A golden age of media manipulation: “Our desire for information exceeds our ability to accurately deliver it.”

From a column by Charlie Warzel in the New York Times headlined “What We Pretend to Know About the Coronavirus Could Kill Us”:

Other than a vaccine or an extra 500,000 ventilators, tests and hospital beds, reliable information is the best weapon we have against Covid-19. It allows us to act uniformly and decisively to flatten the curve. In an ideal pandemic scenario, sound information is produced by experts and travels quickly to the public.

But we seem to be living in a nightmare scenario. The coronavirus emerged in the middle of a golden age for media manipulation. And it is stealthy, resilient and confounding to experts. It moves far faster than scientists can study it. What seems to be true today may be wrong tomorrow. Uncertainty abounds. And an array of dangerous misinformation, disinformation and flawed amateur analysis fills the void. . . .

Misinformation is a spectrum. The most outlandish claims — that the Obama administration engineered and sold the coronavirus to China — don’t require a medical degree to debunk. But much of the pernicious false news about the coronavirus operates on the margins of believability — real facts and charts cobbled together to formulate a dangerous, wrongheaded conclusion or news reports that combine a majority of factually accurate reporting with a touch of unproven conjecture. . . .

“We’re in a stream of ever-evolving data, and it’s being shaped around cognitive biases, partisanship and preferences embedded in our cultural identities,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of “This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality,” told me. I called Mr. Pomerantsev because the information vacuum around the virus made me think of the title of his earlier book on Russia — “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.” In the absence of new, vetted information, reckless speculation takes its place, muddling our conception of the truth.

A pandemic seems like a unique opportunity to set aside our differences and focus on the facts. After all, we’re in this crisis together. And we need to trust experts — epidemiologists, doctors and scientists — because they’re all we’ve got. But in crisis situations — especially early on — our desire for information exceeds our ability to accurately deliver it. Add to this the complexities of epidemiology: exponential growth; statistical modeling; and the slow, methodical nature of responsible science. Together, they create the ideal conditions for distrust, bad-faith interpretations and political manipulation, the contours of which we’re only beginning to see.

“The really big question that haunts me is, ‘When do we return to reality?’” Mr. Pomerantsev mused over the phone from his own quarantine. “Or is it that in this partisan age absolutely everything is chopped, cut and edited to fit a different view? I’m waiting for society to finally hit up against a shared reality, like diving into the bottom of swimming pool. Instead we just go deeper.”

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