Steve Lafleur: The alt-right media wants to win your vote and … sell you jellyfish pills?
The road to Dr. Oz’s nearly successful campaign has been long … and for me, at least, went through Montana.
By: Steve Lafleur
I was somewhere around Bozeman on the edge of the mountains when the dread began to take hold. And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around me. A voice was screaming at me through the dashboard about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and some shady figures I’d never heard of. Then it was quiet again. And I was informed about some sort of magical jellyfish pills.
It was 2018. I wasn’t in Montana for any particular reason other than that I was restless and it’s the closest part of America to Calgary. I was also vaguely curious about Boise, Idaho, which had become one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country. I’d also read a story about a small town thrown into chaos by a certain talk-radio-driven conspiracy. I figured I’d pop my head in. More on that later.
What I didn’t count on was that Donald Trump would be landing in Great Falls, Montana right as I was gassing up my not-so-fast rental car on the edge of town. I had a vague notion of driving by to see the spectacle, but it’s wide-open country. I didn’t see any sign of it, so I just kept going. Besides, I still had over a hundred miles to Bozeman.
I’d also forgotten to bring anything to listen to. It hadn’t dawned on me that out there, there’s not much on the radio. Or at least not much in the way of music. I fiddled with the dial for a bit. The Bible-based financial planning I stumbled on was surprisingly practical, though a bit tedious. So I switched to talk radio.
These would be tough miles.
I wasn’t quite ready for this. There is nothing more hopeless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of a talk-radio binge. And I knew I’d get the rotten stuff pretty soon. Alex Jones was on next. Man, that isn’t the way to travel.
I should have brought some music, I thought. And maybe I should buy some of these jellyfish pills. I hear they’re good for the brain.
When you’re driving through the mountains at 60 miles per hour with a stream of misinformation blowing in your face, it’s hard to know what’s real. You know you’re being lied to. But you’re not sure which parts are lies. It all blends together into one toxic stream of bullshit.
Some of that bullshit goes in wild directions. Consider, for instance, the town of Twin Falls, Idaho. News of a disturbing alleged sexual assault involving two young male children and an even younger girl made headlines in 2016. The two boys, as it happens, were the children of refugees. Rumours and conspiracies circulated, working their way all the way up to Chobani Yogurt, whose owner happens to be Muslim. You can see where this all went. Alex Jones heard the news, and he didn’t let facts get in the way of a lurid tale about predatory migrants. Jones eventually retracted his claims to settle a lawsuit.
Incidentally, I stopped into Twin Falls for some coffee on the way back from Boise out of curiosity. I expected to find a town shrouded in tragedy. Instead, the owner of the shop opened the door even though it was after closing hours, poured some free coffee, and boasted proudly about the town’s downtown revitalization. Not a word about refugees. Or yogurt.
You don’t need to be driving through the mountains or the desert to encounter misinformation. It’s all over the place. It’s been particularly prevalent in American politics since the rise of Donald Trump. But it existed before him, and I think the roots go deeper than grievance-based politics. Lazy science communication has primed a lot of people to pick and choose which truths to believe. One of the most obvious examples is nutrition reporting.
So back to the jellyfish.
I’m sure by now you’ve realized that the jellyfish pills are a scam. A hoax. Totally bogus, a fairly ordinary alternative medicine scam. The sort of thing they used to sell to new age-y progressives who watched too much late-night television. More benign versions of spurious nutritional science reporting have long permeated the mainstream media.
Duelling studies purporting that coffee cures and causes cancer are the type of thing no one bats an eye at. “I’m just going to go ahead and believe that coffee is good for me” is the kind of thing people say jokingly (as I do). But much of the time, confirmation bias really does cause us to accept the study that is most convenient, even if we’re fully aware that there are conflicting studies. It’s easier to just live our truths.
Dodgy science reporting isn’t something angry populists invented. But a large swath of the right has become increasingly susceptible to outright lies as many prominent Republicans cast doubt on science and in turn sell alternative medicines to fund their disinformation ecosystem. The really insidious part of this is that the populist media ecosystem has so thoroughly trained their listeners to distrust the mainstream media that many have become impervious to fact-checking. The harder mainstream reporters work to debunk conspiracies, the harder some people dig in. Jellyfish pills don’t make you smarter? Of course the mainstream media wants you to think that!
The stakes of medical misinformation have gotten much higher recently. Particularly around vaccination. Even before COVID we were seeing outbreaks of preventable diseases caused by parents denying their children vaccines. It started out as more of a Hollywood thing, but eventually crept into Middle America.
COVID led to a toxic merger of medical and political misinformation. The right was already enthralled by “alternative facts” that confirmed their worldview (of course Trump’s crowds are bigger!). COVID was particularly inconvenient to Donald Trump, who seemed to judge his job performance by the Dow Jones Industrial Average (not a good indicator of the health of financial markets, let alone the economy). Encouraging people to stay home seemed like a problem for financial markets, so better to just hope that COVID isn’t a big deal. The Kool-Aid, alas, was poisoned. A lot of people died, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average wasn’t spared. Nor was Trump’s presidency, for that matter.
That didn’t stop the misinformation. Deniers found ways to rationalize the excess deaths that were happening (maybe the vaccines killed them!). It seems that political and medical misinformation are fused into a single, toxic package. And plenty of people are buying it.
The low point, arguably, was the improbable U.S. Senate candidacy of Mehmet Oz. Dr. Oz, of Oprah fame, crashed around America for years selling alternative medicine without ever seeming to care about the consequences for the people who took him seriously. Who better to package together a combination of scientific and political misinformation? He was so obvious a choice that Donald Trump boosted his primary campaign.
Part of the problem with this mix of political and medical misinformation coming from MAGA Republicans and their media allies is that people are especially prone to “elite cues” from politicians they identify with. Political scientists like Eric Merkley at the University of Toronto have found that partisans are highly susceptible to misinformation about things like climate change and vaccines if it comes from political figures they support. So having people like Donald Trump and Dr. Oz giving their stamp of approval to absurd ideas is enough to make some people believe. Even if it kills them, which it sometimes did.
It is possible the fever is breaking. As COVID (hopefully) continues to become less lethal and less pervasive, it’s possible a lot of skeptics will just move on. And it’s also possible that the Republican Party will move on from Donald Trump, and eventually return to something resembling sanity. Hell, Dr. Oz and a number of high-profile Trump endorsed candidates lost very winnable seats in the midterms. So maybe things are trending in the right direction. But this is no time for complacency.
We need to be vigilant against misinformation. But we also need to check our own biases. If you find yourself nodding along when you read about a study that suggests goji berries increase your virility, take a second and check some other sources. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy skepticism or orthodoxy, and maybe even a little bit of false hope sometimes. But don’t let that suck you into the vortex of denial. It leads to bad places.
Take a walk outside, talk to your doctor if you’re worried about something, and maybe try to eat a balanced diet. Also, think twice before voting for people who are a bit too casual with the truth. The stakes are much higher than whether or not goji berries will rev you up.
And don’t forget to bring something to listen to the next time you’re driving through the mountains. It gets dark out there.
Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst and columnist with a over a decade of experience working at Canadian think tanks.
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