered.

I tried to buy some stuff on band camp and I couldn't, so I just went back the next day and bought it then. And that's fine. Bandcamp gets a little bit of money out of it. The artist gets the bulk of the money. So if there's somebody who you like and there's somebody who you want to support, now is a great time to buy something from them and you get some nice downloadable MP3s from it. Nick, do you have a band camp page?

NT: I do not actually have a Bandcamp page. I should get a band camp page. Maybe that would be my sequestration project as I start to play more guitar than I used to.

MC: That's right. Sign up for publishing and then get on Bandcamp. All right, well that is our show for the week. Thanks again Nick for joining us.

NT: Thank you, Mike, for having me here. It was pleasure.

MC: And thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find us all on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Goodbye. Be well, and if you can please stay home. We'll be back next week.

[Outro theme music]

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