Monday, April 20, 2020

Quarantine Dangers - Misinformation

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
Mark Twain

Of all the dangers on social media today, mis- and dis-information is running rampant.  Insidiously, such posts focus on a piece of true information to then what "feels" true.  It's where we get the famous "alternative" facts.

It's even where we get the idea that the mainstream media can no longer be trusted.  That is a dis-information campaign on a massive scale and at the highest levels that shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how the news works.  Our mainstream media sources are generally trustworthy, though it is important to know where their bias lies.  And no, it is generally not as large of a bias you would imagine.  It is also important to remember that their primary bias is towards "sensationalism, conflict, and laziness," as John Stewart would put it, not towards any political end.  Meaning, the news needs ratings, especially now more than ever and the maxims of "if it bleeds, it leads" and "sex sells" remain true.

And because we don't trust traditional news sources, we're putting out half-truths and lies from a variety of disreputable sources because the information they provide sounds true to us.  We don't fact check, we don't double-check sources, we don't scrutinize their claims.

This helps spread conspiracy theories as in the previous post and spread misinformation.

A lot of what we are sharing is based on anecdotal evidence and usually generic anecdotal evidence at that.  A "NY doctor" has shared, "French doctors" are sharing...  No names, no sources.  Just the secret piece of information that everyone else is missing.  Everyone else is overlooking.

At this point, if you are sharing something that seems like everyone else is ignoring, that no one else is telling the truth, or will dare to speak about, then you are spreading a lie.

For example, let's talk about hydroxy chloroquine and azithromycin.  The two drugs that everyone is sharing as the cure for Covid-19.  Yes, there is anecdotal evidence that some patients have improved with such treatment.  However, clinical trials of the drug have just started and we do not have enough evidence to show that it is an effective treatment for a broad population.  Anecdotes start the process, they are not the end.  We need hard, scientific data to be able to approve this treatment for the general population.  Because the historic evidence that we have is that the drug has not been effective against viral illnesses and carries potentially lethal cardiac consequences.  Further, the run on the drug caused by the anecdotal sharing is making it more difficult to obtain for the communities that depend on the drug.

The other anecdotal evidence being shared relates to hospital usage.  Reports that hospitals are near empty or are not seeing the number of Covid-19 cases expected.  You should recognize there is a bit of chicken and the egg here.  The cases are likely lower due to the shelter in place requirements and would be greater if everything was business as usual.  Likewise, reports that individual hospitals or individual wards are near empty only reveals the impact for one particular location, not the greater impact on your area, state, or the country.  If you want hard numbers, go to  This is the organization that the big entities (Morgan Stanley, PWC, Dell, HP, the BBC, the UK, parts of the UN, etc.) are using to get their data.

Every sharing hard numbers can be misleading, if you are not getting information from a trustworthy source like the one above.  Let's take an example showing how statistics are being manipulated right now, particularly with a comparison between H1N1 and Covid-19.  There are people that are pointing out that H1N1 killed 284,000 people worldwide and we didn't freak out then.  That only reveals part of the story.  H1N1 killed 284,000 people over 19 months.   Covid-19 has killed 168,906 people worldwide so far in just three months.  H1N1 killed over 12,000 Americans, Covid-19 has killed just over 42,000 Americans, already and the number continues to climb.

It can seem overwhelming.  I'm sure a lot of this is being shared a bit recklessly.  Without intent, but without research or confirmation.  It may have started as dis-information, that is the original poster wanted to create confusion or to lead away from trustworthy information.  But the vast majority of what is going on online is just people trying to latch on to some answer.  To find some hope of a way out of this.

So what can we do?

A few things, actually.

Before you share anything, before you post about the disease, the effects, the solutions

  1. Verify the source - verify where the information is coming from. Is it from a major, well known source?  Is the source historically trustworthy?  Can you actually find the root source of the information?  Do they attribute and cite?  
  2. Go to the root - when at all possible, avoid quoting from news outlets.  Instead post information from the World Health Organization.  The CDC.  From Worldometers above.  Go to the people with the data.
  3. Think through what you are posting -  "Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid." Bernard Meltzer.  Read through what you post.  If you cannot affirmatively prove it is true, if you can not affirmatively show the information helpful, if it is unkind, don't post.  We sadly have far to many people who have been commanded to be true, to be helpful, to be kind who are ignoring those commandments because they believe their side is right.

As if there were sides at all in this issue.

We'll get through this, but only together.  This quarantine time will either be a great opportunity for growth or it will tear us farther apart.

If you are participating in the misinformation campaign, even unwittingly, you're just contributing to the fracture.

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