Coronavirus is America’s Worst Intelligence Failure; How News and Social Media Reacted is the Second

Pervasive tone-deafness combined with a lack of clarity and leadership has lead to the greatest misinformation campaign in the history of civilization — whether deliberate or not.

Ask yourself this: after several years if not a solid decade of warnings about the over-use of social media, what kind of long-term effects would there be if were were suddenly asked to do a rapid one-eighty and rely on social media to damn near literally stave off the extinction of humanity itself?

Foreign Policy has a big, huge headline and sub-header summing up the core genesis of the pandemic: “The Coronavirus is the Worst Intelligence Failure in U.S. History (And It’s All the Fault of Donald Trump’s Leadership)”. By now this is practically common knowledge outside of those whom find political solace in outright denying it. Every single individual word in this sentence — yes, really — is hyperlinked to a unique article about Trump deliberately ignoring not just warning signs, but outright intelligence briefings where he’s told as much about an impending pandemic crisis. You get the point. But just as critical as managing the pandemic itself is managing that resulting crisis — how the American public itself, from the entirety of the populace down to every single individual reacts to the crisis, conducts themselves in accordance to the crisis, how they help manage each other and critically underrated, how they spread information regarding the crisis and its management — and in this key point, both political parties and indeed practically 100% of the nation’s leadership from Trump down to the mayoral level have allowed a cascading failure to paralyze the nation just as much as the pandemic itself — with potentially even far more lasting consequences.

Make no mistake, as much as Trump’s dismissal of pandemic warnings form the keystone of this disaster, nearly every single political leader of this nation has been complicit in allowing hundreds or thousands to die. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Surgeon General of the United States Vice Admiral Jerome Adams (yes, that is his full title and yes, he is simultaneously the nation’s Surgeon General and an Admiral of the Navy), the CDC — they’ve all been complicit in these deaths, whether or not lacking the same self-serving malicious intent of Trump or even through any absolute fault of their own. This is not meant to condemn them, but just as important as anything else is to illustrate how dangerous failing to anticipate the populace response to pandemic information is. More culpable are news and social media outlets — but even here, the CDC and the Executive Branch and Trump himself could’ve played a role to save lives, but either failed to realize this critical leadership need or even outright played into this culpability.

In all fairness, everybody dropped the ball here. Beyond Trump’s dismissal, there was early confusion as to just how worried we should be about the coronavirus. Perhaps nothing represents this better than Last Week Tonight’s sudden total reversal in the space of about a week, from describing the coronavirus as something we should be moderately worried about to how quarantines are necessary and we should just have to live with the annoyance in exchange for remaining alive as John Oliver himself reports from a self-described “empty void” to honestly who knows anymore other than that going outside is certain death (and re-framing the “empty void” as literally a cartoon dog’s penis as perhaps a sign that he’s starting to crack from cabin fever).

What’s apparent to me, not just in Trump’s messages and lack of leadership, but in Dr. Fauci’s resistance — and then mutual acquiescence to each other, a flip-flopping dance so regular now it can be used for timing — and in the discourse of everybody else, including major Democrats (Sanders excepted — but that deserves its own talking points) and even John Oliver himself, is an acute tone-deafness that, yes, is very much divided along political lines. For example, Oliver’s citation of The New York Times article on “freezing every American in place six feet away would eradicate the epidemic in two weeks” seems exceptionally tone-deaf, not only on the harsh realities for many working Americans (nevermind the fantastical premise of the NYT’s quote to begin with), but with certain hard realities not only pertaining to actualities of social distancing but the larger question of why “stay at home” orders are continuing and in fact increasing with seemingly no end in sight even though most Americans are actually complying exceptionally well, which seems to put huge logical holes in the “the pandemic will be eradicated in two weeks” statement with almost Trump-levels of embarrassment.

This division was dangerous enough before: the United States and its culture is absolutely driven by politics to a degree even greater than most developed nations, and its cultural and societal divisions absolutely drive its politics. And in the past few decades in particular, the main driving force of this division has been absolute extremes. No greater proof lies outside than in the “culture war” over “social distancing,” or even that fact that a culture war over social distancing even exists. On the one side, the Republican Right is actively flaunting social distancing recommendations, citing them as a means of control for foreign interests to restrict the personal freedoms and movements of Americans (no I am not making this up, or rather, not making up some American’s belief in it). On the other side, those concerns are given legitimacy by “coronavirus shaming” and dismissals of real legitimate health concerns by those under quarantine as being expressions of selfishness and avarice, backed up by certain, specific companies who are bandwagoning on the “stay at home” message not for public good but for their own profits. There’s no mutual consensus and understanding of how to best get the nation as a community through a pandemic and account for mental health and well-being; it’s only a discourse in the form of a yelling match, with one side screaming that anybody who doesn’t board themselves up at home are literal murderers, and the other side claiming they are pawns for Russian and Chinese oligarchs.

The traditional news media fuels this discourse, and social media amplifies it. Social media in all its platforms, from Facebook to YouTube, have become fertile battlegrounds for this yelling match, with a third party — again, those certain corporations in entertainment and other industries that actually stand to profit massively — joining in to convince you they’ve got your back, as long as you give them money in return. A few organizations — nonprofits, librarians and social workers whose occupations have now entirely pivoted, and yes, many individuals indeed — are more interested in trying to actually tend to the nation’s anxiety, but for the most part, the news and social media are only ramping up the anxiety, not properly addressing it.

Even when “social distancing” calls started becoming serious, traditional and social media immediately engaged in a massive disinformation campaign that have very literally killed up to thousands. Whether it was intentional or not (it’s safe to say it was in no way meant to be harmful) is at this point moot, if not outright intellectually dishonest; the fact is, a great fear many have had in this society has been realized. Irresponsible news reporting has managed to kill or harm more American civilians than Hitler, the multi-head North Korean Kim regime, and Bin Laden ever have. Likely even combined.

Very early in the pandemic, many headlines were dominated by the decree that young people seem more resistant to COVID-19. This was quickly simplified by both social media and traditional news outlets as being the same thing as “young people can’t get COVID-19.” Add in the extant political discourse and anger between statistically progressive-leaning Millennials and younger and traditionally conservative-leaning Boomers, and their support for Trump being a leading factor in creative the pandemic in the first place, and you have the social media phenomenon of the “Boomer Remover.” COVID-19 wasn’t just an old people’s disease, it was an old people’s disease of old people’s own making.

This has no doubt spurred younger people to ignore best practices and not only expose themselves to the virus but expose more vulnerable people along the way. Even taking the additional virus vectors aside, the initial assessment of “young people can’t get COVID-19” has proven to be damningly false. It was a known quantity that social media (and even traditional media) has a tendency to take complex issues and not only simplify them to a structure that barely has any resemblance to reality, but to further distort it specifically and expressly for political means. Thus, the second stage of our own failure to contain how traditional and social media help spread the virus.

At a certain point, an honest answer becomes “nobody knows.” The CDC has clearly defined guidelines for what this is, but there’s been exceedingly poor communication on that point. Keep in mind, the CDC itself has been extremely poor and even self-contradictory on the issue of face masks; the WHO, even more so (and shooting itself in the foot by helping to justify Trump’s outrage). There has been a clear lack of communication and leadership on the “social distancing” issue, something that admittedly isn’t unique to the United States. Compounded by the aforementioned conspiracy-theory fueled flaunting of social distancing guidelines (and, arguably even more so, by their own lack of leadership including late or nonexistent demands to shut down restaurants and government-curated public spaces) most governors have simply enacted blanket and vague “stay-at-home” orders. While often hailed as heroic, these are last-ditch efforts of desperation that are strictly the result of failed leadership that carry dangers of their own. For starters, they add weight to the validity of those conspiracy theories, at least in the minds of those who believe them (and they are surprisingly many). Those who might have dismissed such theories pre-pandemic might seriously start to wonder if the Alex Jonses of the world might have been on to something all along. Just like “social distancing” itself, these “stay-at-home” orders are vague; in many states, they’re glorified official adoptions of social distancing guidelines, but in other places they’re more literal. There’s no clear message or leadership beyond chorusing and parroting what’s there in the title: just stay at home, I guess. They ignore the aforementioned and very real consequences of quarantine, or at least little political effort has been made to address them. And freedom of movement is a legitimate cherished right. Right now may not be the best time to exercise that right, but the real danger is society forgetting that right once it’s safe again to exercise it.

The current and clear stance traditional and social media have adopted is to take “stay at home” as literally as possible, if for nothing else than the combination of social media and mass memetic practices is to tend towards whatever’s the intellectually laziest. And corporations are all the more happy to compound that; intellectual laziness is highly profitable. Yes, the side effect is to help enforce social distancing and arrest the spread of coronavirus, which is the intended main effect all along. But there’s a huge disconnect between intended main effect and a mere side effect, or that there’s any actual apparent main effect in place at all. And I’m not going to argue that the good outweighs awful unintended consequences for the duration of the pandemic — but it’s dangerous to ignore these unintended consequences all the same. The deafening chorus of “stay at home” with no other context other than “if you go outside you can die or kill someone” is potentially one of the greatest contributors to the nation’s anxiety right now, and especially dangerous for people with mental health issues. There’s also the very real concern of, again, abandoning the important right to exercise freedom of movement once the pandemic is over, which is vital to economic, cultural and societal growth (for closed-off societies that limited freedom of movement, one needs not look further than the “Democratic People’s Republic” of North Korea or, to invoke Godwin’s Law, yes, Nazi Germany).

But there are very real political consequences that could result from pent-up frustration and outright anger. More Americans will emerge from this pandemic all the more suspicious of not just “big government” but specifically a big government led by the Democratic Party. This will fuel more support for Trump, all but ensuring continued poor pandemic response and “social distancing” and “stay-at-home” becoming household words to literally live by for years to come, potentially even permanently as far as American culture is concerned — until it ultimately results in this culture’s destruction. The bottom-line: it will be harder to drum up support for extremely important, critical and basic social justice and environmental causes and advocates as conspiracy theories of the Democratic Party being in league with foreign oligarchs and dictators to control literally every aspect of our lives gain perceived legitimacy and traction.

For broad swaths of social media, this is the reality, and this is the future that social media is currently helping to grow.

Some of the most critical, trustworthy and even most calming and reassuring news of the pandemic available simply isn’t available to many Americans at all — it’s been firmly “paywalled,” requiring yearly, monthly or even weekly subscriptions for access. If you’ve actually gone through and tried to access all the hyperlinks in this very article — or even tried to merely access this very article after having already read five for this week, you’re already well-acquainted with this phenomenon. Many sources including Medium itself have promised to keep coronavirus and COVID-19 information “free,” with big loud banners proudly advertising such as if sharing publicly critical and literally live-saving information is a magnanimous act of exceptional gratitude and not something that should be a mandated public service; but there’s been some “interesting” selectivity as to what constitutes “critical” and “necessary” information. A wealth of extremely important information, from The Atlantic to The New York Times to WaPo and HuffPo to Medium itself apparently just misses the cut, somehow. Of course it’s all arbitrary, and it’s not being done as a public service, but a carefully crafted campaign to get you to pay. Just like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Kroger’s, Walmart — hell, the pizzeria down the street. The pandemic is an opportunity for price-gouging, not for public good. The only thing the pandemic has exposed is that large corporations have the resources to get away with it better than two random brothers with hair-brained schemes do.

Right now, every one of us should be talking to each other about how we’re going to reassure each other, on how we’re going to get through it, protect ourselves and to get back to meeting each other face-to-face in the tightest combination of as soon and as safe as possible — erring on the safe side, of course, but not ignoring that doing it soon has importance too.

Instead, we’ve actually gone about this pandemic as if it was business as usual — by politicizing it and ourselves to our very graves. We’re not talking to each other, we’re using social media platforms to yell at each other, about how we’re right and they’re wrong, about how they’re just letting foreign interests take all our freedoms, about how they’re just letting their own selfishness kill a bunch of people if they dare ever set foot on to their own goddamn porches. We’ve fought over whether or not wearing masks actually kills people, for crying out loud.

The first critical failure was preparing for the pandemic in the first place. The second critical failure has been to be completely mum on any leadership or guidance whatsoever, from Trump and Dr. Fauci all the way down to virtually every single governor and mayor in the nation. In the absence of official leadership and guidance, traditional and social media has filled the gap. And they’ve done so with disastrous results, prolonging the misery of millions “staying at home” in the process and outright killing thousands, even tens of thousands.

This phenomenon had been known for many, many years longer than the existence of the coronavirus itself. So long that the government of the United Kingdom has an official task force and web page about it (recently updated to take into account additional social distancing pressures) and casually joking about the dangers of social media has itself become a culturally-imbued meme. National and local leadership, including medical leadership, should have better anticipated the dangers of misinformation and antagonism spread by social media in particular to make the pandemic worse.

But they didn’t. And now the pandemic is even worse. The only question remaining is not so much in how the nation will repair this damage, but if the nation is even capable of recognizing this damage as even existing in the first place.

In true Geraldo Rivera fashion, I’m not holding my breath on that.

Political and cultural writer. My opinions are certified correct.