Social Media, Political Rhetoric, and Public Health in the COVID Era: An Issue of Trust

Social Media, Political Rhetoric, and Public Health in the COVID Era: An Issue of Trust

by Andrew Guo | Edited by Cecilia Kim

On December 12th, 2019, in Wuhan, China, a group of patients checked into their local hospitals with high-grade fevers, acute fatigue, and respiratory pneumonia. For several weeks, the cause of their symptoms eluded public health officials. Little could they have known that this mysterious ailment, caused by a novel coronavirus, would soon result in a global pandemic that would leave close to a million dead in the United States alone.

Watching the progression of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been, to say the least, terrifying. Two years ago, the thought of a pandemic barely registered in the American consciousness; COVID-19 is the new normal. In the United States, its growing impact has left industries in tatters, social orders upended, and sixty million people infected with the disease. One would assume that a public health crisis of such severity would necessitate an equally strong response from our public health institutions. Yet, faith in these institutions has significantly waned over the course of the pandemic. In a survey published last year by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, researchers found that at the beginning of 2021, positive ratings for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had declined to 54%, compared to 70% in 2015. The survey also found that positive ratings for the US public health system had dropped to 34%. These results reveal a concerning irony – that an ongoing erosion of trust pervades civilian relationships with public health systems, the systems designed to protect the US public amid crises like COVID-19. 

However, this lack of trust in US public health institutions varies significantly with political ideology. In the same study conducted at Harvard,  74% and 66% of surveyed Democrats gave positive ratings to the CDC and the National Institute of Health (NIH), respectively. In comparison, only 30% and 28% of Republicans gave positive ratings for these same institutions. Though politics has always been tied to public health, most experts agree that COVID-19 has only cemented this unhealthy association even more. In light of these observations, we must ask ourselves: how has politics led so many to distrust our public health institutions? And what has facilitated this progression over the last two years? A review of the literature points to the looming culprit – social media.

In a recent podcast episode between MIT researcher Lex Fridman and world-renowned evolutionary biologist Manolis Kellis, one theme was particularly relevant: the digital nature of modern-day social interaction. We live in an age where social media and communication are inextricably intertwined; through its capacity to connect users to vast networks of people, social media has unlocked unprecedented volumes of information sharing. As Kellis explains in a podcast segment, while this “democratization of information” possesses inherent beauty, it also comes with hidden dangers. Democratizing information so that it can be made available by and to anyone places a burden on consumers to distinguish for themselves the difference between fact and opinion. Evidence shows, however, that social media has done more to blur this boundary than clarify it. On social media platforms, facts no longer remain separate from opinions; rather, the two are conflated.

This mixture – between fact and opinion – has created significant implications within the ongoing dialogue about COVID-19 and public health. In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers analyzed 16,959 tweets from Democrats and Republicans with large followings. The results showed that conservatives expressed significantly less favorable vaccine-related sentiments and focused more on false and misleading vaccine side effects, distrust of medical professionals, anti-masking policies, and conspiracy theories about public health. Though this finding seems rather unsurprising, its repercussions, when situated in the context of social media and its rhetoric, are profoundly dangerous: these politically-motivated opinions, though ill-informed, are often mistaken for facts by media consumers when amplified in political echo chambers. And when ill-informed opinions about public health measures are mistaken for fact, they create a downstream effect, distorting the way people respond to future actions taken by public health institutions. 

 A functional public health system requires the cooperation and, by extension, the trust of its civilians. Therefore, as we move forward with COVID-19, we must work to repair this relationship rather than undermine it with political rhetoric. This is the only way in which civilians will once again come to understand that public health institutions truly work for the good and wellness of the people.

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