25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

When Coronavirus Misinformation Goes Viral

Wired 27 Mar 2020 12:00

LG: Nick, do you anticipate that this kind of... I don't know, partisanship, misinformation and distrust is also going to affect the way that we approach potential antibodies, vaccines and cures for this?

NT: I hope not. I mean, my hope is that the whole world is going to be different when this is over. All sorts of things are going to be changed from the way we organize our societies to the way we think about working from home to a million different things are going to change. One thing that I hope happens is maybe it's an opportunity for journalism to rebuild its trust with the public.

Maybe when this is over, people who didn't trust the New York times because they think it's too partisan. We'll realize whatever you think of the politics of the editorial board of the New York times, that the science reporting has been spot on, right? Or if you think that the Atlantic has... It's too critical of your favorite political candidates, you'll realize, Oh wait, they've done really tremendous reporting on coronavirus. So it's possible that the mainstream press will win back some of its trust.

To the specific question about a vaccine and antibodies or treatments, I think that what will happen inevitably is that the hype cycle will get ahead of the mainstream press. So as soon as there's any progress towards a vaccine, there'll be tweets that go viral and get people extremely excited before there's a story, because the reporters will be going more slowly, right?

We've seen this with the president and chloroquine where he's like, "This is ... I think this is going to work, right?" Which maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong and there's some immediate bad consequences where people who actually need the medicine for their current conditions aren't able to get it because everybody's hoarding it where there's one couple out West that drinks a concentrate that's meant for a fish tank and one of them dies, the other is hospitalized.

There are some negative consequences to getting ahead of the Science. So I think what we'll see as we start to make progress towards treatments, towards vaccines, you'll see journalism going much more slowly than social media inevitably.

MC: Well actually let's take a break right now and when we come back, we'll dig into that question of social media. We'll be back in just a minute with more from Gadget Lab.

[Break]

LG: We're back with Nick Thompson, editor in chief of WIRED on this weeks Gadget Lab. And of course we're talking all about Covid-19 again, in particular, misinformation. So Facebook and Twitter have both reported that their traffic is soaring. That doesn't necessarily mean good things for their advertising businesses. However, more people are using these platforms perhaps to nobody's surprise. And both companies say they're making efforts to tamp down misinformation, but at the same time, these social media platforms are still pretty notorious for this. So Nick, who do you think we can trust right now in terms of social media?

NT: I've actually been pretty impressed with what social media has done, right? You go to Google and there's a little thing and it's like, "Hey, wash your hands.. Right? When you go to google.com those valuable internet real estate in the world. WhatsApp has set up a direct line to the World Health Organization. Facebook and Instagram, both trying to push people to high quality information. So I think much, like I said earlier, it's possible that the media will rebuild its trust. It's possible that the coronavirus crisis will end the tech lash, or at least slow down or counter the tech lash to some degree.

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