Many years from now, when historians look back at the COVID-19 pandemic, they will likely be puzzled by many things they read.
For instance, how did so many individuals with no background, training or education in public health, epidemiology and constitutional rights become overnight, self-appointed experts in those fields?
And how did people previously assumed to be somewhat intelligent get so sucked in by obvious misinformation and conspiracy theories?
The answers are complicated, but a lot of blame can be attributed to the scourge that is social media, which has been proven to spread misinformation far faster than the truth.
Much of the misinformation that circulated in the early days of this pandemic centred around mask wearing and while there are some die-hards still clinging to those debunked conspiracy theories, the flavour du jour is “censorship” and infringement on “rights.”
Without getting into a protracted legal debate, it is well established that Canadians’ charter rights are subject to reasonable limits in the name of the public good – say, for instance, during a global pandemic that has led to the death of over 21,000 Canadians and over 2.4 million people worldwide.
Since the Advertiser renewed our efforts to keep misinformation and conspiracy theories off our social media pages, we have received numerous complaints that people are being censored or having their “rights” taken away.
One reader on Facebook actually wrote, “Whenever I want unbiased truth, I shut off the TV, radio and throw the newspaper in the garbage.” There are several problems with that, not the least of which is the truth can not be “biased” (sadly, disregarding it as such when it doesn’t fit in with a conspiracy narrative has become commonplace).
Another reader admonished the Advertiser for refusing to “fact-check from both sides of the story.” But there are most definitely not two sides to “facts.” Facts are facts.
A few readers have had difficulty understanding the difference between opinion and news items in the paper.
Others still have invoked the memory of fallen soldiers, who they say fought to secure their non-existent right to occupy space in this newspaper, or any other for that matter. The truth is, most of our fallen heroes would likely be disgusted by the selfishness of those who want to spread misinformation and/or are unwilling to make small sacrifices to protect others during this pandemic.
It’s the same type of faulty reasoning that caused many to cry “censorship” when Donald Trump and other conspiracy theorists in the U.S. were banned by social media companies. But to be fair, we likely shouldn’t expect people unable to figure out how masks work to understand how freedom of speech works.
Aided by populism and social media, the assault on the truth continues and there appears no end in sight.
As William Davies wrote in The Guardian in 2019, we are witnessing a collision between two conflicting ideals of “truth”: one that depends on trusted intermediaries (journalists and experts), and another that promises the illusion of direct access to reality itself.
It might sound like an exaggeration, but we are living in a dangerous time.
Our society is in trouble when feelings/opinions are valued more than truth.
It is in trouble when people replace the search for truth with a campaign to defend their side of the argument, no matter the cost.
It’s in trouble when we dismiss a claim/article as biased or inaccurate just because it is unwelcome in the echo chamber we’ve created for ourselves.
If we can’t agree on a basic set of facts how can we:
- form a civil society armed with the knowledge and tools to defend ourselves?
- understand complex economic, social and racial problems and then find relevant solutions to those problems?
- hold governments and institutions accountable when they fail us – or even recognize when that failure occurs?
- guard our most vulnerable citizens from various health and socioeconomic threats (particularly important during a global pandemic)?
The answer to all these questions, of course, is we can’t.
And we have to fix that before it’s too late.
A good start would be getting off social media and seeking out reliable sources of information – during this pandemic and beyond.