Shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, a family friend said the following at the dinner table: “That young Ashli woman who supposedly died at the Capitol was actually seen alive the next day on an airplane. Apparently, the media made her death up to make the whole thing seem more violent than it really was.”
I sat, dumbstruck, because I knew the “young Ashli woman” he was talking about was Ashli Babbitt. I’d read several things about her and knew that she had indeed forced her way into the Capitol that day along with hundreds of others and was attempting to get through barricaded doors in a hallway when an officer on the other side of those doors shot and killed her.
I’d seen the messages of grief her family members and friends had posted in the wake of the tragedy. On a “Good Morning America” appearance, I’d watched her grandfather honor some of the good she tried to do. I’d read multiple articles about her 12 years of service in the U.S. Air Force. I’d even seen a Washington Post video of the encounter showing the moment she was shot and killed. I knew Ashli Babbitt was a real person. I also knew that she was, in fact, dead.
Even still, I couldn’t bring myself to correct the misinformation this person was spreading to everyone around the table. All I managed to say in response was, “interesting ... .”
When I asked later about the source of his information, I was told he’d heard it on “a radio program.” And though I still don’t know which radio commentator he’d been listening to (and have since learned the “she’s still alive” rumor likely started among QAnon supporters), I know this much is certain: This person seemed to fully believe this falsehood.
And I must say this about him: Even though he believed an illogical thing in this scenario, he is not a stupid man. In fact, he’s one of the most learned people I know. He has served his community in many capacities. He’s had an incredible career. In many ways, he’s wiser than I’ll ever be, and I respect him considerably.
But in the months following this conversation, I’ve seen the positions he’s taken on other issues as well, and it’s become clear to me that he’s got a bug in his ear — someone feeding him a steady diet of spin and misinformation about political matters and even the COVID-19 pandemic.
He’s not unlike countless other friends or family members who have been indoctrinated against masks and vaccines in much the same way.
I’ve seen scores of people (who I similarly love and respect) share videos and posts on social media that grossly misrepresent information or are verifiably false. On many occasions, I’ve taken the time to track the source and have learned that, more often than not, it stems from the latest right-wing social media influencer rant gone viral.
I’ve observed that the one thing these friends and family members have in common is that they watch many of the same programs, listen to the same radio shows and follow the same political influencers on social media.
Just as Aaron Burr acknowledged the influence that Voltaire’s philosophies had on him before his duel with Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago, many people today are letting others influence their thinking in sometimes dangerous ways.
I won’t give oxygen to some of the most absurd claims I’ve seen, but I know what personalities like Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens, Robert Malone, Graham Allen and Clay Travis have had to say about vaccines and masks since this pandemic began, and I know how big their audiences are. My intention is not to make a blanket condemnation against any of these media figures. There are issues I’ve agreed with some of them on. But I would never (ever) take health advice from them, and I believe their followers should balance their views and avoid echo chambers at all costs.
I also know that misinformation is not just peddled by individuals anymore. A handful of news organizations do their viewers a disservice when reporting on important public health measures. Newsmax and One America News, for instance, have featured unsubstantiated or speculative information about masks and vaccines. Politifact, for example, has fact-checked a combined total of 53 of their claims and has found only three facts in the “mostly true” or “true” categories — with most of the others in the “false” or “pants on fire” categories.
Such messaging can have a devastating impact. A whopping 62% of Newsmax and OAN viewers have lost trust in public health officials according to a recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. I’ve witnessed such an impact firsthand. Shortly after the 2020 presidential election, I saw one friend post on Instagram something to the effect of: “From now on, OAN is the only news source I’ll trust.” Unsurprisingly, she’s become one of the most vocal spreaders of misleading information I’ve seen on social media regarding election integrity, mask efficacy and vaccine safety.
It’s worth mentioning that, as NPR recently reported, even health care workers are not immune to vaccine misinformation. On that front, it’s best to follow the advice of one of the experts I recently quoted in a BuzzFeed News article: “You are better off if you follow the advice of the majority of health care professionals and the preponderance of evidence, not the advice of people with unique outlier opinions.”
When I see the lies that many people seem to believe, the words of Ronald Reagan come to mind: “(It’s) not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”
And since Reagan was talking about liberals when he made that statement, I’ll acknowledge that misinformation and extremism is not just a problem on the right. The left is certainly guilty of misinforming their audience as well. There’s a reason The Hill reported this summer that the “U.S. just finished dead last among 46 countries in media trust.”
Even on pandemic information and preventive measures, many left-wing media outlets initially got the messaging wrong, and influential celebrities such as Nicki Minaj still are today. And some on the left have lacked compassion or been nonsensical regarding extreme or unproven preventive measures. As Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic in May: Some liberals just can’t quit lockdown.
Furthermore, I know that people being led astray by misguided influencers is nothing new. Author Mimi Jacob’s advice is prescient on that front: “Be careful who you choose as your friends because their bad habits can become your bad habits.” But this is a particularly dangerous time to be playing Russian roulette with information.
Last week, U.S. News & World Report reported that 1 in 500 Americans have now died of COVID-19, a grim milestone that’s likely to get grimmer as hospitals run out of beds and supplies, and more people begin congregating indoors this fall and winter.
At this point in the pandemic, most scientifically-vetted preventive measures are not a matter of opinion. Choosing to let the wrong people “educate” you could be a fatal mistake. See, for example, the conservative radio talk-show hosts who have died of COVID-19 after speaking out against masks and vaccines to their audience of listeners.
Which brings me to my final point: As devastating as it’s been these past 18 months to see so many loved ones influenced by people whose primary motivation seems to be riling up their followers, I’ve been even more disheartened by how recklessly many of them turn around and spread the misinformation without seeming to question any of it.
In most cases, the information they’ve shared could have easily been debunked or significantly calibrated if the spreader was willing to spend only a few minutes fact-checking it before passing it along. Instead, dangerous misinformation is often callously and carelessly shared — making people believe that masks don’t work, that vaccines do more harm than good and that a dead woman is somehow alive.
Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times.