A friend asked if I thought COVID-19 was as bad as advertised.
“In what way?”
Was he asking if it was as deadly? Or as widespread?
My friend, a retired line worker who runs and lifts weights every day, answered by describing his neighbor who tested positive but recovered quickly with few, if any, symptoms.
I agreed with him that many healthy adults survive it unscathed. But nearly half a million deaths are grim proof that it is gravely serious. So serious, I added, that it has overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States.
The next day my friend sent an email with a video link. Not as an attempt to change my mind, he cautioned, but because it was good to have all the information. Because the URL was unfamiliar, I hesitated before clicking on it. I’m already aware that there are terabytes of misinformation about COVID-19 on the web and in social media, and I feared my friend might be sending me one of those strands.
I clicked on his link, and my fear was confirmed. It was a video posted on a site called "America’s Frontline Doctors," purporting to tell the “truth” about the virus. But "America’s Frontline Doctors" is not an authoritative or reputable source. It’s an overnight organization made up of a small group of doctors who claim that we already have the cure for the virus (hydroxychloroquine), do not need to wear masks, and are being lied to by the government.
They staged a media event on the steps of the Supreme Court last summer, during which their claims were presented by Dr. Stella Immanuel, who went to medical school in Nigeria, is pastor of a church in Texas called Fire Power Ministries, and believes that witches, demons and spirits influence her patients’ health and are responsible for problems like erectile dysfunction in men and gynecological disorders in women.
Former President Donald Trump called Dr. Immanuel "very impressive."
Their smooth-talking spokesperson in the video was Dr. Simone Gold, who was accused of masquerading as a staff physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which denied she ever worked there. More recently, she was identified by the FBI for participating in the assault on the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Even if this oddball collection of medical contrarians were specialists in infectious diseases or related fields (they are not), they provided no evidence or studies for their claims. They have been disavowed by the CDC, by Dr. Anthony Fauci and by hundreds of medical experts and organizations, while the FDA has warned that hydroxychloroquine is not a beneficial treatment and can cause heart problems. Twitter and Facebook have taken down their false posts, after which Dr. Immanuel threatened Facebook with destruction from God.
It seems incomprehensible that my friend and millions of others believe and share these lies, but here is how this happens: He and his sister, who originally sent him the fraud-filled video, are skeptical when they hear or read about calamities or negative trends or misfortunes, if they or their family are not experiencing them. They are especially skeptical if the calamities end up costing them in lost freedom or lost income.
And in 2021, such skeptics receive support not just from people of similar minds on social media, but from websites, fly-by-night organizations and posts concocted to indulge their skepticism, disreputable sites that reap benefits, including financial windfalls, by garnering millions of followers or “likes” or clicks.
Conversely, way back in 1955, the peak of the polio epidemic, there was no internet and no Facebook or Twitter posts propagating unproven, unscientific quackery. Back then, Gertrude McGrath knew which public schools to travel to on the city bus where my seven brothers and sisters and I could stand outside in lines to get the polio vaccine. She had learned the times, the locations, the reason and the dire consequences of going without the vaccine from her daily newspaper, which printed the same information as the other big-city dailies, which they, in turn, learned from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press releases.
And for the relatively few other mothers who did not read the papers or watch the three major TV networks, there was the single charitable organization called March of Dimes, inspiring national trust and disseminating the same information as that which was corroborated, verified and edited by the newspapers. Absent parasitic social media sites, universal truth was easily accessible and all but indisputable.
Today, even though social media toxins are here to stay, it remains possible to distinguish facts from lies, if every citizen would exercise a little caution. When you read something about the virus, hear it on your phone, or view it on a video, on Facebook or in an email, please check the source.
Then, if you don’t immediately recognize the source as reliable — like the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, or the Capital Times (all fact-checked, corroborated and edited) — or as a reputable professional journal like JAMA or Health (which are peer-reviewed), do not accept it or pass it along.
Of course, exercising such caution is easier for those raised prior to the internet who are familiar with trustworthy sources. Whereas younger, internet-age consumers can choose two or more “go-to” sites like Snopes, USA Today, or WebMD through which to screen all new or suspect information.
Being skeptical is a good thing. But being a gullible skeptic, embracing something from a suspect source, is irresponsible and dangerous.
Always check the source and become your own lie detector.
Former Hayward resident and emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage, David McGrath is the author of "South Siders." Reach him at email@example.com.
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