No sacred cows

The stories that are too good to check

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

Last weekend, Rolling Stone ran a story about an interview an emergency room doctor had given to a local news station in which, according to the TV reporter, he’d said hospitals in his state were so swamped with patients who’d overdosed on ivermectin that gunshot victims were struggling to be seen. For context, ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug used for deworming horses that has been touted by vaccine sceptics as an effective prophylactic against Covid-19. For boosters of the Covid vaccines, this story was manna from heaven. Here were a bunch of hicks so dumb they were stuffing themselves with horse pills rather than getting jabbed, with predictably disastrous results.

There was only one problem — it wasn’t true. A hospital in rural Oklahoma that had worked with the ER doctor issued a statement saying it hadn’t treated any patients with complications arising from taking ivermectin. Two days later, Rolling Stone issued a clarification saying it had been ‘unable to independently verify any such cases’. Pity it didn’t try to verify the story before publishing it, but then it probably fell under the heading of ‘too good to check’. That was the attitude of various media organisations that rehashed the story without bothering to confirm it, including the Guardian, Newsweek, the New York Daily News, Business Insider, The Hill and MSNBC. Incredibly, the host of a show on CNN called No Lie repeated it, as did the best-selling author of a book debunking anti–vaccine myths. Perhaps the icing on the cake is that this little nugget of fake news was regurgitated by an academic at the University of Maryland who specialises in ‘mis/disinformation’.

Needless to say, Twitter didn’t suspend any of its users for trafficking in falsehoods and nor did any ‘independent fact-checkers’ on Facebook flag the story as wrong. This is the type of in-accurate anecdote that the self-appointed scourges of ‘mis-information’ are happy to ignore because it confirms their prejudices about vaccine sceptics being ignorant rubes. As a rule, any story that challenges the official narrative about coronavirus is scrutinised by these gatekeepers in forensic detail, while those that support it, like this one, are given a free pass. That explains why journalists at papers like the Guardian were quick to dismiss the lab-leak hypothesis about the origins of Sars-CoV-2, yet lapped up fanciful stories linking the Great Barrington Declaration to unscrupulous businessmen worried about their profits.

Of course, many vaccine sceptics really are conspiracy theorists, and they look at this flagrant double standard when it comes to ‘misinformation’ and see an organised attempt to quash dissent. For them, the Covid ‘hoax’ is part of a diabolical plan hatched by Bill Gates and his billionaire cronies to replicate China’s social credit system across the West, partly to enrich themselves, partly to consolidate their power and partly to implement a sinister political agenda, although that’s often a little hazy. Something to do with transhumanism, climate change and a Davos-inspired version of socialism in which the proles will own nothing and be happy.

When confronted with these theories I apply Hanlon’s razor, which says you should never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity — except in my version I substitute ‘vanity’ for ‘stupidity’. The reason my esteemed journalistic colleagues are so reluctant to check the stories they’re told, and either dismiss them as fake news or repeat them as gospel, is because their standing in the eyes of their colleagues is more important to them than the truth. The information that gets labelled suspect is anything believed by low-status people — Trump voters, Brexit supporters — while the stories that get beamed around the world are those that bear the imprimatur of the educated elite. It’s about status signalling.

They like to boast they’re guided by evidence and reason — after all, ‘following the science’ is another high-status indicator. But we know these liberal muckety-mucks aren’t really interested in the views of scientists, because where elite opinion parts company with mainstream scientific orthodoxy — the notion that vaccinating healthy teens isn’t very sensible, for instance — they’re happy to follow a different group of experts. The sad truth is that thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, journalism has become a largely performative profession.

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