[ Here’s another unintended consequence of the pandemic: an awakening to the untrustworthiness of a media landscape that has long been on a path to dubious reliability. The author is a friend. — ed. ]
Covid has changed my view of written information about current events.
Long ago (in the 1980s, say) I believed that traditional publications — newspapers, journals, books, broadcast network TV — did a pretty good job of presenting information accurately, with only occasional major errors. They did OK at separating facts from opinions. There were always fringe publications, but it was easy enough to identify those.
Media polarization really got going after Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine, and accelerated in the early 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” It has kept on getting worse in the years since, with deliberate misinformation added to the mix. Meanwhile the rise of the Internet has steadily eroded the cost of publishing, to the point that it was essentially free by the 2010s. I didn’t register how unreliable available media had gotten until the pandemic threw the whole landscape into sharp relief.
Starting at the end of 2019, Covid was brand new. No one knew anything about it. There were lots of “facts” that it turned out later were wrong. For example: if you didn’t have a high fever, you didn’t have Covid. Another was that you couldn’t have Covid if you didn’t have some symptoms. From direct personal experience, I learned in April 2020 that both of those are wrong. As I dealt with medical experts about infected people in my family, for nearly every question I asked, the answer was “we don’t know” — and, I should point out, at the time, that was the correct answer.
The combination of a new disease that was not at all understood, and a wide-open, completely unmoderated publishing environment (the Internet) led to a huge amount of misinformation. A lot of the information about Covid on the Internet sounded reasonable and plausible. But early on, most of it was wrong. In the good cases, it was wrong because no one knew better. In the bad cases, it was wrong because people were purposely providing incorrect information for their personal entertainment or financial benefit or political gain or …?
So the past year has led me to question pretty much all information I get, in any form. I want to know about the author. I want to know about the publisher. I want to know their recent history. I want to know who trusts them and who doesn’t. (For me, trust is transitive — if someone I trust trusts someone else, I’ll trust them too.) All of this has made learning so much more work for me. I now have to work really hard to separate true facts from opinions from deliberately false information.
I don’t know when or if I will again be able to trust what I read without first applying a long dose of withering skepticism.