COVID-19 Government Truthfulness

Truth, Power, and Misinformation in a Health Crisis

Knowledge is power, said Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th century. But today, that aphorism has morphed. Now it seems that misinformation is quite powerful. Governments and politicians have learned that they can censor information simply by overwhelming truth with noise. However, misinformation in a health crisis can be deadly. Truth and public trust are essential.

Government Truthfulness About COVID-19

Researchers from 12 international institutions are collecting data on public perceptions of how their governments are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The map above depicts one of the dimensions they are tracking – government truthfulness.

Early on in this pandemic, China tried to hide it. Authorities silenced a physician who tried to warn about the emerging coronavirus. Ultimately, he became infected and died. Ironically, though, the Chinese government is now getting high marks now for its truthfulness, perhaps because of more recent, strong measures that appear to be working. Wuhan, China, has eased its quarantine now that new infections there are receding.

In contrast, Russia has been denying that it has a problem until very recently. Testing was limited and the government bragged that it had succeeded by sealing off the country. A rising death toll makes those claims questionable. So it’s not surprising that 84 percent of Russian respondents believe their government has been untruthful.

The U.S. is not far behind. 79 percent of American respondents say their government is untruthful about COVID-19.

Canada and Germany get much better marks. Only eight percent of Canadians think their government has lied to them. Nine percent of Germans think so. The numbers for China are not quite as good – 18 percent of respondents think their government has been untruthful. Finally, we note that the UK gets a middling score, with 40 percent saying their government has not been truthful.

Deadly Misinformation in the 1918 Flu Pandemic

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that misinformation was deadly in the global flu pandemic of 1918. Back then, the U.S. government was more interested in promoting patriotism and selling war bonds than warning people about the flu. In fact, authorities suppressed news about it. The results were catastrophic. For example, in Philadelphia a huge Liberty Loan Parade served to spread the disease when people packed the streets at the height of the pandemic.

The U.S. was not alone. Governments all over the world also covered up the so-called Spanish flu. They either banned coverage or simply lied to reporters. Only in Spain was the press uncensored and that’s how the pandemic came to be known as the Spanish flu.

The Power of Privilege in a Pandemic

Privilege confers power in a pandemic. Misinformation can magnify the impact on people who are disenfranchised. When resources are scarce, privilege brings better access to testing and treatment. This will only get worse when the pandemic overwhelms health systems.

Good information, freely available, is the only practical solution. We cannot afford misinformation in a health crisis. It will kill innocent people.

Cick here and here for more on disparities in the pandemic. For more on misinformation and health, click here and here.

Map of Perceived Government Truthfulness About COVID-19. Based on data collected between March 20 and March 27. All averages are weighted by country-population age and gender. We work with sample of countries for which we have at least 200 observations. Data from Caria, Fetzer, Fiorin, Goetz, Gomez, Haushofer, Hensel, Ivchenko, Jachimowicz, Kraft-Todd, Reutskaja, Roth, Witte, Yoeli (2020). Measuring Worldwide COVID-19 Attitudes and Beliefs,

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March 29, 2020

2 Responses to “Truth, Power, and Misinformation in a Health Crisis”

  1. March 29, 2020 at 10:37 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Ted – thank you. As distressing as this post is, it is so important. We have got to get back to a better place in terms of #SciComm and #HealthComm and #Trust.

    In that vein, and related to smoking and vaping and COVID19, I offer up these perspectives from experts gathered by the UK Science Media Centre–posted last night. I would argue these are pretty different messages than American smokers and vapers are receiving–and they both can’t be right, right?

    My employer, PinneyAssociates, provides consulting services on tobacco harm minimization on an exclusive basis to JUUL Labs, Inc., a manufacturer of nicotine vaping products. I also own an interest in an improved nicotine gum that has neither been developed nor commercialized.

  2. March 29, 2020 at 11:16 am, David Eagleton said:

    Trump is willfully lying and depriving the citizens in the United States of the truth about the coronavirus pandemic for his selfish political reasons.

    Trump refuses to follow the guidance of medical experts on how to solve the problem of the coronavirus. He is forcing states to fight against each for Personal Protective equipment, (PPE).

    Trump is favoring red states (states that voted for him in 2016) over blue states when it comes to providing PPE’s, ventilators, and any additional Federal Assistance to mitigate the deadly serious highly contagious coronavirus. Hence, many people are suffering and dying in Blue States, because of Trump’s sadistic actions.