Facts and Fears of a Pandemic
Air Date: March 16, 2020
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our guest today exposes the dis and misinformation, the scams, hucksters and deceit across the web, especially on health, social and political matters. A former staffer with the Burlington Public Library, this librarian turned senior researcher, has reported for the Daily Beast and is now a national reporter for NBC News. As David Beard writes of Brandy Zadrozny, “She’s one of several news librarians and researchers who’ve made a huge difference on big stories and journalism is grateful.” Thank you for your important work. It’s a pleasure to host you. We really wanted to focus on health concerns and the proliferation of conspiracy theory and real concern about people’s ability to handle crisis situations online and what that might for bode in terms of our human capacity to deal with health related crises. The first is coronavirus. In the immediate aftermath of, of the virus there’s very little reliable information coming out of China and we saw an explosion of victims of fatalities and those who are very critically ill and in that void we saw a lot of conspiracy theory, but you in particular have been tracking that. And I just wanted you to give our viewers a, a holistic view of what’s going on with the coronavirus in reality and then in online where the mythology and fantasy sometimes take over.
ZADROZNY: Sure. So, in reality, there is a coronavirus that has sort swept across China, started in Wuhan and now it’s traveled to several other countries. It’s gotten to the United States and people are sick and some are mostly older people are dying. It’s scary. There are thousands of cases. It’s really, it’s really moving. But we don’t really know why. We don’t know why for a lot of reasons. We don’t know why because maybe China has a history of not really releasing things that might be politically embarrassing. We don’t know why because epidemiology is hard, right? It’s difficult scientific, messy work sometimes. So we have a flood of scientists doing work right now to sort of find the, where it originated and find a vaccine. So in that space, there’s lots of questions, right? Fair questions. But when we have a situation where there are lots of questions and not a lot of answers and there are real stakes, right, people’s lives are on the line. It’s scary. So you have a scary situation dealing with countries that have been, you know, normally pretty secretive and it deals with health and science and things that people don’t really understand. So when you have a vacuum of information like this, you know, there are going to be people that rush to fill that vacuum. It’s not always for you know, dastardly purposes, but just you want answers, you know, and you know when, when you start looking for, or when you start trying to answer questions like that, sometimes the answers aren’t always right. So what has popped up in the online space and offline too, ‘cause I talk to people all the time and I hear this in real life is just a host of, you know, crazy conspiracies that sometimes have a seed of truth, sometimes don’t, they’re pushed by a couple of classifications of people. I would say one is medical disinformation agents that want to sell you something, maybe a gas mask, maybe a supplement, maybe vitamin C that they say, will, a cure your coronavirus, maybe a dangerous type of bleach that’s being sold for this purpose on Facebook right, now, so you have those guys. And then you have political ideologues that want to sell you maybe an anti-China message that want to increase your distrust of China. So we have Senator Tom Cotton who sort of made the rounds on Fox News and other places just asking, asking questions. Maybe the virus developed in a research facility in Wuhan. What could be the purpose of that? And the implication is he’s, what he’s doing is he’s dog whistling these online articles that have been claiming that the Wuhan virus escaped or was released as some sort of biomedical weapon to the Chinese people for population control. Maybe the Americans engineered it. There’s all these splinter conspiracies that come off of this, but those are the main one. And then you have the clout chasers that just sort of, it could be anything really. Coronavirus just happens to have a very long tail. So they’ve come because they have Instagram accounts that they want to get lots of likes and followers for. The most popular coronavirus video on Instagram had millions of views, like 42 million views or something and it was like a guy eating a bat and mice. So that sort of spread xenophobia, it gets people to like be shocked. And that’s what shocking content really moves online. So this guy, he was he was a penny stock guy. He’s not a doctor and not any sort of expert in coronavirus but he was the, his video was the video that everybody saw. So those are the main people that are sort of leaping on to this virus and spreading them the worst of it.
HEFFNER: It comes in a climate right, where anti-vaxxers on YouTube and Twitter and Facebook have made huge inroads in attempting to persuade people that vaccinations will kill their children. And so, it’s in this climate too of distrust within the American information ecosystem. But did it make it more difficult, and does it make it more difficult because we see China reporting thousands of, now thousands of deceased people, but certainly tens of thousands of critically ill people. And that is a country that doesn’t have an open web. So what’s filling our knowledge base is the combination of a propaganda machine in China that may or may not be telling the truth and then anything else we can kind of fish out. And like you’re saying, they’re also really important scientists on Twitter who are constantly sharing scholarly work and a lot of the European and American doctors have what we could consider trusted Twitter handles and a trusted social media presence. But does that particular situation of China and the lack of an open web there complicate this further?
ZADROZNY: Oh, it’s super complicated just for that reason. Yeah. And I mean, the basis of any good conspiracy is a seed of truth, right? So we’re not getting a lot of information out of there. And we’ve saw how, you know, China famously dealt with the SARS epidemic, which was not being completely open and honest about when it originated, how fast it was spreading, so, so yes, and that complicates things. It also, you know, it complicates things even further not having an open web and not, and being, having such a hold on information that they do, that it’s almost like, it’s almost like a game, right, in terms of research or people who are researching themselves are really looking to find information and, and because you’re looking for that information because it’s a riddle. It’s a quest. It’s been locked down. So just, our natural inclination is to find it, find what’s in hiding.
HEFFNER: Brandy, there doesn’t seem to be any conspiracy or question about the fact that over 100 million people are on quarantine at this moment is our recording. And that’s something that might be exaggerated or hyperbolized in the past. But that is unprecedented that in the midst of this, you have tens of millions of people who have been relegated to their homes and also we should believe that because China is saying that, but also because there are travel policies that have been amended to try to stop the spread of the disease. But I guess that is a stunning figure, which if true is something that you might think is a conspiracy but is not, it’s fact: 100 million people plus under home quarantine,
ZADROZNY: Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
ZADROZNY: I mean, the things, again, we’re talking about anti-vaxxers or we’re talking about people who distrust the medical community. What you often see them using to fuel a conspiracy theory that has no basis in fact that we know of are real things that has have happened, right, medical mistakes, mishaps, you know Tuskegee, like you have these, these things that happened in the world and, but they’re re-purposing truthful things that have been reported by mainstream media to make you believe in this insanity. And yeah.
HEFFNER: So in this particular instance, Senator Cotton pointed to and others pointed to, and you got into a little tit-for-tat on social media with him and his chief of staff, or one of the staffers, correctly pointing out that, you know, you shouldn’t make a suggestion of a bio weapon when there’s no evidence of that. But interestingly, in this case, there’s also no evidence yet of an intermediary source because typically with SARS or MERS originally, and this is sort of SARS 2.0, which is why it’s so frightening, there have been identified by scientists these intermediary hosts, if it’s in fact, whether at a market or elsewhere, it’s being transported from bat to, in the case of MERS, camel to human. And the Chinese while there give this list of deaths that just keep popping up and popping up. There’s, there’s no, at this particular moment, there is no evidence with, with any certainty other than there, there is RNA that relates to bat has a common features of bat viruses, but there is no evidence of that particular link to how it got to a human because in almost every circumstance it would have to have an intermediary source. And the absence of that led Senator Cotton and others to say, oh, here are two facilities that study MERS and SARS and coronaviruses. And is it possible what he’s suggesting in sort of more believable or let’s say in, in more responsible languages, could there have been a contaminant? What you’re saying is he is as someone who prides himself on foreign policy credentials, making a suggestion of sort of a, an innuendo that the Chinese are not to be trusted. And there was a bio weapon. But more realistically, this is something that ought to be considered as, you know, a potential contaminant from research based on the transmissibility of this, a spec could have gotten on someone who was studying in a lab and it could have originated that way and not at a market. So the absence of knowing the intermediary host, I suppose, has generated some alternative theories.
ZADROZNY: Sure. Another one is that Bill and Melinda Gates have released it and had a patent for it as a form of population control. I mean you can pick anything to fit your narrative, right, so Senator Cotton has his anti-China – China hawk narrative,
ZADROZNY: And the anti-vaxxers have their Bill Gates narrative and anything can fit in there because there’s an open question and it’s, again, it’s fine to ask those questions but as someone who tracks this, you know, I, this paper that came out,
HEFFNER: Yes. Tell us about this.
ZADROZNY: So this paper came out on Research Gate. It was from a couple of scientists and they haven’t spoken to media. We don’t, again, this is a whole other conspiracy because they released this paper that said, okay, you know, what if basic, the basic idea was what if it was from a bat, which we don’t know yet right. More recent research has suggested possibly snakes. So what if it, if it did come from a bat, then what if this lab who had worked, that had worked with bats, what if some sort of unsafe handling had caused it to leak and then that’s how we have, that’s how it came. This paper, it wasn’t very good. I mean, other scientists have jumped on it wasn’t it didn’t go through peer review. It didn’t have time. This research is coming out so quickly. So other scientists leapt on to the paper immediately and said, this is really just circumstantial, you’re, you’re just guessing basically.
ZADROZNY: And then it was taken down by the author, Research Gate told me, so, it was taken down by the author and then he deleted his account.
HEFFNER: And this was supposedly written by two Chinese scientists in a Beijing-funded university.
HEFFNER: And the one piece of innuendo, if you will, that was tracked I think in this report was the suggestion, and again, there’s no verifiable fact here. It was a suggestion and then no evidentiary basis of this, that a lab official was bitten, right, and that as a result of not taking proper precautions, right?
ZADROZNY: That was a fairy tale.
HEFFNER: So everyone is theorizing and, and Twitter of course is no sane ground for building anything. It’s building an evidence-based approach to learning about this. But, you know, the fact is that in a climate absent trust we’re going to have a hard time in real life responding to crises. So I don’t know, what can, what can we learn as Americans in the aftermath, in the ongoing epidemic or pandemic of coronavirus so that, you know, in this instance or other instances, we can safeguard our information in a way that is going to be more helpful to resolving an outbreak or an election malfunction or whatever it might be. Is there anything we can learn from what’s transpired in these last couple of months?
ZADROZNY: Ever the librarian, I believe that yes, people can always learn. We think of this space and Claire Wardle at First Draft and Whitney Phillips of Syracuse are two of my heroes as information pollution, right. And so when you have a polluted environment, there are really two sets of actors who can make it better. You have the institutional reaction. So if you have a dirty factory, that factory cleans it up, right. So that’s where we’re hoping that Facebook and Twitter who all met with the WHO last week and really made some real efforts to sort of get on the same page and work together to quell the misinformation that was ramping on the platforms. So you have that, but then you also have personal responsibility, right? So I recycle, I, you know, don’t litter, those sorts of things. And I think that that’s true for information pollution too. So you hopefully we all have a responsibility to get our news on something that’s so important from trusted news outlets, from, you know, peer-review papers from places like The Lancet from the World Health Organization that all have done a really good job, especially now, sort of getting up to speed on the way information spreads on social media. So they have, you know, debunking websites now they have trackers where you can get that bit of information that we’re so hungry for you, we want to know, right? It’s serious and we want to know what that is. So they’ve done a really good job sort of doing that and it’s up to us to not feed into the junk food diet of Facebook and Twitter and conspiracy sites and look for those, for those real sources of information and together those two working hand-in-hand I think we can do it
HEFFNER: In combating the anti-vax folks on these sites have there also been some advances to deafen or at least dampen the proliferation of unscientific or anti-science on these sites?
ZADROZNY: The anti-vaccine community is very different than something like coronavirus, right, because coronavirus is a new phenomenon. It’s a news event. People are following and for that specific point in time, and it will be gone, you know, we hope soon, but anti-vax you know, as long as there’s been vaccines, there’s been an anti-vaccine coalition, right? What happened with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and some other places was it created meeting places for them to organize, fundraise and grow, and they’ve grown. Facebook is probably the worst of it, I would say. They’ve created these groups, which are, you know, private spaces for hundreds of thousands of people to collectively meet and scare the bejesus out of each other and a couple of profiteers to run it who have fake stories of dead children. And it’s heartbreaking. It’s harmful. And the steps that Facebook has taken that have been really great with coronavirus put a pop-up that says vaccines are fine, and here’s the CDC that’s not going to work for a cult. Like Facebook has helped engineer and organize a cult around anti-vaccination and a business around it for several people. And now it’s saying, well we’ll put a link up at the top that says, go to the CDC. That, what is that going to do?
HEFFNER: So there’s been no stoppage in the monetization of dis and misinformation around the vaccinations.
ZADROZNY: I mean the worst; the worst among them is this guy out of California. He’s not a doctor, he’s not even a parent, and he has this website called stop mandatory vaccination, which he promotes endlessly on Facebook. He does lives, he sells supplements. It’s still operating even though it’s clear what he’s doing is spreading misinformation. Facebook says that they’re going to stop that. His group remains. I don’t, I’ve talked with, I don’t know, dozens of Facebook employees. And that’s always the first question I ask. How, how can you claim to stop misinformation around vaccines? And then you allow this group to exist and to thrive. I mean, they put them down lower, so maybe he’s not in your news feed, but it still does pop up. It just, it doesn’t make sense to me. So it’s baby steps. I wouldn’t say nothing, you know, something but baby steps.
HEFFNER: A lot of these folks want to bring their own children into the conversation as the evidence. And is that still the case?
ZADROZNY: Yeah. So that’s what, that’s what: whole stories are what is the coin of the realm, right. It’s because who wants to call a mother of, of an injured child vaccine or other a liar. You know? And why I think it’s really important to put these people into groups. And I would say 99.9 percent of the people in these groups, even some of them running their own groups are there because they care about their children and they think they’ve been sold a bill of goods for an unanswerable question: Why is my child autistic? I have an autistic son. I’ve asked myself that question. And sometimes there just isn’t an answer, but I understand the desire to want to be able to answer that and to do the best for your children. Now the 0.1 percent of people like the guy in California and you know, a lady that’s in the U.K. right now selling bleach, and a doctor, a naturopathic doctor in Canada that’s busing kids down to Mexico to give them an unapproved fecal stool injections. Those are all swarming online and those are the people that I think, I don’t want to finish that thought. I think that Facebook and social media companies can do something about protecting their own, their members, their users from the misinformation and disinformation that these peddlers spread.
HEFFNER: Is that why it may be harder than the political manipulation ultimately even and coronavirus to tackle this issue because of the human and parental story?
ZADROZNY: Yeah. Again, you can’t, I can’t argue. You can’t. Facts. Facts don’t matter when you’re sitting across from a mother and her child. Like it doesn’t matter to that mother.
HEFFNER: Has Facebook attempted to intervene in a way that is sensitive to their needs, at the same time trying to correct the problem at scale?
ZADROZNY: That’s specifically what they don’t want to be in the business of arbitrating, right? Like they don’t want to be arbiters of truth and they specifically don’t want to be the person that’s going to say this story is false and this story is real. And people can tell their stories and what they think happened, you know you’re allowed to do that. But the problem is you don’t create a pedestal and say come here and do it all together and buy this guy’s product, which if you’re allowing them to be, you’re in a, you’re in effect, you’re hosting that person. You’re saying that this is all right with me. Same thing. The Amazon store fronts that these hucksters have. They all send out newsletters and say, come to my Amazon storefront where they sell anti-vax books and supplements and then Amazon gets a cut and these guys get a cut and it’s all, they all work together so nicely. That’s easy to stop. This is so easy to stop. I, my brain does not wrap around it.
HEFFNER: And what percent of the group activity is in this area of deep wounded conspiracy, nuttiness?
ZADROZNY: I mean, I think there’s hundreds of millions of groups right now on Facebook
HEFFNER: It doesn’t really matter what percentage.
HEFFNER: And some, yeah, I mean, if I give you a glass of water and I put a tiny bit of poison in it and I say it’s mostly water that’s not good enough, right? Like this isn’t good enough for a bajillion dollar company that runs our lives and wants to be the stewards of all of our relationships, our connections, our politics, our news, our health, our money.
HEFFNER: For sure. And of course it was Mark Zuckerberg in the run up to the 2016 campaign who said his new year’s resolution in that year was to visit every state. And I mean, he was supposed to be sensitive to all these people and places he’s hasn’t been. And everything that’s transpired since then has been just the complete opposite.
ZADROZNY: Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly said that he is a wartime CEO right now and he’s operating as such. They continue to circle the wagons and close any window into what’s happening in the company. So Facebook, it’s sort of a lost cause for me. I mean journalists are working as unpaid content moderators. They have fact checking organizations, which are great from PolitiFact to, you know, Lead Stories, which has this really cool thing called the Trendolizer. But even that, it’s so, it’s so slow when you, when you outsource all of your responsibility and then they’re like processes and it’s like the stuff that was spreading around the Iowa caucuses, the disinformation, it took eight hours for them to do anything about it once it got through fact checkers, and by that point, the lie is out.
HEFFNER: George Soros has said Zuckerberg explicitly made a deal with the devil not just with Trump, but with his refusal to be the arbiter of real information. But do you buy the Soros idea that in effect Zuckerberg has sold out to these entities, whether it’s on health or politics, that are going to bring home the bacon but that are going to misinform and disinform a lot of people. Has he made that deal with the devil?
ZADROZNY: That seems to rely on some sort of belief that he had an altruistic idea for information sharing and didn’t start this as some sort of hotness reading for a female coeds like we can’t he, he likes to reinvent that story, but that’s where it started and this is where we are and I think if you look at the trajectory, it doesn’t breed much hope.
HEFFNER: Okay. Hopeful, hopeless, some middle ground.
ZADROZNY: My hope is with people.
HEFFNER: I know. Thank you so much.
ZADROZNY: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.