Skeptical, Yet Susceptible

For as long as I can remember, my fiscally conservative stepfather has railed against “those crooks in Washington.” As a longtime CPA, he knows his way around the tax laws in the US. As a longtime Republican, he thinks taxes are too high and lazy people get free money.

Shut up and take my money meme from the TV show Futurama.
Shut up and take my money meme from the TV show Futurama.

I often overheard him commiserating with clients about the rapacious nature of the Federal government and its inability to balance a budget. Again and again, he’d return to his familiar refrain: “Forget politicians! What we need is a President who will run this country like a business!” Sometimes for emphasis, he’d punctuate that phrase by pointing at people with his lit cigar. In November 2016, my stepfather’s wish came true, but our family came undone. I blame misinformation.

Donald Trump meme - Debate with Joe Biden in October 2020
I was a business man, doing business.
Donald Trump meme – Presidential Debate with Joe Biden in October 2020

We have always had our political differences, but this is something much bigger. It is as if we live in alternate universes with so many topics out of bounds that we struggle to put sentences together into a conversation. We’ve split off into warring tribes, with an uneasy truce around holidays and special occasions. At least that’s the way it was up until Christmas Week, 2021.

An Omnicron Christmas LP album cover meme

In a family group chat on December 22, my sister announced that she would be unable to host the Christmas Eve dinner. She cited the Omicron surge, her two daughters testing positive for COVID, and her 97-year-old mother-in-law, who lives with her. I thought she made the right decision and said as much in the chat.

This did not sit well with the rest of the group.

One of our stepbrothers, who’s always doing “research” online, became unhinged and chastised my sister for being foolish, basing her decision on unfounded fears about the “fake” Omnicron Covid variant. Instead of respecting her decision and empathizing with the real concerns, they all started talking about the unnecessary precautions until our sister-in-law announced – “Well, I guess it’s Christmas Eve at my house!” My sister and I left the chat. My mother and stepfather were not in this conversation because they planned on staying in Florida over the holidays. My sister contacted them later that day to report on the rudeness of the stepbrothers.

A big group photo popped up on Facebook from the stepbrothers on Christmas Eve with the following message.

“And they tried to cancel Christmas – but they hadn’t. Perhaps Christmas means just a little bit more (grinch quotes ). Thanks for coming all!”

Three days later, all fourteen people had COVID.

Where did all this Omicron Hoax nonsense come from? As was reported on November 29 in the Washington Post article The right’s emerging hoax-ification of the omicron variant, as soon as this strain of the Coronavirus identified in South Africa, the misinformation industrial complex kicked into high gear. Like this viral image that was debunked in the Houston Chronicle.

Omicron Hoax meme Twitter Nov 27, 2021

So, you may be asking why begin this post with my stepfather’s politics and conclude with COVID misinformation. Because it is all part of the same media ecosystem and the same mindset. In early 2017 Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford and Hunt Allcott of New York University published a study on the role Social Media and fake news in the 2016 Election. In an article about the study they reported that social media was an “important, but not dominant”source of news so it is unlikely that it swung the election to Trump, but the text concludes with an ominous warning from Matthew Gentzkow about the growing power of social media platforms.

“you have a potential game-changer in terms of the degree of polarization in this country.”

That’s what happened to my family. My stepfather is defending the indefensible behavior of a corrupt ex-president. My step-brothers are spreading misinformation about Covid, Stolen Elections and Critical Race Theory.

Misinformation on Social Media has left them skeptical, yet susceptible.

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