January 8, 2022 Wayne Northey

Misinformation from the U.S. is the next virus—and it’s spreading fast

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January 3, 2022

photo above: ca.news.yahoo.com

WN: This great misinformation virus/viral tragedy is not simply a case of their not willing to see: it is one of being violently excoriated for seeing their overwhelming delusions.

It is a sad experience in my family.

Man’s mind is so formed that it is far more susceptible to falsehood than to truth.Desiderius Erasmus

Jesus and the Great Hebrew Prophets ever called us to have eyes to see; ears to hear. In this context, the self-delusions rife throughout the world, as so well described in the article highlighted below, participate in a seeming impenetrable darkness at once tragic, horrifying, and deadly.

John 8

30As Jesus spoke these things, many believed in Him. 31So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. 32Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

II John 4

I was overjoyed to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father has commanded us. 5And now I urge you, dear lady—not as a new commandment to you, but one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. 6And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the very commandment you have heard from the beginning, that you must walk in love.

I John 4

13This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

American historian Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics found a malignant thread—conspiratorial anti-establishment movements alleging nefarious plots, always featuring a powerful villain who “makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.”

In my personal family reality, in light of the above passages, those embracing such Big Lies as highlighted below:

  • display little freedom;
  • demonstrate absence of love–
  • rather are xenophobes.

We read in the conclusion of Richard Hofstadter‘s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics And Other Essays, Harvard University Press, Reprint edition, 1996. See more below):

L. B. Namier once said that “the crowning attainment of historical study” is to achieve “an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.” (L.B. Namier, “History,” in Fritz Stern, ed.: The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present 2nd ed. Edition (New York, 1973, p. 375.) It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

And that is indeed a tragedy . . .  Above all for those afflicted.

excerpts:

This is a scene from the infodemic, where made-up stories go viral, catching public health officials flat-footed and convincing people not to take the vaccines that are the best hope for protecting them and ending the pandemic.

Dr. Robert Strang says most of the misinformation he encounters has its roots in the U.S., with much of it going back to Donald Trump, who regularly spreads misinformation.

[Shanon Sheppard of Halifax, Nova Scotia who posted a video on Facebook to share terrible (fake) “news” with the world], whose personal website describes her as a tarot-card reader, psychic and jewellery designer, no longer has a social media presence, but [Mark Friesen was a fourth-place finish as a People’s Party of Canada (PPC) candidate in the federal election], a misinformation superspreader, didn’t stop.

“It is very distressing to see unvaccinated, young, healthy people ending up in the ICU and dying,” Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, said. “To see young lives lost to a vaccine-preventable disease—how can we accept this?”

Friesen, who owns a Saskatoon tree-pruning business, calls himself the “Grizzly Patriot.” He is a family man with a folksy Prairie manner and a thick beard—he comes across like a conspiratorial Red Green, but instead of sharing cabin-improvement tips, he’s got fake news about the “globalist” threat to your freedom. He is an energetic activist, giving talks, organizing rallies and holding protests outside hospitals. He has run twice for the PPC and even took the province to court, where he lost, unsuccessfully challenging public health rules.

He won’t get vaccinated, won’t wear a mask. In July, he tweeted: “To all those lovely people that hoped I’d catch ‘Covid’ and die: Um, 14 months of rallies, protests and town hall events, speaking, singing our anthem, hugging, shaking hands without a mask or social distancing, literally gathering with hundreds of thousands.”

This fall, his luck ran out.

Sigh . . .

Friesen’s social media accounts fell silent at the end of September. At some point in early October, he was hospitalized in Saskatoon, possibly in a facility he had been protesting outside just weeks earlier. He has COVID-19.

On Oct. 22, Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, an independent evangelical broadcaster, revealed in an online video that Friesen had been airlifted to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. From his bedside, Sean Taylor, a PPC candidate from B.C. and a fellow anti-vaxxer, told Tyler Thompson that Friesen had been intubated.

“He’s sick,” said Taylor. “He’s in a fight but I’m hopeful.”

***

Friesen was flown to Toronto—at an estimated cost of $20,000—because Saskatchewan’s hospitals were overwhelmed, mostly with unvaccinated COVID patients—many of them, no doubt, victims of the infodemic.

The enemy [to the paranoid] is “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

Two days before Tyler Thompson’s broadcast, Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer—whom Friesen had often attacked—broke down in tears as he discussed the situation. “It is very distressing to see unvaccinated, young, healthy people ending up in the ICU and dying,” he said. “To see young lives lost to a vaccine-preventable disease—how can we accept this?”

In short, Canadians are getting bad ideas from the United States. “Social media exposure is related to COVID-19 misperceptions in large part because of its capacity to amplify the impact of content coming from the U.S. information environment.”

While we are fighting the coronavirus, we are also fighting an American virus—misinformation—which is mostly spread through American social media platforms that have dissolved the old bureaucratic borders against the dark side of American political culture. It’s a virus as dangerous as the one that causes COVID-19.

[Nova Scotia chief medical officer Dr. Robert Strang] says most of the misinformation he encounters has its roots in the U.S., with much of it going back to Donald Trump, who regularly spreads misinformation.

“That set a precedent and allowed that to happen. All the stuff that I see here has very direct routes back to the U.S.”

A report from the Communications Security Establishment—Canada’s cybersecurity agency—explains why: “Canada’s media ecosystem is closely intertwined with that of the U.S. and other allies, which means that when their citizens are targeted, Canadians become exposed to online influence as a type of collateral damage.”

A recent study by Canadian political science professors found that 71 per cent of Canadians follow more Americans than Canadians on Twitter, for instance. The platforms are “saturating information streams with U.S.-based news,” and “news exposure is associated with more COVID-19 misperceptions after controlling for domestic news exposure and other indicators of political engagement.”

In short, Canadians are getting bad ideas from the United States. “Social media exposure is related to COVID-19 misperceptions in large part because of its capacity to amplify the impact of content coming from the U.S. information environment.”

[American historian Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics] found a malignant thread—conspiratorial anti-establishment movements alleging nefarious plots, always featuring a powerful villain who “makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.”

We read in the conclusion of that essay:

L. B. Namier once said that “the crowning attainment of historical study” is to achieve an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.”((L.B. Namier, “History,” in Fritz Stern, ed.: The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present 2nd ed. Edition (New York, 1973, p. 375.) It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance to his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University, sees that psychological dynamic at play among those radicalized by Islamism or white nationalism, not just anti-vaxxers.

The specific enemy changes—Masons, Catholics, Communists, Blacks and Jews have all played the role—but the story stays the same. The enemy is “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

The people who recognize the plot, on the other hand, are heroes.

“As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader,” Hofstadter wrote.

The paranoid style, traditionally on the margins of American political life, has come into the mainstream in the Trump era.

If you watch the videos of the conspiracy theorists, which I don’t recommend, you’ll see that they are bound together by the cause, sharing the excitement and hardship of the struggle—an escape, perhaps, from a humdrum life spent reading tarot cards or pruning trees.

Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University, sees that psychological dynamic at play among those radicalized by Islamism or white nationalism, not just anti-vaxxers.

“They’ve developed this kind of embattled identity, this small vanguard of people who are going to wake up the sleeping masses to the true reality of their lives [and tell them] that the wool has been pulled over their eyes and they are being used for sinister ends.”

. . . but circumstances often deprive [the paranoid] of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics

The paranoid style, traditionally on the margins of American political life, has come into the mainstream in the Trump era. Although Donald Trump was vaccinated, and spoke half-heartedly in favour of vaccination when he came under pressure for mishandling the pandemic, he pivoted to misinformation as a way to deflect accountability.

Trump’s supporters, like all of us, are inclined to conformity bias, which leads individuals to form opinions based on what their group thinks, in what some researchers call tribal epistemology. In this case, it has fatal consequences. There are three times as many COVID deaths in Trump-supporting counties, where vaccination rates are low, as there are in Democratic counties. In Canada, the areas most heavily influenced by Trump-style politics are also the areas with the highest rates of vaccine resistance.

Advanced Symbolics, an Ottawa tech company, has designed an AI program that sifts through social media posts to figure out what’s happening inside the walled gardens of the platforms. They found that the two biggest spreaders of conspiracy theories in Canada were populists—Ontario MPP Randy Hillier and Maxime Bernier, the leader of the PPC.

There are three times as many COVID deaths in Trump-supporting counties, where vaccination rates are low, as there are in Democratic counties. In Canada, the areas most heavily influenced by Trump-style politics are also the areas with the highest rates of vaccine resistance.

The same dynamic is at play around the world. A lot of COVID-19 misinformation in Africa and Latin America, for instance, appears to have its roots in right-wing American messaging.

University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield, who has spent years cataloguing health misinformation spread by celebrities, has watched, horrified, as the wellness hucksters have softened the ground for dangerous nonsense.

It was back in February 2020, when the world was just waking up to the pandemic, that Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned of what was coming: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” he said. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this coronavirus and is just as dangerous.”

“There’s this strange coming together of the wellness community—traditionally thought of as the libertarian left, even New Age—and the far right,” he says. “They have come together. They really have. And now the wellness industry is an entry point for QAnon.”

QAnon, a ludicrous conspiracy that falsely alleges that many prominent figures are involved in child sex trafficking, is the most dangerous current expression of the paranoid style.

Corey Hurren, the Manitoban who crashed through the fence around Rideau Hall with a loaded firearm apparently meant for Justin Trudeau, believes Bill Gates was behind COVID-19.

That was in 2003, two years before Facebook went live. It now has almost three billion monthly users—about 40 per cent of the world’s population, including 24 million Canadians.

Canadian QAnon influencer Romana Didulo, who has tens of thousands of followers, was recently questioned by the RCMP after urging supporters to “shoot to kill anyone who tries to inject children under the age of 19 years old with coronavirus19 vaccines.” In December, Quebec police arrested a Laval father after he posted a news release about a vaccination campaign at his daughter’s school with the comment: “It’s time to go hunting bang bang.”

***

It was back in February 2020, when the world was just waking up to the pandemic, that Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned of what was coming: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” he said. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this coronavirus and is just as dangerous.”

Within that latter group, about 70 per cent do not want to get vaccinated. Graves says the fourth wave is “to a large extent” the result of disinformation, mostly from Facebook and YouTube. It is concentrated in the Prairies, and among people who support populists like Trump.

“The evidence is that this group just simply is not accessible to reason, evidence or persuasion,” Graves says. “They’re absolutely convinced that what they know is true and what everybody else knows is false. They don’t consume any mainstream media, which they consider fake news. They don’t trust science. They don’t trust public health.”

Washington Post writer David J. Rothkopf, who coined the term “infodemic,” called it “a complex phenomenon caused by the interaction of mainstream media, specialist media and internet sites, and ‘informal’ media, which is to say wireless phones, text messaging, pagers, faxes and email, all transmitting some combination of fact, rumour, interpretation and propaganda.” That was in 2003, two years before Facebook went live. It now has almost three billion monthly users—about 40 per cent of the world’s population, including 24 million Canadians.

We can’t know where we would be if it weren’t for misinformation on social media, but we can be sure that more people would be vaccinated, and fewer would have died.

In February, Frank Graves of EKOS Research surveyed Canadians, asking them five questions about COVID. He found almost half of respondents were somewhat misinformed, and eight to 20 per cent had “a very distorted picture.”

Between the middle of August, when COVID case counts were low, and Dec. 1, 2021, when they were creeping up again, about 3,000 people died of COVID in Canada. If [University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman] is right, about 1,500 dead people could be considered victims of the infodemic.

Within that latter group, about 70 per cent do not want to get vaccinated. Graves says the fourth wave is “to a large extent” the result of disinformation, mostly from Facebook and YouTube. It is concentrated in the Prairies, and among people who support populists like Trump.

“The evidence is that this group just simply is not accessible to reason, evidence or persuasion,” Graves says. “They’re absolutely convinced that what they know is true and what everybody else knows is false. They don’t consume any mainstream media, which they consider fake news. They don’t trust science. They don’t trust public health.”

“It was a bunch of lies.”–Linda Methot Hartley, 65, of Grand Falls, N.B., who spent more than a month in hospital, terribly ill from COVID.

University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman is sure that is costing lives. “There’s a very strong correlation between being disinformed and declining to be vaccinated,” he says. Because of that, he adds, “something like half the severe illness and death we see being attributable in some degree to misinformation is a reasonable guess.”

Between the middle of August, when COVID case counts were low, and Dec. 1, when they were creeping up again, about 3,000 people died of COVID in Canada. If Fisman is right, about 1,500 dead people could be considered victims of the infodemic.

“A lot of people’s health was impacted and [a lot] quite likely died because they couldn’t get the right care at the right time for their non-COVID health-care needs,” [Nova Scotia chief medical officer Dr. Robert Strang] says. “It’s just a very safe assumption to say that the misinformation and the hardcore anti-vax stances have been a major factor behind that.”

This message scared [Linda Methot Hartley, 65, of Grand Falls, N.B.] half to death. She shared it with her friends on Facebook and, although she wasn’t entirely sure, she ultimately decided not to get vaccinated. “I really thought it was true what they were saying, that the government wants to kill us with the vaccines, that it was poison,” she told me in a recent interview.

Hartley got infected with COVID and spent more than a month in hospital, terribly ill. Now, freshly vaccinated and on the road to recovery, she regrets being taken in, and has spoken out publicly, urging people not to be fooled by what they see on Facebook.

“It was a bunch of lies.”

The toll would be even higher if one counts people who were denied treatment for other ailments because of COVID-19. Strang says that while there was little collateral damage in his province, which kept COVID levels low, it took a toll elsewhere. “A lot of people’s health was impacted and [a lot] quite likely died because they couldn’t get the right care at the right time for their non-COVID health-care needs,” he says. “It’s just a very safe assumption to say that the misinformation and the hardcore anti-vax stances have been a major factor behind that.”

For example, the political scientists who found Canadians’ feeds full of American content were unable to determine if Canadians are choosing U.S. content or whether the platforms’ algorithms are pushing it. The dominant medium of 21st-century life—social media—is governed by secret rules set in distant corporate offices, where engagement is prized over other values, like truth.

Friesen’s life was saved by teams of highly trained health-care workers at goodness knows what cost to the rest of us, in terms of both money and health-care capacity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Saskatchewan Health Authority has had to delay about 26,000 elective surgeries because its ICUs are full of unvaccinated COVID patients like Friesen.

Would-be regulators around the world are struggling with this issue, and there are no easy solutions, in part because we must protect the right of Friesen to think and say what he likes if we are to continue to have a free society.

Canada is better placed than many countries are to strike the right balance. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures citizens’ trust in institutions around the world, shows that Canadians’ trust level actually increased by three points during the pandemic, and Canada remains ahead of most Western countries, which is reflected in our high vaccination rates.

But our leaders appear complacent, or distracted by partisan struggles. In Europe, which is farther from the American source of so much of the misinformation, lawmakers and regulators have done a lot more. They require regular reporting on disinformation from the platforms, for instance, and have established a hub for fact checkers and experts to monitor the problem and propose regulatory solutions.

On. Nov. 29, he posted a photo of himself from when he was intubated, looking gaunt and terribly unwell, unfocused eyes gazing blankly off to one side.

“I’m somewhat convinced this was the moment when the big fella turned me back home to recover and continue the fight for our freedoms,” he wrote.

Friesen’s life was saved by teams of highly trained health-care workers at goodness knows what cost to the rest of us, in terms of both money and health-care capacity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Saskatchewan Health Authority has had to delay about 26,000 elective surgeries because its ICUs are full of unvaccinated COVID patients like Friesen.

And he is still at it, sharing misinformation from his hospital bed, a shadow of his former self, a man who went to death’s door because he refused to take a free vaccine that would have kept him from getting sick.

Please click on: Misinformation from the U.S. is the next virus

Wayne Northey

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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