How Media Sensationalism, Big Tech Bias Extended Lockdowns
This is Part 2 in a series. Last week, Part 1 discussed How Fear, Groupthink Drove Unnecessary Global Lockdowns.
Epidemiologists created faulty lockdown models. The media promoted fear. Politicians assumed worst-case scenarios, and big tech suppressed dissenting views. This is how people’s fears grew disproportional to reality and how seemingly short-term lockdowns stretched into months.
Did You Know?
As of May 20 the CDC estimates that coronavirus has an overall infection fatality rate of 0.26%. The CDC further estimates that people under age 50 have a 99.97% survival rate.
COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped 38% within three weeks of reopening in Georgia. Some schools in Montana and Idaho have been reopened for weeks with no drama. Wisconsin had all of its lockdown restrictions struck down by the state Supreme Court on May 13 and 10 days later hospitals there were treating around 400 known COVID-19 patients across the entire state of 5.8 million people.
New York City has had fewer than 100 total deaths from COVID-19 cases without preexisting conditions.
If any of this sounds surprising, you’re not alone, and it’s probably a result of the reporting bias most of the media has adopted during this pandemic. I understand the media needs to create sensation for more clicks and advertising money, but some outlets have displayed such an imbalance in reporting that they can no longer be taken as an impartial source of information.
This second article in the series will explore the media fear cycle and how it contributed to unnecessarily extending our pandemic policy disaster.
‘War’ and ‘Apocalypse’ Descend Upon Us
At the time of the article’s publication, there were 58 confirmed coronavirus cases in all of Travis County and as few as three cases per day were being added to the count out of a population of over 1 million. Only a handful were hospitalized. Yet some doctors were already describing the situation as a war and media outlets were happy to publish it. Weeks later Austin reached peak hospitalization at around 100 people, which was 2.5% of its capacity.
But it’s not just local media using hyperbole. Take this March 25 headline from the New York Times describing 13 deaths as an “apocalyptic” surge. On that day 75 people died of COVID-19 across New York City. While
those deaths are tragic, they are out of 8 million people and a bit far from an apocalypse. Yet when that word was used by a 27-year-old medical resident to describe how she felt, the New York Times seized on it to describe the city’s medical system. Then, when deaths did actually surge later in April, the media had to ratchet up the hyperbole to doomsday levels.
This may explain why so many people formed the perception that New York City hospital systems overflowed. While many of the frontline medical staff were personally and understandably feeling overwhelmed and stressed, the system itself never exceeded its permanent capacity, and its makeshift emergency surplus capacity remained almost entirely empty. Yet many Americans might not have known this from watching media sources that promoted a general tone of panic. Some were also fooled when broadcast television “accidentally” showed footage of crowded Italian hospitals in reports about New York hospitals.
Having your phone buzz you continuously with stories like this doesn’t help either:
Given references to war, apocalypse, and young fathers who are never seen again, it’s no wonder that people’s fear became so strongly misaligned with actual risk. So where were the voices of calm? With mainstream media largely not covering dissenting views, many tried to get their message out on social media, but there they met a much more direct challenge.
Suppression of Dissenting Views
Two “tech growth hackers” -- people whose job it is to grow things virally on the internet -- played unexpected roles in the lockdown debate.
On March 10, Tomas Pueyo published “Why You Must Act Now” on Medium. It reportedly gained over 40 million views within nine days, making it one of the most read early articles about the virus. It was quoted in the New York Times, emphasizing how a one day delay in lockdown could lead to 40% more cases, and presumably 40% more deaths. This has since been severely challenged as states such as Texas and Florida took much longer to lock down but saw fewer deaths than some comparable states that locked down sooner. Sweden and several U.S. states never locked down and they didn’t see any of the promised doomsday exponential growth either. Nonetheless, Pueyo’s article made a compelling argument at the time to lock down and the media promoted it.
On March 20, Aaron Ginn published “Evidence Over Hysteria” on Medium. Similar to Pueyo, he delivered data-driven arguments, but unlike Pueyo he concluded that blanket lockdowns were an overreaction and that more measured approaches could actually save more lives. The article gained nearly 3 million views within 24 hours and then was suddenly deleted by Medium. The Wall Street Journal covered its deletion on March 22, but the article’s lockdown alternatives were generally ignored by the media and its message never got out. You can view an archived version of the Ginn article here and decide for yourself if its analysis was too dangerous to be read by the American public.
With mainstream media generally not covering dissenting views, places like Medium became an important outlet, but the site continued to delete posts that offered different opinions. My own April 19 Medium article revealed little correlation between how quickly a state shut down and how many deaths it eventually suffered. That post was deleted within two hours and only restored later. The analysis was printed one week later in the Wall Street Journal but not in any other major media.
Suppressing the Views of Dissenting Political Leaders
The media were also ready to promote a sense that society was about to collapse while suppressing a call for calm. When Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti said, “These days, I have been thinking about the old speeches of Churchill -- it is our darkest hour but we will make it” -- he was comparing Italy’s COVID-19 situation to the unfolding collapse of Western Europe in 1940.
Such a statement was not only a crude exaggeration but also an insult that downplayed Italy’s own dark chapter of horrifying war crimes during World War II. But COVID-19 is Italy’s “darkest hour” and the media just goes along with it? Compare this to the Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who tried tweeting to get his message out to his citizens, only to have it deleted by Twitter for sharing dangerous ideas, including the following statements:
“What I have been hearing from people is that they want to work.”
“What I have said from the beginning is that ‘we are going to be careful, the over-65s stay at home.’”
“If it continues like this, with the amount of unemployment what we will have later is a very serious problem that will take years to be resolved.”
Suppressing the Views of Dissenting Medical Doctors
A Medium piece signed by six medical doctors titled “Eight Reasons to End the Lockdowns Now” emphasized that the curve had already been flattened. It was deleted by Medium (archived copy here) on April 10 and largely ignored by the media. The doctors were eventually allowed to repost the article but only after Medium demanded changes. The message was clear: Dissenting views are not welcomed.
YouTube has also been busy taking down dissenting views by medical professionals, such as this interview with Professor Karol Sikora, dean of the University of Buckingham’s medical school. The site also deleted an interview with Dr. Knut M. Wittkowski, who holds two doctorates in computer science and medical biometry and is the former head of biostatistics, epidemiology and research design at Rockefeller University. Another example is YouTube’s deletion of this local interview with two medical doctors in California. It is unknown just how many other medical interviews with dissenting views have been deleted.
I do not know whether the deleted footage was correct or not. But I do know that YouTube cannot know either. YouTube claims to rely on official health organization guidance, but of course the WHO originally said there was no evidence of human-to-human virus transmission and the surgeon general originally said we shouldn’t wear masks. Does that mean they would delete videos disagreeing with those early opinions as well?
Health organizations change their views all the time, including the CDC, which at first said the virus easily transmits through touched surfaces until more recently it said maybe it doesn’t. We have to leave room in the public dialogue for dissenting views because governments simply don’t have a monopoly on the truth.
Playing Down Positive News
In addition to suppressing or simply ignoring dissenting views, the media also downplayed positive news. In early April, Stanford conducted the first official seroprevalence study in the United States and showed Santa Clara County likely undercounted coronavirus cases by a factor of 54 times. That also means the county may have overestimated the virus’ fatality by 54 times. However, this potentially very positive news was downplayed.
In Santa Clara County itself, a local paper ran the headline “COVID-19 warning about pets” over an article discussing CDC recommendations to keep pets away from strangers, even though there hadn’t been any meaningful data showing pet-to-human transmission taking place. Tucked in the upper corner was a smaller but immensely important story reporting that “Stanford researchers have estimated that the [COVID-19] death rate in Santa Clara County is about 0.12% to 0.2%.”
To its credit, at least the Daily Post ran a story about the reduced death rate. A CNN headline for the same story instead read, “Far more people may have been infected by coronavirus in one California county, study estimates,” choosing to focus on the number of cases rather than the reduced death rate. The Stanford’s researcher primary commentary was buried in the CNN article:
“If 50 times more people have had the infection, the death rate could drop by that same factor, putting it “somewhere between ‘little worse than the flu’ to ‘twice as bad as the flu’ in terms of case fatality rate,” Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya said.
Outlets such as CNN continue to emphasize negative news in their headlines. Running a May 26 story titled “A month after reopening, Georgia coronavirus cases continue slow and steady” the website buried an explanation that steady cases were “likely due more to expanded testing in the state rather than the reopening” and did not even mention that Georgia COVID-19 hospitalizations are at the lowest number since tracking began.
Just as happened in the wake of the 2003 Iraq WMD journalistic failure, the 2020 pandemic should serve as a reminder of the importance of journalistic rigor in the face of overwhelming groupthink. This is not a question of whether social distancing works; it’s a question of whether shutting down businesses and locking up low-risk populations in their homes was worth the collateral damage and whether less draconian measures could have been even more effective.
The media should have more strongly questioned faulty academic models, unrealistically high fatality rates, lockdown efficacy, shifting goal posts, and the suppression of dissenting views by big tech. Had it done so, our public policy disaster may have been averted, or at least curtailed, potentially saving even more lives in the long run.
Yinon Weiss is a tech entrepreneur, a U.S. military veteran, and a bioengineer by education.