Sep 12, 2019 - Politics & Policy

The misinformation age

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Hostile powers undermining elections. Deepfake video and audio. Bots and trolls, phishing and fake news — plus of course old-fashioned spin and lies.

Why it matters: The sheer volume of assaults on fact and truth is undermining trust not just in politics and government, but also in business, tech, science and health care as well.

  • Beginning with this article, Axios is launching a series to help you navigate this new avalanche of misinformation, and illuminate its impact on America and the globe, through 2020 and beyond.

Our culture now broadly distrusts most claims to truth. Majorities of Americans say they've lost trust in the federal government and each other — and think that lack of trust gets in the way of solving problems, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

  • That's the worst part of all, as Axios' Felix Salmon points out: Even a small amount of misinformation infects everything and makes it much easier for people to disbelieve any fact.

The backstory: This didn't happen overnight, and has more than one root cause:

  • The rise of partisan TV news in the U.S., led by Fox and now widespread throughout cable news, broke the homogenizing and unifying hold of the old TV networks.
  • The internet sped things up and broke them down. It gave everyone a megaphone, allowing wider participation in political dialogue but also accelerating the spread of unvetted information and amplifying the most raucous and extreme voices.

This is the fertile ground on which bad actors today are merrily scattering the seeds of doctored videos, bogus memes, political slurs and other species of misinformation.

  • As Axios' Sara Fischer and Kaveh Waddell reported last month, misinformation tactics in the 2020 election are getting more sophisticated. New twists include smarter bots, pages and accounts that build a following before spreading deception, and a shift from mass platforms to more obscure and less monitored venues.

But it's not just the election. Today, misinformation is coming at us from all directions:

  • It's used against our government by international criminals.
  • It's also used by our government, with a president whose Twitter feed needs a fact check for practically every tweet.
  • It's used against businesses, by competitors and short-sellers who hope to profit from rumor.
  • It's also used by businesses on topics like climate science or tobacco research when the facts might harm their bottom lines.
  • It's used against social media platforms by partisans on the right making unsubstantiated charges of bias.
  • It's used against scientists when their findings, in areas like gun violence, reproductive health or (again) global warming, clash with deeply held partisan positions.
  • And it becomes a public health threat every time misinformation warriors clustered on both left and right spread doubt, yet again, about vaccines.
  • More than anywhere else, it's a huge problem for the news media, where public trust is at historic lows.

Between the lines: Our misinformation apocalypse has many contributors across the political spectrum, but one group benefits: authoritarians. They flourish when citizens overwhelmed with bad information give up on trying to figure out the truth.

The bottom line: We won't be able to solve our problems if we can't even agree which ones are real.

Go deeper:

Misinformation haunts 2020 primaries

New fake-news worry for Instagram

The coming deepfakes threat to businesses

The 2020 campaigns aren't ready for deepfakes

Go deeper

The wreckage of summer

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

We usually think of Memorial Day as the start of the summer, with all of the fun and relaxation that goes with it — but this one is just going to remind us of all of the plans that have been ruined by the coronavirus.

Why it matters: If you thought it was stressful to be locked down during the spring, just wait until everyone realizes that all the traditional summer activities we've been looking forward to are largely off-limits this year.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 5,410,228 — Total deaths: 345,105 — Total recoveries — 2,169,005Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 1,643,499 — Total deaths: 97,722 — Total recoveries: 366,736 — Total tested: 14,163,915Map.
  3. World: White House announces travel restrictions on Brazil, coronavirus hotspot in Southern Hemisphere Over 100 coronavirus cases in Germany tied to single day of church services — Boris Johnson backs top aide amid reports that he broke U.K. lockdown while exhibiting symptoms.
  4. Public health: Officials are urging Americans to wear masks headed into Memorial Day weekend Report finds "little evidence" coronavirus under control in most statesHurricanes, wildfires, the flu could strain COVID-19 response
  5. Economy: White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett says it's possible the unemployment rate could still be in double digits by November's election — Public employees brace for layoffs.
  6. Federal government: Trump attacks a Columbia University study that suggests earlier lockdown could have saved 36,000 American lives.
  7. What should I do? Hydroxychloroquine questions answeredTraveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

The CDC is warning of potentially "aggressive rodent behavior" amid a rise in reports of rat activity in several areas, as the animals search further for food while Americans stay home more during the coronavirus pandemic.

By the numbers: More than 97,700 people have died from COVID-19 and over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Over 366,700 Americans have recovered and more than 14.1 million tests have been conducted.