Letter to the Editor: Concern expressed over misinformation, distorted facts

Published 7:39 pm Saturday, April 30, 2022

To whom it may concern –

I just came home from a week in Corolla, continuing my family’s decades-long tradition of visiting the Outer Banks whenever we can manage it. It was fantastic, as always, with the recently added joy of seeing my own daughters discovering the wonder of the ocean on the same beach where I discovered it many years ago.

Unfortunately, the trip was marred by one incident that, while fairly minor, has stayed with me.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

On the second morning of our visit, I went to a Corolla grocery store to grab some breakfast necessities. As I was paying for my items at the self-checkout, I overheard a quiet argument between a customer and a staff member. It quickly became clear that they were discussing wearing masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19, with the customer arguing in favor of masking (though he was not wearing a mask) and the grocery store employee arguing against it.

This letter is not about masks, or at least not primarily so – it is about misinformation, and the terrible damage it is doing to every level of public trust. It is about this because in making his argument, the employee cited an extremely specific piece of information – that the flu killed 400,000 people in 2019.

That is substantially correct. A National Institutes of Health study (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6815659/) estimates between 290,000 and 650,000 flu deaths per year worldwide, with an average of 389,000 deaths per year during the period studied (2002-2011). Not 400,000, but close, and an average of many years rather than 2019 specifically, but not wildly off the mark.

Of course, those are worldwide numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s estimates (cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/pastseasons.html), the flu killed an estimated 39,000 Americans in the 2018-2019 season, and 22,000 in 2019-2020. By those numbers, over two years, the flu probably killed (or contributed significantly to the deaths of) 61,000 Americans.

Over two years, COVID-19 has killed nearly 1,000,000 Americans (982,663 per the CDC’s data at the time of this writing: covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_dailydeaths). Masking in the US has been a spotty, haphazard practice throughout the pandemic, but that death toll would almost certainly be far higher had no one ever donned an N95 for a trip to the store (see ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7883189/forbes.com/sites/johndrake/2022/02/04/the-real-world-effectiveness-of-face-masks-against-covid-19).

That brings us to misinformation. As I said at the outset, the number of flu deaths the employee mentioned was not wildly wrong, but it was misleading. As he employed it, it was a number that sounded impressive – 400,000 deaths are a lot, after all.

In context, though, it means very little – it is a very small fraction of the people killed by COVID-19, the disease driving the customer’s argument in favor of masking.

The employee did not make that number up. It was too specific and far too close to correct to be pulled from thin air. Someone put the number in front of him for the purpose of convincing him that masking was pointless or hypocritical or otherwise objectionable.

Someone chose that number to make the case that a minor inconvenience in the service of protecting yourself and your community from a deadly disease is something to be derided and campaigned against.

Someone looked at that real, verifiable statistic and deliberately stripped it of context to make people believe choosing not to act to protect themselves and others is somehow smarter than the alternative.

We stayed overnight in Morehead City on the way up from Georgia so that we could take the ferry to Ocracoke, the girls’ first time on a boat larger than a canoe. Before we left the hotel, the girls (predictably) begged to watch some cartoons, so I flipped on the TV.

The last guest had apparently been watching Fox News, so we were greeted by a snippet of a video of Dr. Anthony Fauci saying something like “The best vaccination is to get infected.”

The caption added by Fox News did correctly show that the clip was from 2004, which means that Dr. Fauci could not have been discussing COVID-19, which was fifteen years in the future at that point.

As with the flu numbers, this piece of data was correct. It was a fact. In 2004, Dr. Fauci said that getting infected provided the best immunity to something. Not COVID-19, but something.

What was the point of sharing that now, fully seventeen years on, as we struggle with a global pandemic worse than any other we’ve seen in a century?

Again, this is an instance of someone – many people, in the case of a broadcast on a major cable news network – choosing to present a factual piece of information in a way that downplays or removes important caveats to argue for… what, exactly? That we shouldn’t even try to protect ourselves or our communities from something that has killed nearly a million of our fellow Americans and more than six million people worldwide? That choosing not to mildly inconvenience ourselves to slow its spread somehow honors those who died from an unrelated disease three years ago?

The goal is not necessarily related to COVID-19 at all. It’s not about masks or vaccines. It’s about eroding trust, creating a world in which facts have no meaning beyond their utility as attacks against anyone who disagrees with you, or as justifications for choices that, in reality, have nothing to do with them. That is the world the people who very deliberately picked these facts seek to create.

I’m not writing this to shame some random grocery store employee, and I certainly don’t want retaliation of any kind to befall him. I wrestled with the idea of going back and talking to him, but it seemed pointless – the same sources that fed him deliberate distortions have almost certainly provided many rejoinders to any arguments I could make, so what’s the point? I went back to my family and my vacation.

This has continued to nag at me, though, because it means that the peddlers of distortion and misinformation have succeeded. If I am convinced that there’s no point offering a different perspective, even one that starts with “The number you just mentioned is correct, but…”, our trust in the definition of “facts” is already terribly eroded – not to mention our trust in each other.

I don’t know who benefits from the erosion of trust in our society, but that doesn’t seem like the desired outcome of someone with our best interests at heart, and I can’t let go of the sense that that relatively minor disagreement at the grocery store is compelling evidence that they’re getting exactly what they want.

If we are left unable to find common ground on even simple, minimally invasive steps to stem a deadly pandemic, how can we possibly respond effectively to other threats? How can we find common ground to address anything that faces us? We become warring tribes, armed with distorted factoids that do nothing but muddy the waters, leaving us unprepared and vulnerable, literally dying en masse because we refuse to believe each other.

Who benefits from that? Do we want to help them achieve that goal?


Aaron Karp

Decatur, Georgia