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My Point of View: Disinformation spreads fast like a virus

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson


We have an unhealthy amount of toxic political discourse, and social media has amplified it and allowed disinformation to spread more easily. Democracy is jeopardized when access to truthful content that people trust is muddled by a tidal wave of distorted and dishonest sources. Our institutions have not caught up with the threat.

Having a president engaged in magical thinking about coronavirus is another direct threat. Trump’s denial of some of the best information available from medical experts has helped the virus spread faster. Instead, he prioritizes tamping down economic fears that give the stock market jitters.

Trump actually told Sean Hannity on air last week that people can go to work with coronavirus. That is terrible, potentially deadly advice. Infected workers would most likely spread the virus to others who may suffer a far worse response if they have underlying health conditions. You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to understand this; it’s common sense.

Hopefully people will be shrewd enough to ignore most of Trump’s advice on coronavirus to date (take him neither seriously nor literally, please) because it could cost people their lives. Listen directly to epidemiology experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Ideas spread like viruses, too. John Forman addressed hate among Democrats toward Republicans in his last My Point of View column, and I agree there’s plenty to go around, and it’s unhealthy. Since he’s pointing fingers, I wish he would call it out in his own party as well, because it’s rampant, starting at the top with the president.

I will demonstrate here how easy it is to call out hateful speech in both parties. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “I want to tell you Gorsuch, I want to tell you Kavanaugh — you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price. You won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.”

This was indefensible, over-the-line rhetoric, and Schumer faced swift rebuke from members of both parties and Chief Justice Roberts. Trump piled on as well, as if he has any moral grounds to do so given his history of abusive language toward hundreds of people on Twitter and on stage.

In an example from the Republican side, a local leader made a comment last fall on the Albert Lea Tribune’s Facebook post about Trump’s impeachment. He replied to a woman, “c u next Tuesday.” Take the “c” and the “u” and the first letter of the other two words, and you’ll decode the misogynistic message he directed at this woman.

Is it OK for a local Republican office holder to call a woman a demeaning, sexist slur in a public forum? (Relax, it was probably just a “joke,” right?) Maybe this man thought better of it because he later deleted it. If Forman would like to address this use of toxic language toward women from a member of our local Republican party leadership, I would be happy to send him a screen capture of the exchange.

Forman also implied in his column last week that the Southern Poverty Law Center designates groups opposed to “state-run sex education” as hate groups. The Law Center’s actual definition of a hate group is “an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

For example, the Law Center notes that Sharon Slater of Family Watch International has stated, “Research has proven that homosexuals (mainly the male representatives) have much greater prevalence of pathology than the general population.” This is false, and it’s pernicious to LGBTQ people.

Southern Poverty Law Center also quotes a harmful, half-baked blog post from the American College of Pediatrics: “Driving in this morning I began to wonder. Why isn’t the movement of LGBT not the PLGBT movement: ‘P’ for pedophile? … In one sense, it could be argued that the LGBT movement is only tangentially associated with pedophilia. I see that argument, but the pushers of the movement, the activists, I think have pedophilia intrinsically woven into their agenda.”

These destructive ideas are from organizations that Rep. Peggy Bennett has used other materials from in her opposition to Comprehensive Sex Education legislation. Their underlying arguments are extreme, ignorant and inimical to people in the LGBTQ community.

Given our often bruising and confusing social media environment, it’s more important than ever to cleave to facts, honest criticism and civil language. It’s also critical to support newspapers and other print sources with high journalistic standards. Amid the noise, we are often starved for facts. Disinformation, packaged in easy-to-digest memes, spreads fast like a virus. We have to fight it together.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a  member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.