I have been a life long Democrat with almost 100% alignment with liberal party views. I may even fall a little bit left of left. Nationalized healthcare and free college tuition are both things I believe in. I was raised on NPR in the car with my mom and we had a print subscription to Newsweek magazine that I looked forward to reading at the kitchen table. It’s safe to say that my lifetime exposure to conservative media has been little to none. I had a medschool classmate that would sometimes drive me to school and listen to conservative talk shows on the way, just so he could get fired up and yell, but that hardly provided me with much insight. Mostly, I just thought, why are you doing this to yourself?
But, there has always been a little suspicious voice in my head that has said- how can you totally believe one side of things? There must be some validity to the other side. There is something not quite adding up about this.
Then when Donald Trump got elected, I stopped listening to the news all together. This was a strange interlude for me given my lifelong passion for policy and advocacy. I was President of my Graduate School’s student government and Community Building Chair of the MIT Postdoc Association. In 2015, I co-founded a science advocacy non-profit organization, Academics for the Future of Science (AFS), which was a partner of the national and Boston March for Science and hosted a 200 person science advocacy meeting and workshop at MIT (some pics below).
The election of Donald Trump shocked and traumatized me for so many reasons, pussy grabbing and a disregard for science were not least among them. Frankly, I just shut down when it came to politics. The news was too negative and depressing. I got off social media as well, burying my head in work, doing the mental equivalent of “la-la-la” with fingers in my ears for three years.
That was until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and a strange thing happened. I re-engaged with politics with a whole new pair of eyes. It was pretty hard for me to ignore the pandemic, especially because I was so stringently locked down in my Cambridge apartment, working remotely, having very few people that I could see. I was desperate to make sense of things, desperate for some control over my life, desperate to make sure the people that I love are ok, and desperate for a hug. The pandemic also just happened to be aligned with many things that I have expertise in- medicine, data science, and virology. I am both a medical doctor (not practicing) and I have a PhD. I currently am a Computational Biologist at MIT. My undergraduate and postbac years were spent in virology labs. So I felt compelled to be back on Facebook, talking to friends about the Pandemic, trying to help people navigate it. But at the same time, I was still attempting to mostly ignore the lay press. I was reading almost exclusively science journals and analyzing data myself. And the odd thing is, I was coming to very different conclusions than many of my friends, most of whom are liberal and many of whom have PhDs or MDs or both. For the first time in my life, people were arguing with me and in some cases, mad at me, for what I was saying on Facebook, and it took me by surprise.
Here is an example of this, on March 20th, I posted this “New York is growing exponentially faster than Italy- 8x rise in 5 days- 16k cases- this is holy fucking shit level. Please shelter in place NY even if your government has been catastrophically slow at asking you to do so.” with some analysis that I had done from online databases- (screen shot below). Surprisingly, people on my Facebook page were pushing back with all sorts of untrue things- NY just has done more testing, UV light and hotter months will kill it, it’s not because of not shutting down- NY is just more crowded.
I was baffled. Where were they getting this from? None of this was true from my analysis.
Turns out the answer is that they were getting their info from (and believing) NY Governor, Andrew Cuomo, through the mainstream liberal media. Below is a YouTube video of Cuomo’s press conference with Trump on March 18, 2020. At minute 20:31, he says the following: “As I’ve said every day, the more you test, the more positives you will find.” and “New York is the state that has the most number of cases. Again, you would have to correlate that to how many tests the other states are doing, because the more tests they’re doing, the more cases they will find.” and “Again, perspective, perspective, because we’re fighting the virus, we’re fighting fear. The fear is winning. And the fear is disconnected from the facts. Fear is an emotion. Emotion can often be disconnected from facts, and that’s what happening here.”
And this was quoted and propagated by the news-like CNN’s March 21st article and NBC’s March 21st article – “The more tests you take, the more positives you find,” he said, adding that New York is now conducting more tests per capita than China or South Korea.”
Why is this false information? or blue #fakesciencenews
Because only symptomatic people were being tested. Health insurance wasn’t paying for people without symptoms to be tested (and still isn’t in most places). They were testing more BECAUSE more people were sick, NOT finding more cases because they were testing more. Also the percent positives and hospitalization rates were going up, proving that testing was not the reason for the increased number of cases.
I have to say, I have heard President Trump say these exact same things. The two of them, Trump and Cuomo, have pretty similar rhetoric.
Cuomo also at that time, said that if you told him to shelter-in-place, he personally wouldn’t listen, he’d just go have fun instead. This is documented in this March 18th NBC article:
“NY Gov. Cuomo says no to New York City’s shelter-in-place proposal
March 18, 2020, 12:58 PM EDT / Updated March 18, 2020, 3:46 PM EDT By Tom Winter and Corky Siemaszko
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had some choice words Wednesday for New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to effectively shut the city down to stop the spread of the coronavirus: Not a chance…
Cuomo echoed that point later at a press conference saying, “it just can’t be New York City.”
“I’m from Queens and if you tell me to shelter-in-place I’ll just go stay with my sister in Westchester (County) and have a good time,” he said.”
So in summary, I got yelled at by my educated liberal friends for singling out NYC to shut down because the liberal media was quoting the dangerous and reckless rhetoric and decisions by Andrew Cuomo.
Obviously, we know what happened in NYC after that– 30,000 people died because Cuomo didn’t shut down in time.
That was one example of many of the blue #fakesciencenews stories- aimed at saving Cuomo’s butt (or whatever the political agenda was) that was believed by liberals because it was from a liberal news source.
What about the red #fakesciencenews?
Beginning to understand the perspective of the right and how it was driven by fake science news was a real eye opener for me. The best example of this was a little later on in the pandemic during the first weeks of re-opening. I was VERY worried about the onslaught of rising cases that was about to happen and high-risk people not taking it seriously, including some of my own friends and family. There was a false narrative circulating that somehow the virus was just going to magically disappear, even though places still had lots of cases.
This was being pushed by Trump, Pence, and the conservative media. They were downplaying the virus’s seriousness.
Trump and Pence were also vocally against masks at that time, including by example (see pic below). This was incredibly harmful and a lot of people died unnecessarily because of it.
On June 12th, I posted this to AFS’s Facebook page in order to try and get public health messaging out to save lives:
And the response from the right was illuminating. Below are some screen shots:
What did I make of this? People were mad at Cuomo and rightfully so. I am outraged at his actions personally. People think the virus is a hoax. People are worried about the economy. People are pointing out the hypocrisy of the liberal media saying that protests don’t spread COVID but reopening does. Here are some more responses:
That top one is just amazing (and racist of course, no excuses for that). More calling out of hypocrisy of protests vs. reopening.
The above posts were my first introduction to the Bill Gates microchipping conspiracy theory and to Agenda 21. The top post does also have some valid points about confusion about death rates, unreliable tests, media induced hysteria, and bogus treatments that are killing people. And so I actually found myself agreeing with some of the things being said. And more importantly, I was starting to get why people would feel this way.
People were also very confused and eager to talk about the math behind the death rates etc. When people realized that I wasn’t just some liberal propaganda bot, the convos were really very constructive on the whole. Below is one of the many back and forths I had about the math.
And people were scared. Especially older and higher risk people.
It became clear to me that any public health messaging needed to start with empathy and understanding. This pandemic is super scary for so many people.
Perhaps counterintuitively, I actually left these convos feeling better about the world. Because for the first time, I was seeing both sides of the political debate and understanding some of why people were feeling the way they do on the other side.
Underlying all of this, was a single sentiment actually. We don’t trust what is being told to us by the media, doctors, and the government because it doesn’t add up.
And that, I agree with. The media and politicians on both the right and the left are self-interested and manipulating people. They are either paternalistically lying to the public because they don’t trust them to be responsible if told the truth or they are callously using the public for political or financial gain. People are seeing through that and don’t know what, how, or who to trust anymore. And I think that is breeding dangerous conspiracy theories.
I think our government is treating Americans like children that need to be lied to for their own good. Except it’s not for their own good, it’s actually super dangerous.
The whole “masks don’t work thing” by CDC and media in the beginning of the pandemic is a prime example of this- it really back-fired later on when politicians wanted people to wear masks and the public didn’t know whether to trust that they work. It engendered mistrust and suspicion and rightfully so. We need to give people the full story. This includes nuanced information about COVID numbers. People are curious and calculating numbers themselves. They are seeing through the simple inaccurate stories the media is telling with math that doesn’t add up.
Leading up to the November Presidential election, I have noticed that people are pointing fingers at each other across the aisle, blaming one another for the bad outcomes of this pandemic. That too is caused by politicians and the media pitting us against each other for their own gain.
I do think we have a common enemy, but it’s not our fellow Americans. It’s the fake science news and corrupt politicians that lie to people. It’s not the right OR the left that is corrupt, it’s the right AND the left.
This is hopeful to me because I think it’s a way forward. If we can hold the media and politicians accountable for their lies and manipulation, it will be a lot easier to agree on common sense public health policies and have a calm, clear, unified plan. But that first part is the part we need to focus on, the fake news and political corruption, not on blaming each other.
I am grateful to the people that opened up to me on both sides of the political spectrum, shared their views, and allowed me to see more clearly.
I have to say that all in all, it feels pretty good to be purple.