It can be so difficult, the 40-something mother of two was telling me, to know what to believe. Reliable, undistorted information is in such short supply. People will just take as fact whatever they see on TikTok or the news ...
Wait, what? Did she just equate the short-form video social media platform with mainstream journalism? Did she just juxtapose the app that introduced us to a cranberry juice-swigging, Fleetwood Mac-loving skateboarder (and literally hundreds of inspired copycats and satirists) with an essential pillar of democracy?
I believe she did.
The topic of our conversation in this case was, of course, the safety and efficacy of the widely available COVID-19 vaccines, particularly as it’s viewed in vaccination-averse Kern County, but it might have been just about anything.
In the past decade, information discernment, as a skill vital to the practice of responsible citizenship, has taken a huge hit: The ability to sort fact from fakery, neutral from agenda-driven, the credible from the suspect, seems to have evaporated.
The only thing in shorter supply than reality-based awareness is, plain and simple, just caring enough to question. Too many don’t, so they just go along with what they hear at the hair salon or on Facebook. If the alpha in the group (and it’s so much easier to be an alpha on social media than in real life) declares that it’s so, the meek and uninformed become their parrots.
I’ve said this before: What we need in schools today is the 2021 version of "duck and cover" — mandated classroom baloney-sniffing exercises. Except, unlike the Cold War-era version of "duck and cover," realistic, useful exercises. I think we used to call these civics or social studies classes.
When I first wrote about “duck and cover” civics a couple of years ago, however, the context was our former president’s relationship with the national media. “Fake news” was often simply inconvenient news, and the national media didn’t help by sometimes being wrong or overwrought.
But now the issue is not simply politics, governance and national character, it’s life and death. Some 673,000 thousand Americans have died from a virus that millions still consider overblown. More than 70 percent of Californians are fully vaccinated but only 41.3 percent of Kern County residents, a figure that puts us right there with Mississippi (41.7 percent), Alabama (41 percent) and West Virginia (40.1 percent). Yes, familiar company.
Kudos to that young mother for recognizing that those smug, condescending selfie videos that populate the TikTok universe, alongside wacky pool pranks and heavy-metal guitar players, might be long on authoritative-sounding, partisan bluster and short on fact.
But “the news”? On the same reliability level as TikTok? Well, this much is true: The top-ranked TV news shows aren’t news shows at all, but highly rated platforms for hyperpartisan celebrity commentators who either denounce vaccination efforts or, over on that other network, applaud them. The middle ground, “it should be your choice,” is not middle ground at all, because herd immunity probably depends on a vaccination rate approaching 100 percent. Researchers still don’t know what the target percentage for COVID-19 might be, but for measles it’s 95 percent; for polio it's 80 percent. So, suffice to say, Kern County and its Southern brethren have a long way to go.
The most popular justifications for vaccine hesitancy, as the euphemism labels it, have been effectively shot down, although you wouldn’t know by immersing yourself in TikTok.
The research was done too quickly (it wasn’t: mRNA vaccines have been under development since the 2002-04 SARS outbreak); it wasn't fully FDA-approved (three vaccines received emergency authorization and the Pfizer vaccine has now been fully approved); it contains microchips, alters your DNA, magnetizes you or causes infertility (no, no, no and no).
Even if your Facebook friend told you so. Even if your friend is a nurse.
As Melody Butler, a nurse at New York’s Long Island Community Hospital and the executive director of the nonprofit Nurses Who Vaccinate, told NPR on Saturday, widespread misinformation is at work in hospitals, too, especially among nurses who are not typically taught the ins and outs of vaccine research. The vaccination gap between physicians and nurses, she told NPR, comes down to an education gap.
"When you have these new diseases popping up, it's really on nurses to educate themselves on what the research is," Butler said. "... We are seeing the nurses who weren't trained to recognize poorly written studies, they weren't trained to recognize anti-vaccine propaganda. And it's very convincing."
We don’t hear the term "fake news" used all that much these days, certainly not as cavalierly as a couple of years ago, but it’s not because news media have suddenly had their hard-won, decades-proven credibility restored.
Echo-chamber journalism and social media know-it-allism have lurched into the lead in this race for the hearts and minds of Americans.
The only solution: Keep showing our kids how to use their mobile phones, and their brains, as tools to cut through the baloney. Or keep trying. There’s more riding on it than some politician’s reelection campaign.
Editor's Note: This column has been updated to reflect the correct number of people who have died of COVID in the United States.