Monday, August 03, 2020

A Reminder About Misinformation In The Time Of Covid

I just saw some shared material on Facebook that claimed it was practical information from an anonymous ICU nurse. It reminded me of a post I did back in March on saving time by not reading misinformation.

"But for many writers, the bulk of our Facebook friends are just that...Facebook friends. They are people we have connected with in order to create a professional network. They are not people we have ever met in person or are geographically near so we ever will. Spending hour after hour picking up and absorbing their fear may not be the healthiest thing we can be doing now, and it certainly isn't the most time and energy efficient.

"On top of that, according to Peter Adams of the News Literacy Project in an interview on NPR last Saturday, some of those stories our Facebook friends and Twitter followers are sharing are what he calls "misinformation." He even talks about a "misinformation ecosystem." "This pandemic has brought out a really clear picture of the kinds of things that tend to circulate in the misinformation ecosystem, generally...," he says. He goes on to add:

"A lot of what we're seeing is actually, you know, what you would call a kind of cheap fake or a low-tech fake, just copied and pasted claims online going viral across platforms...we're seeing just a lot of text-based claims with - this person is in a position of authority, you know? My sister-in-law works with a man who's married to someone at the CDC who says, right? So this sort of second and thirdhand totally anonymous information just gets copied and pasted over and over and over again across these platforms."

Red Flags Suggesting You Might Be Reading Misinformation

  • No one is identified as the source. Note that Adams is talking about "second and thirdhand totally anonymous information." Claiming that someone is an ICU nurse or a vaccine researcher or anything else, is not identifying a source. Think about how much you see on your social media platforms that is related to the pandemic that is passed as Gospel without actually naming a Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as the speaker. (Metaphor.) You may have seen it other times, too, say, after a school shooting. This kind of behavior may be generated by any event that causes fear and/or outrage.
  • You see it in multiple places. This comes from me. If I see material from an unidentified source more than once, I suspect it's "circulating in the misinformation ecosystem," as Adams puts it. For instance, I've already seen the item I mentioned in my first paragraph a second time today. The second time it began "From a nurse."  Have you seen that piece from a couple of weeks ago that is supposedly from a teacher whose doctor advised making a will before going back to school this fall? I've seen that twice, too. 
  • It's bad news. Again, this comes from me. I've noticed that I rarely see unattributed good news passed around. It's always the kind of news that will generate fear or anger.
  • It's long. I've found that these barely credited materials seem to go on forever.

Why Is This Happening?

I don't think any of this has anything to do with an organized attempt to bring down people in power or attack political enemies, though it is true that people do seem to like to do that. How well spreading misinformation for political means has worked, historically, would be a good research project for someone.

I think what's moving misinformation right now is fear and gullibility. Trying to control our own gullibility and ignoring these articles could help manage our own fear.

Saturday, August 01, 2020

What I Didn't Know About 20th Century Russian History Filled A Book

My faithful followers may have been wondering if I am ever going to read another book, or at least write about one here. Put your minds at rest. I recently finished Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson. This is a historical work, not historical fiction. I am going to be upfront here and say:
  • I think it should have been called Dmitri Shostakovich and An Introduction to Communist Russia, since the actual siege doesn't come until well into the book.
  • Also, I found this a little long, probably because there was such a long wait for the siege I'd been promised in the title.
  • And then there's the issue that I am an old fart who will never give up wanting footnotes sprinkled through a historical text that I'm reading so that I can be assured that there is documentation for this point or that point, and I don't have to go hunting through the end notes to see if it exists. Yeah, I'm never going to see that again.
I'm also going to be upfront and tell you that Symphony for the City of the Dead was on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2015. (The winner that year was Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman.)


  • Anderson uses Shostakovich as an entry point to discuss the period he lived in. That's not unusual. In fact, most works on historical figures need to include information on the world that formed them.
  • I am truly embarrassed that I knew so little about the Siege of Leningrad before reading this book. I was aware that the Soviet Union suffered huge losses during World War II, but I didn't know anything specifically about Leningrad. I had heard and read plenty about London during the Blitz. Why has Leningrad's suffering and survival not been more prominent? My high school history courses often didn't get all the way to World War II. I wasn't that interested in twentieth century history when I was in college. So this could be on me. And, yet, as I said, I know about the Blitz.
  • Am I the only person who thinks M.T. Anderson and Dmitri Shostakovich look alike? Come on.
  • I spent a lot of time bitching about Joseph Stalin while I was reading this.
  • Yes, I've been listening to a little Shostakovich recently.
Symphony for the City of the Dead is one of three nonfiction books I can think of off the top of my head that I didn't totally embrace while reading but that shifted, or at least enhanced, my world view.