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BERNSTEIN: Post-truth world proves more harmful during pandemic


Column: Mind You

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays.
Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays.

In case anyone is still unaware, the U.S. — and the international community — is experiencing a bit of a health crisis.

The preceding sentence may sound like a joke (I write this on April 1, and a dampened levity hangs over the quarantined residences of New Jersey), and I wish it was. But alas, some Americans still seem not to realize the severity of our country’s current situation. 

In hardly a month, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has taken more than 3,000 American lives. It has brought illness upon almost 200,000. The infection has spread so rapidly and affected patients so direly that two bastions of American economy and culture — New York and California — have essentially shut down. So why do so many still seem suspicious of the validity of the outbreak, much less the importance of social distancing and other protective measures?

The culprit is no different than that which has instigated sociopolitical division and vitriol for years now: A lack of trust in journalism, the government and truth itself, evident in the now-ubiquitous term “fake news.” In this case, though, a disagreement on the truth will directly affect American citizens in a fashion far more grave than the occasional uncomfortable dinner discussion with politically opposed relatives, and a dismissal of the facts will take American lives.

Pinpointing the inception of the “fake news” era makes for a difficult task. Certainly the Donald J. Trump administration, with its more than uneasy relationship with the media and its propensity for legal scandal (let us not forget that, a mere two months ago, we witnessed the third and perhaps most divisive impeachment trial in United States history), has not helped matters. 

Even now, the president downplays, misrepresents and simply waffles on his position on COVID-19. Social media platforms such as Facebook have also drawn ire for abetting both the proliferation of misinformation and the resistance against facts. It is also possible that the stage for a post-truth world was set long before the last election cycle and that the aforementioned exacerbators merely exemplify a more deeply rooted problem in the United States. 

Regardless, the reason “fake news” culture has survived so long is no mystery: Until now, the stakes have been far too abstract for most Americans for anyone to really care. Sure, people argued vigorously over the Mueller investigation of Russian interference into the 2016 election. But no matter how angry we became, our daily life was not evidently threatened by its outcome. 

When my more conservative friends pressed me on what was so wrong about the Ukraine call that lead to Trump’s impeachment, I consistently cited national security concerns. What a high concept, and what a meaningless one for the state of American kitchen tables.

But the COVID-19 crisis has flipped the post-truth world on its head. When pundits spread misinformation about possible COVID-19 treatments or delegitimize the virus’ effects by taking pictures of seemingly uncrowded hospital parking lots (in an effort to undermine the pressure facing these institutions), their actions will lead people to make risky health decisions for both themselves and others. 

When the attitude and actions of the federal government fail to meet the demands of an imminent viral threat, not only will that mean more lives lost, but it will also mean a longer period of economic breakdown as the American workers lose their jobs and the stock market spirals hopelessly downwards, paving an uncertain path for many who will survive this pandemic and be forced to reassemble their lives as the dust clears.

It would seem that the United States has forgotten the importance of common ground and of consensus on the facts most important to the continuation of our prosperity. We cannot treat this crisis the way we have treated the last four years of issues (and probably longer than that), with political rivals keeping conflicting sets of facts and social media outlets serving as a breeding ground for nonsensical conspiracy theories and polarization. 

If the entirety of the country chooses to take this outbreak seriously, we may very well come out of this crisis stronger than before or, at the very least, with a promising path forward. 

But a denial of the current reality will only prolong it, and before we can enjoy the future, we have to face the facts.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year looking to major in cognitive science and biomathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays. 

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