Call out spreaders of misinformation — don’t ignore them
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/04/2021 (638 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
To the chagrin of the people who are forced to share my home office, I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time yelling loudly at my computer screen.
Every day, I start out with a pledge that I will only use my inside voice. And every day, I finish up my work completely hoarse from shouting expletives at the relentless flow of misinformation that comes across my virtual desk.
On Monday, I had to work extra hard not to go off like an uncovered blender after reading stories about Chris Sky, the anti-mask, anti-vaccine activist who served as the main attraction at an annoyingly large gathering of similarly minded folks at The Forks Sunday.
A couple of days later, however, I found myself unable to get this story out of my mind, for a couple of reasons.
First, because Sky is such an obviously unscrupulous character.
He is a one-trick pony, an attention hound who travels the country broadcasting falsehoods and publicizing his appearances in a deliberate attempt to get arrested, or be threatened with arrest, for deliberately violating public health orders.
Sky has posted racist and anti-semitic comments online, and his name has been linked to what appears to be a bogus website raising money for schools where kids don’t have to distance or wear masks.
And if you’re wondering which schools he’s talking about, then you’ve already figured out the con.
What Sky said in Winnipeg wasn’t the most frustrating part of this story, given that his reach is likely rather limited; thankfully, Sky clearly looks and sounds less like an epidemiologist and more like a guy trying to sell you anabolic steroids out of the trunk of his car.
The really maddening part was, despite knowing a week in advance that he was coming here, provincial officials did nothing to stop him.
The province initially refused to confirm whether Sky had been issued a ticket; later a government source said he was issued two tickets, each with $1,296 fines attached. And neither police nor government would confirm whether they had the option of arresting him before the rally.
And while a newspaper columnist should never advocate for censorship in any form, I cannot resolve the way law enforcement and public health officials stood by and let him spout.
Perhaps the province didn’t want to make him a martyr to his twisted cause. I have some sympathy for that perspective, given that it’s a version of the same dilemma journalists face every day.
Do we ignore the purveyors of misinformation to avoid giving dangerous people access to a wider audience? Or do we confront them and ensure that people have the best information possible about COVID-19 and our collective responsibilities to public health?
This is a global dilemma, to be sure. And thankfully, although we have our Chris Skys to contend with in Canada, we don’t have anyone who presents as much of a threat as Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
Carlson had already established himself as one of the most dangerous men in news media during the Trump years. With “The Donald” on the sidelines of American politics, Carlson has stepped into the role of chief architect of toxic misinformation.
This week, he reached new lows in his misinformed race to the bottom when he urged his millions of viewers to call child protective services and report anyone who is forcing a child to wear a mask. “What you’re looking at is abuse, it’s child abuse and you are morally obligated to attempt to prevent it,” Carlson howled.
Journalists who regularly comment on the work of other journalists largely found themselves in the same predicament I found myself in with regard to Sky. Tom Jones, a top-flight media columnist whose daily newsletter is published by the Poynter Institute, very ably enunciates the conundrum that people like this present.
“Should we even talk about someone who says such things?” Jones wrote in his Wednesday newsletter. “If his viewers are going to defend him no matter what and everyone else is going to see him as someone in a tie banging pots and pans together to make the loudest noise possible, why not just ignore him?”
The question was largely rhetorical, as it appeared in a column designed to call Carlson out for the noxious effluent that he shapes into his daily rants against science and sanity. Jones’ point, and I guess my point as well, is that it’s always better to confront misinformation rather than to ignore it and hope it goes away.
Although there is little chance to save the minds that have already followed Sky and Carlson down the anti-mask, anti-vaccine rabbit hole, there is always a chance you can help people who are genuinely confused about who or what to believe.
There is a lot of genuinely conflicting information out there; understanding the true nature of the virus and the dynamics of this pandemic requires thoughtful and informed interpretation.
In the end, we cannot cede the public discourse to cowards who aren’t willing to carry their share of the common burden of public safety, but who are willing to live in a country where the gross majority of others are.
And that’s largely why we have to continue calling out the authors of misinformation. To remind us about what is real, and to remind them that we know who they really are.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 8:07 PM CDT: Updates details about fines.