Truth and Debate During COVID

One lesson my students and I learned during the pandemic is that, in politics, our debates don’t rely upon pure reason. Government, media, and popular opinions—all in different ways and for different reasons—are shaped by their factional commitments. And, as we saw during COVID, the internet magnifies the viral nature of ideas, both for good and for ill.

People tend to remember where they were and what they were doing at the moment when they heard the news about 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, or Pearl Harbor. The COVID quarantine restrictions stretched on far too long for there to be any moment of comparable singularity. Still, teachers who have been in class these past two years know that COVID policies have left an indelible impression on the young.

Their acute awareness of the virus often makes it a handy analogy in the classroom settings. It has been especially relevant to my high school class on free speech, because so many quarantine controversies have erupted over who is permitted to say what about the virus. But one lesson my students and I learned during the pandemic is that, in politics, our debates don’t rely on pure reason. Government, media, and popular opinions—all in different ways and for different reasons—are shaped by their factional commitments. And, as we saw during COVID, the internet magnifies the viral nature of ideas, both for good and for ill.

Ideas Spread Like a Virus

We usually frame free-speech issues as clashes between opposing viewpoints, like the Lincoln–Douglas debates. Freedom of speech allows such debates to take place, and we rightly tell ourselves that this gives society the benefit of better thinking on the most important questions.

But we get a somewhat different view from former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. Sharansky is a hero—a Soviet chess prodigy who tried unsuccessfully to emigrate to Israel and was instead sentenced to hard labor. He spent years as a political prisoner, much of it in solitary confinement, until a deal between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev freed him in 1986. Even in solitary confinement, however, Sharansky always knew what was happening in the West, and he knew that the West knew what was happening to him. Perhaps that experience helps explain why Sharansky’s conception of free speech looks less like a debate and more like . . . an epidemic.

Here is how Sharansky and his co-author, Rachel Friedman, describe “fear societies” like the Soviet Union in their essay, “The Centrality of Dissent”:

Every fear society comprises three types of people. True believers are those who genuinely believe in the regime’s official ideology. Doublethinkers, by contrast, have begun to question the reigning dogmas but are too afraid of the consequences of dissent to speak out. Finally, dissidents are those who have crossed the fateful threshold from silent questioning to open critique. Compelled by a deep-seated longing to be free, dissidents brave the consequences of disagreement—harassment, imprisonment, torture, even death—for the right to speak their minds and for others to do the same.

The proportions of these three groups are constantly changing. Although it is impossible to know how many doublethinkers there are, their number tends to increase all the time, as daily restrictions and indignities make people question the justice of their government and the validity of its official creed. Dissidents, for their part, will be few at first, but their courage often inspires others to become outspoken critics themselves. Revolutions take place when enough people simultaneously cross the line from doublethink to open dissent that the regime can no longer contain the upsurge of opposition and must make liberalizing concessions or collapse.

The truth, in this account, tends to spread not in single-combat-style debates, but in a decentralized way. It spreads from person to person, throughout even the most repressive societies, whether it is permitted or not. This bears a striking resemblance to the way a virus moves through society (regardless of our efforts to prevent it). And the similarity explains why we spoke of stories or videos “going viral” long before COVID.

Unfortunately, it is not only truthful information that spreads this way. Indeed, some falsehoods seem to be more “contagious” than the boring old truth, even if (like real viruses) they are ultimately no match for our natural defenses across the whole population. The preposterous rumor that Democrats were running a child trafficking ring out of a family restaurant in northwest Washington had virtually no chance of being widely accepted by healthy minds, but it was a real threat to the compromised, and it caused real harm before it died out. Viral transmission makes that easier to understand.


Bias in Science

But why do false, exaggerated, and misleading ideas spread like viruses? Just as the pandemic began, my class happened to be reading an excerpt from Ezra Klein’s 2019 book, Why We’re Polarized. Klein reviews psychology research suggesting that we often ignore fact and reason in order to maintain good standing with “our” ideological tribe. The disturbing gist is that more information does not necessarily persuade us to switch sides when political loyalties are at stake. Unfortunately, even scientific knowledge is not spared from the effects of ideological sorting on perception.

Klein discusses one experiment in which a thousand people were surveyed for their political views and their math aptitudes and then they were all given a math problem. One version of the problem concerned the effectiveness of a certain skin cream, and people with better math skills figured it out more frequently, as expected. But a politicized version of the problem used all the same numbers within a question about the effectiveness of gun control in reducing the incidence of violent crime. In the politicized version, people reached ideological answers rather than mathematically rational ones; in fact, the better the subjects’ math skills, the more likely they were to use them to reach their ideologically preferred outcomes.

To take the edge off this rather depressing finding, Klein noted the lead researcher’s reassurance “that, most of the time, people are perfectly capable of being convinced by the best evidence. There’s a lot of disagreement about climate change and gun control, for instance, but almost none over whether antibiotics work, or whether the H1N1 flu is a problem. . . .” But after COVID, it’s hard to argue that we are any less susceptible to our ideological biases when considering scientific questions about public health. Both experts and non-experts alike were led astray. There has been much to regret about our public health responses: official flip-flopping on masks and the possible origins of the virus; a monomaniacal focus on one dimension of health without acknowledgment of the inherent trade-offs in health, education, and overall welfare; and I hesitate even to mention the accine-vays. Even publicly funded experts whose primary job is to inform us about public health used their power and prestige to silence qualified scientists who credibly challenged official policies on scientific grounds within the first two months of the lockdowns.

Thus, far from being an exception to the type of “motivated reasoning” Klein worried about, speech and censorship about COVID was a prime example of it. Evidently, scientific establishments are just as likely as other establishments to view dissent as harmful to their interests, which they typically identify with the common good.

Media Planning

But the government wasn’t the only sector that fell prey to motivated reasoning. So too did the media. Our First Amendment protects speech from governmental censorship, and we have historically worried more about public suppression efforts than private ones. Accordingly, many people imagine journalism as an adversarial “check” on censorship. But innovations in technology and commerce have dramatically altered the relationship between journalists and the people they cover. COVID has highlighted some of these long-term trends, and has given us fresh cause to worry about the degree to which governmental and commercial interests affect the substance of what we see and hear—and what we don’t.

In the old days, until perhaps one hundred years ago, reporters mostly waited for interesting things to happen and then collected more information so they could pass it on to their readers. Today, however, as historian Daniel Boorstin pointed out in his groundbreaking 1962 book, The Image, “news” is likely to be planned in advance by public relations consultants—and planned for the purpose of being reported. This has given our news an increasingly make-believe character: we watch players follow their scripts instead of attending to things that are happening spontaneously, or at least more authentically. And it has made reporters increasingly dependent on public officials for the substance of their stories.

In addition, many newspapers are increasingly dependent on private foundations that are overtly trying to shape the reporting. The influence of advertisers is not new. But because newspapers have had to seek solvency beyond advertising revenues, they’ve turned to foundations with special interests for funding. To no one’s surprise, these foundations’ funds influence what stories papers decide to run.

During the pandemic, mainstream reporting on COVID-related issues (and most issues for months on end were COVID-related) stuck closely to the orthodoxies prescribed by government agencies and the private organizations whose interests coincided with those orthodoxies. Nominally non-aligned voices who tried to criticize public policies often found themselves uninvited, de-platformed, demonetized, or otherwise shunned. The performance of the traditional press in this episode was a long way from Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the Watergate scandal.


Two Cheers for The Internet

With government, media, and many citizens being captured by motivated reasoning during the pandemic, the internet simultaneously worsened and ameliorated these trends. One of the many memorable lines in Casablanca is uttered by Rick (Humphrey Bogart) after a young Bulgarian woman asks him about the trustworthiness and character of Captain Renault (Claude Rains): “What kind of a man is Captain Renault?” Rick replies, “Oh, he’s just like any other man, only more so.” That’s the internet. All of the bad things about discourse during the pandemic were on the internet in their most concentrated form. On the internet, groupthink flourished, rumors spread quickly, Twitter accounts were suspended, boycotts were organized, and people were canceled, just like everywhere else.

But also on the internet, the Great Barrington Declaration drew almost a million signatures, including the support of Nobel laureates whose views could not be credibly dismissed. Substack grew on the internet. New outlets expressly dedicated to depolarizing our public discourse found their audiences and flourished on the internet. The dramatically lower costs of online publication certainly do allow cranks to be heard. But online publication also allows us to learn about (and from) serious people who have been wrongly disparaged as cranks—people whose only offense may have been to raise serious questions about a political and scientific establishment that was not exactly conducting itself honorably. And in many cases over the past two years, these so-called cranks have been vindicated while their persecutors have been disgraced by later revelations.


John Stuart Mill, writing in nineteenth-century England, took it for granted that no liberal democratic regime would be so foolish as to suppress popular opinions; it is only the unpopular who need to fear censorship. The internet magnifies this tendency to suppress unpopular opinion by allowing groups of people to pile on people with disliked views.

But the internet also provides new channels for the victims of suppression to keep speaking anyway. Because the internet means more of everything that’s already there, it means whatever is left of truth stands a fighting chance. Thus, even as it amplifies outrage from some quarters, it virtually ensures that the outrage cannot, in the long run, prevent the truth from surviving. We can think of this, as Mill might have, as more and better speech. Or we can think of it, as Natan Sharansky might have, as a potential vector for a truth epidemic. Or we can think of it in more Christian terms, as a way in which a small amount of yeast can leaven a whole loaf.

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