Coronavirus Misinformation, the Matrix, and Freedom

How accepting a different reality is a sure way to depart it altogether.

It isn’t a secret that the American right-wing has downplayed the threat of the coronavirus right before switching its tone when things took a turn for the far worse, but what has been equally interesting to observe within, is the receptiveness to falsehood many seemed to exhibit. If media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart are starting to show less resistance to the common public narrative, their core of unwavering support is still pushing — albeit with small numbers — for the current state of social distancing to be over, graduating misinformation from a mere annoyance to a legitimate threat to public safety.

Part of why misinformation is so alluring when a narrative sweeps the public discourse so quickly is the natural impulse to be skeptical–America’s cultural apparatus is notorious for birthing some of the most memorable staples in the realm of conspiracy theories. Chemtrails, moon landing trutherism, 9/11 being an inside job, lizard people controlling things from behind–whatever most absurd interpretation of history one could possibly think of, America’s conspiracy nuts have it already beat. But the coronavirus has brought a new element to the table–the reality of the pandemic is so grim and dark, it has given an active impetus to envelop oneself in a Matrix-like approximation of reality, all under the veil of claiming liberty when the alternative is much harder to stomach.

The Matrix is often invoked in the context of arguing whether our current reality isn’t just a simulation, and our far-flung observations may be data we’re fed to believe otherwise–but a powerful version of that theory is the reality we shape around ourselves through our own beliefs and biases. When social distancing hit, feeling isolated from a group seems to have kicked our survival anxieties into high gear–somehow, ensuring the sustenance of public gatherings became an end to whose attainment any means could be deployed, which prompted challengers of government authority to reflexively retaliate.

Aside from the disconcerting nature of untamed human contact during a pandemic, one can’t help but be worried at the prospect of a low-infection rate within these gatherings fueling further skepticism in public health officials’ recommendations–the fact that protests are able to happen with relative impunity at all, is a testament to how effective social distancing has been at averting a far more catastrophic outcome. Without ignoring the simple fact that coronavirus deniers are aloof to how viral transmission works, many of their far-fetched conspiracies will gain further ground precisely because of the majority’s refusal to be complacent–the current models of the pandemic would look noticeably harsher if social distancing wasn’t standard fare.

So much of the current discourse around misinformation abords it in mere abstract terms. “An estranged suburban white kid discovers a crypto-fascist on YouTube and is suddenly thrust into the alt-right pipeline,” the script often goes, but rarely talked about in tandem is the real impact it can have on people’s lives–not just those who consume misinformation, but others who’ve not consented one bit to their faulty information diets. The coronavirus highlights an edge case where free exchange of information does not nearly justify the costly outcomes–some leaders with authoritarian tendencies around the world have used it as an excuse to further consolidate their power, but there’s a version of this where it can be harnessed for the public good, and not at the expense of democracy and free press. Unfortunately, the latter approach has only been adopted by a select few as most of the globe has either veered on the side of valuing an empty shell of normalcy over reducing harm, or repressing information to the point where reporting low numbers became more important than risking economic stalemate.

The ease with which the internet has allowed information to spread is partly to blame for this, but even harder to quantify is whether the boons make up for the banes–it is empirically true that the internet has brought about a net benefit to our global information ecology, but the coronavirus seems to have highlighted that even the slightest percentage of a misinformation-cosigning populace can greatly endanger the rest with next to no effort. Trust in reputable sources of information could be at an all-time high, but if the few who coast on others’ awareness still profess otherwise, the benefits are self-canceling at most–particularly in the United States, a hands-off approach from how speech spreads online justified under the first amendment perfectly underscores why an originalist interpretation of said principle is archaic for the internet age.

Some might say that judging our institutions on the current state of affairs is unfair, but what good is an institution if it can’t withstand the adverse conditions it was precisely built to temper? Between a subpar response from the Trump administration and a general distrust in mainstream media, this was bound to create the perfect environment for supercharging political fissures within. But the key difference now, is that it’s no longer about slogans or pieces of clothing–the far-right’s appeal to rejecting social distancing has proven catastrophic outcomes, and this is not the time to voice vacuous political statements like “Give me liberty, or give me death!” when it’s obvious no one making them is that committed.

One of the longest standing rules of civil society is that we stomach the failures of some, compromise with them, and hope that our collective civilizational triumphs will make up for lost progress–the coronavirus challenges the very foundation of liberal democracy by pointing out all the ways in which raising an entire generation on the promise of unconditional freedom can very quickly backfire when governments behave more responsibly than individuals. In the greatest show of irony, much of MAGA Country seems to have retained only but the superficial conclusions of America’s founding documents–it is truly an indictment of modern society that instruments of public safety are viewed as more lethal than what is likely going to be the deadliest pandemic in a century’s time.