The longer we stay at home and social distance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the more misinformation and conspiracy seem to thrive. Sure, the supply-side is spraying nonsense in every direction for profit, power, anarchy, or all the above. But the flood of falsehoods exists in part because demand is through the roof. The same measures keeping us safe from coronavirus are making us susceptible to misinformation about it.
Selective exposure thrives in isolation. Stuck at home, people around the world are consuming significantly more media than usual, according to data from Statista. Research shows we tend to spend that increased screen time with content that supports our viewpoints. Add to that more time on social media, where many of us interact with homogenous social networks that think much the way we do, and it becomes easy to lean into our partisanship, insulated from perspectives that may keep us grounded.
Our most common sources of serendipitous diversity--school or work--have been taken away. We're only now dipping our toes into dining or shopping in different neighborhoods. We're stuck. If it already took intentionality to broaden one's societal awareness, it's doubly true now.
This pairs with early academic research on coronavirus misinformation. Researchers at the University of Miami found 29 percent of survey respondents believe the virus is being over-hyped intentionally in an effort to take down President Donald Trump. Most were not just Trump supporters, but people who pay a great deal of attention to politics. In this isolated world, it's likely even more of that attention is going to screens, where the president is amplifying the idea via tweet.
A shutdown doesn't just keep us isolated; it causes desperation. Livelihoods are hanging by a thread in economic times not seen since the Great Depression. A one-time $1,200 stimulus check designed when the timeline was weeks, not months, isn't enough to pay the bills. Small business loans that get gobbled up by decidedly not-small businesses don't keep payrolls afloat. Here in Arkansas, state pandemic unemployment assistance continues to be slow to deliver cash to pockets.
It's not just the economy. Domestic abuse has skyrocketed as people confined to their homes would feel safer anywhere else.
Plenty of people who need a re-open aren't anti-government or anti-science; they just don't know what else to do.
When we are desperate for a basic need, we go looking for a solution that will directly and immediately satisfy it, using what researchers call outcome involvement. With Washington balking at further stimulus for families, getting back to work satisfies the need.
My research finds that the usual conspiracy adopters exist on a politically motivated fringe, driven more by value involvement that seeks affirmation of beliefs core to a social identity. They sow distrust in the rich, the powerful, the government and the media, because as a social identity reaches an extreme, it develops a psychological need to defend itself from enemies everywhere, real or imagined.
When those partisans say that social distancing or vaccines are part of a deep state mainstream media plot, the message usually travels the tight-knit circle but has a hard time breaking through to wider audiences. If anything, social media exaggerates the proliferation because places like Twitter, for instance, are much more politically involved and partisan than the real world, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
But this time, those value-laden messages collided with desperate, isolated people seeking outcome-driven solutions. If the threat of the virus is overblown--if social distancing isn't needed--I can get back to work and feed my family.
I've seen this play out anecdotally in my own social networks with things like the Plandemic video, which benefited from a healthy mix of government distrust and Streisand effect (whereby heavy-handed attempts at censorship backfire and draw even more attention). However, when faced with pushback from friends and family, many brushed aside the more bombastic claims of coverup or purposeful spread. They were more concerned with the practical ramifications.
The unusually broad spread of conspiracy and misinformation stops when it is no longer needed. Consider it an added benefit to getting the country back to work, or providing adequate government support to survive in the meantime.
And until we're back in schools, workplaces, and the other spaces where we find a diverse marketplace of ideas, remember that our digital social networks are but a carefully curated slice of the much larger world outside.
Dylan McLemore, Ph.D., is a media researcher studying what makes partisans tick. He is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Central Arkansas. Follow him on Twitter @voiceofD.
Editorial on 05/31/2020