Counter-Disinformation Is Dead

The New York Times maintains a Coronavirus tips and advice section, with an updated publication date (as of this posting) of March 24, 2020 and an initial publication date of March 18, 2020. In response to the question “Should I wear a mask?” the Times writes:

No. Unless you’re already infected, or caring for someone who is, a face mask won’t help. And stockpiling them can do more harm than good, making it harder for nurses and other workers to access the resources they need to help on the front lines.

On March 17, 2020, the New York Times published an article by Zeynep Tufecki explaining that face masks – not medical-grade respirator masks such as N95 masks but simple disposable surgical masks – do provide some generalized protection for non-infected individuals. And given that many infected individuals do not know they are infected, mask-wearing could also cut down on asymptomatic transmission. Tufecki cited publicly available medical information from reputable sources to support her assertions. More importantly, she observed that Asian countries have informally and formally mandated universal mask wearing to cut down on viral transmission:

Places like Hong Kong and Taiwan that jumped to action early with social distancing and universal mask wearing have the pandemic under much greater control, despite having significant travel from mainland China. Hong Kong health officials credit universal mask wearing as part of the solution and recommend universal mask wearing. In fact, Taiwan responded to the coronavirus by immediately ramping up mask production.

It is true that improperly worn masks do not help as much as properly worn masks, but publication of instructions for proper fitting and use might help the public properly wear them. It is true that there is a shortage of masks of all kinds, but telling the public an easily discoverable falsehood is not just deceptive but also hilariously incompetent:

[M]any health experts, including the surgeon general of the United States, told the public simultaneously that masks weren’t necessary for protecting the general public and that health care workers needed the dwindling supply. This contradiction confuses an ordinary listener. How do these masks magically protect the wearers only and only if they work in a particular field?

“Masks won’t help” – and specifically “unless you are already infected or caring for someone who is, a face mask won’t help” – is a categorical, simple, and falsifiable assertion. And it is false. Masks do help. Not perfectly. Not without competent use. But they are better than no masks, especially given that many may not know they are infected until it is too late. In a time of mask rationing, it is of course critical that medical staff get masks of any kind so that they can care for the public. But telling people easily discoverable falsehoods may have the opposite intended effect:

It used to be said that back in the Soviet Union, if there was a line, you first got in line and then figured out what the line was for — people knew that there were going to be shortages and that the authorities often lied, so they hoarded. And when people feel as though they may not be getting the full truth from the authorities, snake-oil sellers and price gougers have an easier time.

Tufecki did not reveal any novel or esoteric information. She merely reported what many people – including the government and citizens of many Asian states – already know. And as of the writing of this post, the updated NYT page still contains the quoted paragraph about masks. And all of this is secondary to the point I am going to make in short order.

The counter-disinformation agenda is dead. I am not going to rehash too much of why it has been decaying here, please read this if you are interested. But it is deader than a dodo.

One of the counter-disinformation agenda’s many assumptions is that disinformation is primarily bottom-up rather than top-down. But the New York Times – not Macedonian teenagers, not Russian bots and trolls, not MAGA red hat posters – is circulating blatant disinformation. And as Tufecki has noted, media actors are likely taking their cues from higher-order entities like the Surgeon General, who have similarly opted to deceive the public.

Another critical assumption of the counter-disinformation agenda is that prestige media sources can be relied on as “ground truth” bases in the wilds of social media. But the New York Times is deceiving its readers, perhaps not realizing that they can read Tufecki’s op-ed – ALSO PUBLISHED AT THE NEW YORK TIMES – that patiently explains how and why it is a deception. So I repeat. The counter-disinformation agenda is dead. I am not here to bury it, I don’t have a mask and I’d rather stay inside.

What the New York Times has done is not the only reason why it is dead, but the baldness of its deception is too symbolically powerful to ignore. The counter-disinformation agenda must be abandoned because its assumptions are clearly no longer tenable. We need a different approach for improving our epistemic health. And it will have to emerge out of the wreckage of the old approach, which is collapsing before our eyes as the virus comes for our friends, colleagues, and loved ones.