• Propaganda and the Coronavirus

    March 9, 2020 // 30 Comments »


     
    “Um, is it Colonel Vindman in the Russian Tea room with the coronavirus?”

    “Very funny. Now everyone settle down. Welcome back to Propaganda and the Death of Media 101 in case you’re in the wrong class, and its, um, March 15, 2024. Now we were discussing the role of propaganda and the media in trying to influence the re-election of Donald Trump by tying his leadership to a global pandemic. Propaganda in these cases seeks to diminish people’s view of a leader’s competence. The ultimate goal is to get you to vote him out.

     

    For those of you in the back holding up those tattered Bernie signs, God rest his soul, let’s start with the question of whether the media engaged in propaganda at all. Contrast the sense of panic in 2020 whipped into place with how things played out in 2009 under Obama. The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency that fall, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months of the disease, Obama had no Secretary of Health and Human Services or appointees in any of the Department’s 19 key posts. No Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no Surgeon General, no CDC Director. The gap at CDC was particularly important, as in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t enabled until later. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, not a medical doctor, lead the federal effort.

    The first real H1N1 cases appeared in Mexico. The border was not sealed, Mexicans were not forbidden to enter the U.S. Though CDC recommended against travel there, the primary danger cited was kidnapping for ransom. Yet 66 percent of Americans, supported by the media, thought the president was protecting them. Some 4,000 Americans were dead before a vaccine was first distributed.

    The emergency proclamation it took Obama seven months to declare was issued by Trump within 30 days of the current virus being found abroad. He announced a temporary suspension of entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals who pose a risk for the transmission of the coronavirus (CNN criticized “the travel ban could stigmatize countries and ethnicities.”) And yes, Trump encouraged everyone to wash their hands.

    Anybody here remember the media freaking out over Obama’s initial response, which was hand washing was pretty much what was needed? Anyone who did the reading find evidence of national panic throughout the crisis? No. Why did the media cover essentially the identical story so very differently for two presidents? The question is the answer.

     

    Look at the timing in 2020; the crisis came when the media decided it was time for a crisis. Though the virus dominated headlines in Asia since mid-January, American media first relegated the story to the business news. In late February the main “Trump” story was Russiagate II, the revelation (which quickly fell apart) the Russians were meddling again in the election. The Democratic debate at the end of February invoked Putin many times. The virus barely came up.

    Then the NYT sent up the Bat Signal for the new crisis on February 26, the day after the Democratic debate, with an article titled “Let’s Call It Trumpvirus” (subtlety is not required for propaganda.) An effort was born overnight to blame Trump personally for the virus, and essentially declare his chances of reelection done. The critical change was not anything to do with the virus itself, simply with the decision by the media to elevate the story from the business section to the front page. Even a week after that, with American sanity in a tailspin, only two Americans had died, and about half the known U.S. cases arrived with the evacuees from Japan. Of course the numbers quickly went up (that’s why we use the expression “going viral” for your Instagram blowups, kids) but imagine what a graph of actual cases would look like versus a graph measuring panic.

     

    You’ll see in your textbooks another example which shows how propaganda works, the reporting of initial problems with the CDC coronavirus test kits. One typical headline claimed “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as the stories were written; 15,000 testing kits were released within 48 hours of that story with plans to send out an additional 50,000. Each kit can test 700-800 patient samples.

    The follow-on stories screamed about Trump funding cuts to the CDC, most of which were actually only proposed. Then the stories were merged — Trump cut CDC funding and thus not enough kits were available. Not only were both pieces largely untrue individually (few cuts were made, kits were available), the merging of the two was grossly false. Instead of examining these things for lessons learned in the midst of an unfolding crisis, the media treated them as new bits to mock Trump with, like late night comedians trolling the news for material for their monologue.

    No room was left for people making errors in novel decisions under time pressure, just the jump to “Trump incompetence” instead of doing the real work of looking into the questions. The problem with the testing kits was a highly technical one involving chemical reagents and factory contamination. CDC is a massive institution. Who if anyone there made any “bungled” decisions? Would they have likely made a better decision with different funding? If so, then Congress can act and drop some money on that office. If not, move on, there is work to do. It is how the media acts when they seek to fix the blame, not the problem.

     

    The propaganda surrounding how the government initially handled the coronavirus was also obvious in the false “who is in charge” question the media asked. The vice president was given the role heading up the task force. This is the kind of thing VPs do, bring gravitas, make sure a whole of government approach has the bureaucratic firepower it needs, and so on. The propaganda instead hyper-focused on Mike Pence’s “disbelief in science,” itself more of a chanted mantra than anything established by fact. For “proof” the stories settled on Pence supposedly creating an HIV epidemic while governor of Indiana. The reality is much different. Pence took office opposed to needle exchanges. When dirty needles shared among opioid users in rural Scott County, Indiana were linked to 71 cases of HIV transmission, Pence responded to the new information (sad to see people die, but 71 deaths is all it was and many would have died from their drugs soon enough) by changing his policy and authorizing needle exchange in Scott and four other counties. The reality seems much closer to seeing an ideological stance changed by science than the opposite.


    Pence said at the time “I’m going to put the lives of the people of Indiana first. It’s a commitment to law and order, but it’s a commitment to compassion.”

    Meanwhile, the media largely ignored those Pence chose for the taskforce. One was Dr. Deborah Birx, a career medical professional nominated by Obama in 2014 as the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. She also served as head of the global HIV/AIDS division at CDC, was an immunology researcher at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and an Army colonel. You want to inspire confidence you profile Dr. Brix; you want to sow discord you misrepresent Mike Pence’s decisions years ago.

     

    There’s so many more examples, but our class time is short. Here are a few.

     

    You can report on the elimination of Obama’s pandemic czar but leave out that the position was just a coordination job on the National Security Council with no real power. It sounds scary (one outlet called it sabotage) to see that job go, but in fact the coordination duties within NSC were reassigned to others.

    You can focus on every coronavirus case as proof efforts are failing while ignoring providing perspective by reminding 12,000 people died, with over 13 million infected, from the regular influenza (the one with the vaccine) between October 2019 and February 2020.

    You can focus on time will take to develop a full-on vaccine and ignore the treatments already now in human testing trials.

    You can purposefully confuse accelerating public health measures already underway with America’s lack of universal individual health care. We have plenty of the former, not enough of the latter. But the pandemic is not a solid argument for the latter as it is a problem of public health policy. That’s why even countries with good, free care systems are suffering the virus. Medicare for All would not have changed anything in 2020.

    You can cover the virus as you did Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Everyone was gonna die there until they didn’t. You can follow the now-standard Trump propaganda template: say he won’t do enough, then say what he does isn’t being done fast enough, predict everything will collapse (with Katrina references) and then move on to a new crisis as the reality of the response takes hold.

    You can report on panic selling on Wall Street, or explain how global supply chain problems are not caused by the virus, but by traders’ reaction to the unknowns of the virus. China’s factories closed because the government enforced social isolation, not because the workers were dead. Soon enough Apple products flowed back into our greedy hands, and the stock market found its way back to a new normal.

    You can report store closings, but not their reopenings. By March 1 Starbucks had reopened 85 percent of its stores in China. Apple, over 50 percent. You can emphasize how many Chinese factories were closed in February, or report on their reopenings in March.

    You can misrepresent the use of words like hoax to make the president appear weak.

    You can ignore the drop off in cases inside China. Only a few days after the first cases appeared in the U.S., new ones inside China dropped to 200.

    You can avoid reporting how viruses follow a bell curve. Case counts first rise quickly, the virus claims the “easy” deaths among the elderly, and then environmental factors (viruses must live inside a host; they have limited life outside on surfaces`, typically less and less as temperatures climb. This is why you can’t catch HIV from a toilet seat) and public health measures kick in. Treatment emerges and the virus fades. You can explain to calm people where they are in what looks like a 10-12 week cycle to or you can ignore it to stoke fear of the unknown.

    The bell curve template is clearly illustrated by a look-back to how HIV/AIDS went from a massive public health crisis in America to a manageable problem. As the virus became known, panic took hold. False reporting outran reality. But the bell curve took over; the virus’ transmission became well understood, better testing protocols developed, excellent preventive medicines became available, and treatment regimes now exist which ensure long lives in remission. Knowns displace unknowns. None of this is to minimize the suffering enroute to the current state, but to show there is an established path even for a virus far more deadly than corona.

    Class concluded.

    “Hey professor, is all this gonna be on the test?”

    “No, but it may influence an election. And don’t forget to wash your hands before lunch, something is going around.”
      

    Related Articles:




    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedin

    Posted in 2020, Economy