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Our misinformation problem is about to get much, much worse

The coverage of Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis was very bad — and very revealing.

President Donald Trump salutes to Marine One from the Truman Balcony as he returns home after receiving treatments for Covid-19 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, at the White House on October 5 in Washington, DC.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Within minutes of President Trump announcing that he and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, the interwebs were awash in speculation and conspiracy theories.

Is Trump faking it so that he can pretend to have recovered and thus prove the virus isn’t dangerous? Or maybe he’s floating the story in order to divert attention away from his tax scandal or his chaotic debate performance. Or maybe the “deep state” deliberately infected Trump to undercut his reelection campaign. Or the White House is using this as an excuse to get out of the next debate.

So many exciting possibilities!

Watching the reactions to the Trump story got me thinking about our broader misinformation problem. These days, when something important or “newsy” happens, there’s an avalanche of content online that overwhelms people and leaves them less certain of what’s happening than before. In this case, we had a single news event — the president tested positive for the coronavirus — that set off a flood of disorienting bullshit bouncing around the information space.

It’s not just the volume of content — it’s the speed. As Vox’s Ezra Klein noted, the New York Times published Trump’s tax returns, arguably the most significant document leak in a decade, less than a week before the story about Trump and coronavirus broke, and it was almost like the leak never happened. It was engulfed in the chaotic news cycle.

This problem is going to get much, much worse as we inch closer to the election in November, and a big question we have to ask, as journalists and citizens, is: What, if anything, can we do about it?

Charlie Warzel is a tech reporter at the New York Times who’s covered the information wars of the Trump era about as well as anyone. I reached out to him last Friday, as reports of Trump’s coronavirus test were breaking, to talk about why the media ecosystem is fundamentally broken and what we can expect in the coming weeks. There are no magical solutions in this exchange, but we do our best to lay out the problem and discuss things we can do at the individual level to sift through all the bullshit that’s coming our way.

You’ll probably detect a sense of shared exhaustion both of us feel about this moment and why the convergence of so many factors — polarization, social media, a whirlwind of misinformation — is creating an increasingly combustible situation for our fragile political system. If nothing else, hopefully this helps you think through some of the problems we’re all confronting in real time.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

We’re having this conversation on Friday as reports of Trump’s positive coronavirus test are streaming in and a familiar pattern is emerging: A massive, communal news event occurs, and before anyone knows anything, social media and the internet are crawling with speculation and conspiracy theories and the waters are already hopelessly muddied.

Does this feel like a snapshot of our broader misinformation problem?

Charlie Warzel

Oh, yeah, I think so. I saw a great tweet last night that said, “Tonight I realized which of my friends would be QAnon believers, if Q was a lefty.” It spoke to the fact that there’s a ton of rampant speculation right now bordering on conspiracy theorizing, when the truth is that we don’t really know much.

But we’re in what I’d call half-jokingly the “danger zone,” where you have a huge communal news event that’s actually very important — the president is diagnosed with a deadly virus — but there’s not a lot of movement on the story in terms of what we’re going to learn about this. We’re going to get little drops of details, and there will be some little advancements, but we’re not going to learn anything very fast.

So it’s a slow-moving and super-consequential situation and everyone is gathering in these virtual spaces, and it’s just incredibly ripe for baseless speculation. These are the moments that cable news and social media thrive in. Political Twitter and cable news becomes this weird space that’s like sports talk radio and it’s just take after take after take because that’s entertaining and there’s nothing else to do.

Sean Illing

It kind of feels like political pornography, doesn’t it?

Charlie Warzel

I mean, yeah, it’s such a spectacle. It has that raw entertainment value to it. And I admit, even I felt this pull to turn on cable news and refresh my feed to get this deluge of content and information even though I knew none of it was actionable or useful. None of it was teaching me anything. But like everyone, I’m watching it in real time as my emotions build and I’m just sucked into the misinformation rabbit hole.

The problem now, though, is that we all start to doubt the official narrative, and so then people start saying, “Okay, if the official narrative isn’t trustworthy, then what’s really going on?” And very quickly you go from “I came to figure out the news” to, 45 minutes later, game theorizing the line of presidential succession after Trump and half the government are dead and guessing who in the federal government needs to get moved to some secure location. It’s crazy.

Jesus, the last thing I remember seeing before I went to bed Thursday night was some aviation enthusiast tweeting photos of a plane that supposedly controls the nuclear arsenal when all of the cities have been leveled it’s the “Doomsday Plane.” Someone was like, “It’s in the air right now!” And people are seeing this and thinking it could be true and it’s very scary. The president is sick and we have no idea what’s happening. And of course I wake up this morning and someone was like, “Um, we checked the flight manifest and that plane has flown 20 of the last 30 days. Relax.”

Sean Illing

Is this breaking our society, or do you think we can, eventually, adapt to this new information environment?

Charlie Warzel

I honestly have no idea where this is going. But I would say that I think the pandemic has supercharged all these dynamics.

If you look at the density of the QAnon movement, and the growth in Facebook groups, and some of the small social metrics we could measure, the last five months have been a massive moment for that. It makes total sense, right? You have a ton of people who are now stuck inside their homes, people who have lost their jobs, or people who are working remotely, and they don’t have other outlets and they’ve lost their community. They can’t travel. The world around them is scary and inexplicable. And it just seems like we’ve imported even more of our lives online and that’s driving all these dynamics in this moment. I have no idea how the hell we unwind all of this.

All we can really say is that the toxicity of some of these online spaces is starting to spill into the real world more and more. Whether it’s the boogaloo movement or the Proud Boys or whatever, you see these militia groups coming out into the streets cosplaying civil war when tensions are already so high. And there’s just no doubt that a lot of this starts online with these platforms where algorithms are warping our emotions and continuously feeding us dangerously misleading content.

Sean Illing

What kinds of misinformation do you expect to see as we move closer to the election?

Charlie Warzel

There will be all kinds of misinformation and disinformation, though some of them won’t be as dire for democracy as others. A good example of the harmless kind is the recent story about Biden allegedly planning to wear an earpiece at the debate. It’s a classic bit of conspiracy theorizing, it’s obviously not true, but it’s not really dangerous or destabilizing.

Then there’s the really destabilizing kind, like stuff about voter disenfranchisement or misinformation coming from Trump about Democrats trying to rig the election. I have to believe that we’re going to see a whole lot more of this as we get closer to November, and it’s going to prime people to question the foundations of our democracy. It’s priming them to want to take action, to go to the polls armed with AR-15s. Tensions can only get ratcheted up so high before it really boils over. No one knows where that line is, but we’ll cross it eventually.

Sean Illing

You’ve written about the tech platforms as the main vectors for spreading a lot of this malicious content. What should they be doing right now? And why aren’t they doing it?

Charlie Warzel

This is the latest chapter in a long story about the tech platforms. If there’s one thing they don’t want to be, it’s arbiters of truth. They don’t want to weigh in at all. But they’ve already put themselves in that position. I think the biggest failure I’m seeing from them right now is around the voter misinformation stuff. Facebook, for example, has decided the best way to skirt around this is to put a little label on it that says, “This information might not be true.” Or “Get the real information about voting ...”

I mean, from a user interface perspective, it’s just the barest minimum thing that you could do, putting this tiny little sliver of blue text down at the bottom of a post and pretending it’s an earnest attempt to communicate something. It’s the kind of thing you do when you don’t want people to engage with it, like a nutrition label on food.

Sean Illing

It’s like watching a commercial for penis pills or some high blood pressure medicine. You get 45 seconds of footage of some ruggedly handsome guy jogging with his wife or playing racketball and then, at the very end, you get 10 seconds of a fast-talking narrator explaining that these pills might cause imminent death or phantom limb syndrome or whatever.

Charlie Warzel

Yes! What they’re doing is the absolute bare minimum. They’re saying, “Sure, we want to help secure the election. We want a free and fair election. We’re trying to register people to go vote. We’re creating an election information center that people can go to.” But it’s the absolute bare minimum.

Sean Illing

What could they realistically do?

Charlie Warzel

They could do a lot more if they just choose to focus on voting. Given how much misinformation there is out there on voting, they could just put a moratorium on any official campaign ad that mentions the polls. There’s plenty of register-to-vote information out there. We don’t need Joe Biden or Donald Trump to tell people to go out and vote. If you can’t police all of this content, then just make a very specific decision to stop this particularly dangerous content until the election has occurred.

Sean Illing

The other side of this is the press itself. Both of us have written about Trump’s “flood the zone” strategy (here and here), and this poses an enormous problem for journalists who operate under the assumption that candidates are trying to win in the marketplace of ideas, but that’s not at all what Trump’s doing. He wants the press to fact-check his bullshit, he wants us to go all-hands-on-deck every time he drops a ridiculous Friday afternoon tweet, he wants us to cover every nonsense claim he drops in the public sphere, because that breeds more chaos and more skepticism and it keeps the news cycle moving so fast that no one can keep up.

This, too, is just going to get worse, isn’t it?

Charlie Warzel

I think it’s definitely going to get worse, and there aren’t any good solutions. I actually felt this pretty strongly the other day with the story about Trump’s refusal to condemn white nationalism or the Proud Boys during the debate. The media turned its spotlight to focus on the Proud Boys, and I think most people had heard the name, but a lot of people had no idea who they were. That’s totally understandable. I mean, it’s a pretty fringe group and you wouldn’t know anything about them if you weren’t super online.

But the story captured the problem the press faces. We have to thread this needle where we’re forced to elevate something by explaining it to people. We have to tell them what it is so that they’re armed with that information. We have to tell them why it’s dangerous or stupid or juvenile and we have to walk this tightrope of saying, “Don’t give this oxygen. Don’t inflate it. Laugh at it. But also be afraid of it.” It’s an impossible balance to strike, especially when there are real threats involved.

I just don’t think the media is equipped to walk this line. The last four years have showed that we’re basically out of our depths.

Sean Illing

To be fair, this isn’t really a criticism of individual journalists so much as the ecosystem we’re all swimming in now —

Charlie Warzel

Absolutely. I mean, it’s important that we talk about something like QAnon, because people all over the world are noticing that their family members are going down that path. So we have to arm people with the facts, but I’ve never been more unsure and paralyzed by individual coverage decisions than I have been in the last two or three months.

I have been following QAnon since December 2017, and I chose not to write about it until this summer. Because it was this constant calculation in my mind, “Am I elevating this commensurate with where it deserves to be? Or where it actually leads in the world?” It became abundantly clear that this was something that we had to take seriously, that it had reached a critical mass, if not well beyond that, and it’s something that people will have to understand and know about, and it has to be debunked. But there’s no way around the fact that covering it also amplifies it.

Sean Illing

So what are we supposed to do, Charlie? I’m getting the feeling I always get when dealing with these issues, which is that we’re diagnosing way more problems than we’re solving.

Charlie Warzel

It’s important for reputable and credible outlets to cover this stuff early, in order to fill what’s called a “data void.” For people who don’t know, this refers to what happens when there’s a news event, or something like that, and it’s only conspiracists or propagandists trying to inject disinformation into the public sphere. If they’re the only people who are posting about it on the internet, it’s going to get indexed in places like Google and on all the different social networks. So this is what people find when they’re searching around for explanations.

The best example of this was almost two or three years ago to the day, the Las Vegas shooting. The first people that posted about it were people on 4chan, and Google indexed 4chan as the number one search when you typed in “Las Vegas shooting.” So there’s an imperative for authoritative news outlets like the New York Times or Vox or whatever to have the best explainer on this stuff, so that’s what people find when they’re looking for quality, factual answers.

The other thing, and this isn’t a really popular point, is that there’s too much competition in this space. We can’t cut out all the bad actors in an open media ecosystem. The platforms definitely won’t do it. But one thing that the press theoretically controls is the amount of content that they put out. Going back to what I was saying earlier about last night on Twitter, we had journalists flooding the zone with their own speculation, their own punditry. I realize it’s a tough situation and we’re all just trying to do our jobs, or play our parts, but it all adds to the noise in the machine.

Sean Illing

What’s your advice, assuming you have any, to readers who are trying to sift through all this bullshit and want to avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve discussed?

Charlie Warzel

I mean, there’s no reason for anyone to be consuming information from the social media firehose at this moment — there just isn’t. A lot of news is going to occur, especially in the next couple months, and I think it’s best consumed by picking and choosing your trusted sources and outlets, and going there. Subjecting yourself to all the fear and anxiety and trauma is a really inefficient way to get your news, and it doesn’t help you understand the world any better. So pick a couple places you trust, places where you believe you’re going to get the right information, and basically check them once or twice a day at the most.

I guess I’d also say that if you have to be on these networks, especially if you’re spending time on places like Facebook, make a real effort to not be a vector for misinformation. You should have a really high bar [for] what you choose to share in these next three weeks. The best way we can clean up these polluted information networks is for people to do it in their own backyards. If you see someone sharing something that’s suspect, and you don’t think they’re totally radicalized by a conspiracy theory, just reach out. Be nice about it, and calm, and say, “I’m curious to know where you got this from?” Or “I’d like to show you this,” and send them something.

I think we all have to do our part here, because it’s very hard for the media as an entity to break through to people individually. It’s much easier if you’re an influencer in your own network and you’ve already established that trust and credibility.