COVID-19 & the Misinformation System We Can No Longer Ignore
This week, the Washington Post released a frightening video that illustrates how Fox News downplayed the early days of the COVID-19 crisis.
Amid reports of new cases rising and entire cities shutting down, Twitter users soon got the hashtag #FoxNewsLies trending nationally.
People across the United States are realizing more than ever that this network’s lies — and the right-wing misinformation system as a whole — are powerful, toxic and ultimately costing lives. And we can no longer afford inaction.
How did we get here?
First, Fox News is a pro-Trump propaganda machine, and the centerpiece of the vast right-wing misinformation system. The network has spent years telling viewers that the “deep state” is out to get Trump. In the last few weeks, on-air personalities exploited COVID-19 as just the latest so-called attack.
But Fox News and other right-wing media forces were wrong: The coronavirus is deadly and highly contagious. Downplaying the virus and deliberately misinforming viewers — all in an attempt to support Trump — will quite literally cost many lives.
As our friends at Media Matters for America put it, “Stars like ... Sean Hannity could have played key roles in promoting public health. Instead, they worked to counteract public concern about coronavirus and defend Trump’s response.”
Misinformation: An urgent public-health issue
This dynamic isn’t new. Fox News’ devotion to Trump is actually just one facet of a decades-old misinformation cycle, one that’s been dangerous for a long time but is now coming into sharp view because of the COVID-19 public-health crisis.
For media entities like Rush Limbaugh, the Christian Broadcasting Network, Breitbart and many others, misinformation isn’t about what they believe. It’s big business. They’ve spent decades building a faithful core audience around the idea that people of color, immigrants and religious minorities are the enemy of the United States. And since Trump became the 2016 presidential nominee, Fox and its brethren have promoted the idea that he’s here to “protect” white Americans.
Our friends at Columbia Journalism Review released a landmark study of the propaganda loop in 2017, and recently interviewed researcher Yochai Benkler on how conspiracy theories enter the mainstream conversation:
This misinformation machine is actually a web of bloggers, radio broadcasters, TV hosts and more, all churning out hateful narratives against people of color, women, religious minorities, the LGBTQIA+ community and immigrants while raking in profits and political power. Free Press’ Dayanita Ramesh lays out the sickening way Fox News wields racism and other forms of hate to unite and sway its audience.
But it’s not just Fox News: Tech organizations like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are on the misinformation gravy train too.
False pro-Trump pro-hate reports are shared widely on social media, and Russian actors use the attention to spread their own misinformation while interfering in U.S. elections. All of this equals major profits for Big Tech, whose business model depends on clicks, shares, ads and views.
Millions of people, especially older Americans, experience the misinformation cycle on a constant loop, from Facebook timelines to TV screens at home and in medical offices, and back around again.
That’s why it’s actually no wonder that last week, when everyone flocked to TV, radio and newspapers for information on the unfolding pandemic, and every report could have convinced people to stay home and flatten the curve — Fox News quickly and easily convinced millions to ignore health warnings.
Yes, Fox News has since changed its tune. But it’s not because it suddenly got better at journalism. It’s because thousands of people around the world are dying. And there will be thousands more — because the contamination has already occurred.
We can’t let Fox News get away with this. The good news is, we’re activists, and we’re here to let you know there’s a lot you can do.
Here’s the plan for stopping the misinformation machine
At Free Press, we believe in people power. And that’s what it will take to get our communities the information they need during this fast-unfolding pandemic. That’s also how we’ll stop Fox News and all the other actors in the cycle of misinformation.
So building on our power, our organizers are calling on you to help take the following actions:
✅ Tell the FCC to step in.
It’s illegal for broadcasters like iHeart Radio —Limbaugh and Hannity’s radio network — to intentionally distort the news. The First Amendment must be respected, but stations are responsible for what they air. The FCC has a responsibility to act when they fail.
Tell the FCC to stop the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on the public airwaves now.
✅ Tell advertisers to drop Fox.
The products you buy every day are made by companies that advertise on Fox News, pumping your money into the misinformation machine. Head over to the coalition website and tell advertisers directly that it’s time to #DropFox.
✅ Talk to your family.
The hardest action here is actually the most direct: Have a talk with your family, friends and loved ones. Tell them to #DetoxFox by turning it off forever at home, in their businesses and in their minds. Check out this handy guide we shared during the holidays if you need pointers or support.
In the words of Dayanita Ramesh, “Viewers are the oxygen for Fox’s toxic fire and Fox needs its viewers more than viewers need Fox News. If you have friends and family members who watch Fox, talk to them about the dangerous lies the network spreads.”
Silicon Valley has to stop the lies too
The misinformation cycle is broad, deep and entrenched in our daily lives and work. As schools and workplaces move online, our exposure to online platforms will only increase. And in the wake of the willful misinformation around COVID-19, it’s incumbent upon Big Tech companies to clean up their act, too.
✅ Tell Big Tech: Report the profits.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms make their money based on clicks, views, shares and, most of all, online advertising. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how dangerous this can be in the context of political elections. Facebook paid a fine to regulators, but the business model continues.
We’re calling on tech companies to disclose how much they profit from disinformation so that policymakers can take stronger action.
✅ Tax the platforms.
These companies pay little to no taxes — and leave our communities to clean up their dangerous mess. So we’ve also proposed an advertising tax on social-media platforms. Let's disrupt this destructive business model and use the proceeds to fund quality local journalism. Others have joined us in this call.
✅ Disrupt the spread of hate online.
In 2018, Free Press helped launch Change the Terms — a campaign urging the platforms to adopt a set of model policies and terms of service that would help disrupt the spread of online hate and misinformation. Since then more than 50 civil-rights, human-rights and digital-rights groups have joined the effort.
✅ Protect and save democracy.
This means Congress must provide oversight: Lawmakers should hold hearings where they demand answers from media executives about what they're doing to stop the spread of lies on cable and the public airwaves. Congress should also investigate the spread of online hate — and demand that tech execs #ChangeTheTerms.
We have the power. Let’s use it.
The bottom line is this: We can create change.
Fox News is not an immutable fixture, or some kind of feature of the natural landscape. It’s a bloated, messy corporation that has sheltered serial harassers, spread hateful conspiracy theories and polluted the media landscape for too long. Fox News is the centerpiece of a massive misinformation system — and it’s high time we diffuse its influence.
Start now. Turn off Fox News inside your home and business. Enter your email address at freepress.net to join us in the continued fight for better media and technology. Share this article with everyone you know.
We can’t wait for the next major crisis — we have to stop the misinformation now.
In the same way that we’re helping neighbors get groceries, child care, medical support and other basic needs, it’s up to us to help each other get real information. The time we’re spending away from public gatherings might be time for new dreams and visions, a time to plan out a refreshing future for public information and media.
Access to quality news and information has always been critical. We need it now more than ever.
At Free Press Action, we join you in working from home and taking all precautions to help flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. Take good care and stay well. We’re sending vibes of peace and health to you and yours.