Justin F. Thulin: Systematic disinformation is killing Americans and poisoning our democracy

President Donald Trump participates in a video teleconference call with members of the military on Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020, at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Systematic disinformation regarding COVID-19, promulgated by the Trump administration and abetted by the right-wing media and by leaders in Republican states, is killing Americans.
An Associated Press analysis of the 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita revealed that 93% had voted for Trump, a rate above other less severely hit areas.
That COVID-19 infection is spiking in a majority of states throughout the nation is indisputable. Record daily case counts, test positivity rates, hospitalizations, and deaths all indicate that the coronavirus is rampaging across our nation. No well-educated citizen could seriously claim otherwise.
So why, according to an AP VoteCast nationwide survey of more than 110,000 voters, did 36% of counties that voted for Trump describe the pandemic as completely or mostly under control, and another 47% say it was somewhat under control?
The simplest reason is that they are being told by the president of the United States that the pandemic is under control, that it will “miraculously one day just go away,” and probably very soon after election day.
The president has 80 million followers on Twitter. His message is supported and amplified by a right-wing media ecosystem including most notably Fox News, the most watched primetime network, who despite understanding reality, purposely parrot the president’s lies.
In concert with the right wing media, politicians in Republican-led states have shunned mask mandates by speciously claiming that the wearing of masks infringes unacceptably on “personal liberty and freedom.”  This lie is especially rich. States’ own laws regarding drinking and driving, speed limits, wearing seat belts and smoking in indoor public spaces highlight the wise restrictions our states regularly put on our “freedom.
Although the almost viral propagation of misinformation and manipulation of citizens is literally killing us, too many Americans are completely unaware that they are being lied to and manipulated. This must stop.
Joe Biden won the 2020 Electoral College vote 306 to 232, and the public vote by over 6 million votes. While there is no credible evidence of fraud, the latest poll from The Economist/YouGov shows that 88% of those who voted for Donald Trump think that the election result is illegitimate.

Why? Because Trump is saying so on Twitter, to reporters, and to anyone else who will listen. Secretary of State Pompeo and Republican senators with presidential aspirations in 2024 covet MAGA voters, and accordingly, lend credence to his lies. Right-wing media personalities, who profit handsomely by stoking outrage and resentment, merely fan the flames. Few seem to care that their dishonesty and manipulation of the public is damaging a foundational pillar of democracy, the sanctity of the vote.
In order for democracy to prosper, Americans must be able to discuss issues of national import using the same facts.  For example, when Republicans scream “socialism” about any democrat’s economic plan, this is fear-mongering and misleading. Karl Marx’s socialism is when the working class overthrows the owners and takes over the means of production. Not a single major-party candidate in American history has recommended this. Yet in almost every national election, Republicans, abetted by the far-right media, try to scare Americans by framing a democratic candidate’s economic plan as “socialist.”
Reality is far different. Americans of all political persuasions overwhelmingly support government subsidized social programs. Medicare, the subsidized government health plan for citizens 65 years old and older, and Social Security, the government subsidized retirement plan, are both very popular. When the right fear-mongers about democrats’ supposed desire to turn our nation into a “socialist” European one, they fail to point out that most European nations are in fact, free market democracies with an array of social programs, like Medicare and Social Security, that voters overwhelmingly support. Given the greying of our population, and the programs’ anticipated budget deficits, it would be far better to plan how to fund these essential programs.
In sum, the Trump administration’s lies about COVID-19, amplified by Fox News and other right-wing media have caused over 100,000 avoidable deaths. Incredibly, almost 75% of Trump voters have been deceived into believing that COVID-19 is being reasonably controlled, when in reality, just the opposite is true.
Deliberate lying and manipulation of the public is also poisoning political discourse. Discussion of the pros and cons of different economic policies and the sustainability of critical programs such as Medicare and Social Security are deliberately debased by scaremongering rather than using shared facts to explain the implications and trade-offs of different policies and programs.
If we desire a robust democracy, we must embrace facts and a shared truth. Just as we must quarantine those with COVID-19 to prevent communal spread, we must stop purveyors of disinformation from thriving and proliferating.  
It’s a matter of life and death for our citizens, and increasingly, for the health of our democracy.

Justin F. Thulin

Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.
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