The COVID-19 misinformation campaign

By Edward Achorn

A new Franklin Templeton-Gallup research project bears out what I have been reporting for months: the media have misinformed Americans about COVID-19. While the disease is both nasty and deadly, a daily panic narrative has led people to grossly overrate its dangers.

That has powerful, and perhaps frightening, economic and political consequences.

Sonai Desai, chief investment officer for Franklin Templeton Fixed Income, wrote about the survey on July 28 (“They Blinded Us From Science”). (A cautionary note about the survey: Franklin Templeton pushes mutual funds, so it has a stake in promoting economic activity.)

Among its findings:

-Americans, “to a shocking extent,” are unaware that the greatest danger is overwhelmingly to older people.

-The false perceptions are “greater for those who identify as Democrats, and those who rely more on social media for information.”

-These fears have helped politicians to spend trillions of dollars, which could cause serious inflation.

Overrating danger to the young

The survey of 10,014 U.S. adults aged 18 or older found that Americans believe that people 55 or older account for about half of COVID-19 deaths. The actual figure is 92 percent.

Americans believe people 44 or younger accounted for 30 percent of the deaths. The actual number is 2.7 percent.

Americans believe 40 percent of deaths involved people 65 or older. The actual number in 80 percent.

“These results are nothing short of staggering,” Ms. Desai writes.

People of the ages 18-24 believe the COVID-19 danger to them is 400 times greater than it actually is.

The survey also found that false perceptions are closely tied to the quality of information people are receiving, and that the COVID-19 debate has become severely polarized.

Politicizing COVID-19

Those getting their information mostly from social media have the most distorted perception of risk. And those who identify as Democrats overstate the risk to young people much more than those who identify as Republicans.

“This, sadly, comes as no surprise. Fear and anger are the most reliable drivers of engagement; scary tales of young victims of the pandemic, intimating that we are all at risk of dying, quickly go viral; so do stories that blame everything on your political adversaries. Both social and traditional media have been churning out both types of narratives in order to generate more clicks and increase their audience,” Ms. Desai writes.

“The fact that the United States is in an election year has exacerbated the problem. Stories that emphasize the dangers of the pandemic to all age cohorts and tie the risk to the Administration’s handling of the crisis likely tend to resonate much more with Democrats than Republicans. This might be a contributing factor to why, in our survey results, Democrats tend to overestimate the risk of dying from COVID-19 for different age cohorts to a greater extent than Republicans do.”

The way information is provided on charts appears to greatly influence people’s thinking. I have written about that topic extensively. Daily reports of deaths fail to parcel them out to the dates they occurred, misleading people into believing the problem is getting worse.

How it affects us

All this profoundly affects people’s psychology and choices. “Those who overstate deaths among young people are more cautious about making purchases, more reluctant to travel, and favor keeping businesses and schools shut,” Ms. Desai writes.

It also shapes public policies that greatly impact our lives.

Decisions about what to keep shut down and for how long “is strongly influenced by public perceptions of dangers, not only because politicians are sensitive to the public’s concerns but also because politicians are people too, subject to some of the same biases. Our poll results suggest fundamental misperceptions of the risk of death or serious adverse health consequences from COVID-19 could be distorting these decisions.”

Ya think?

It seems clear that a panic narrative can be used to damage the economy, stoke fears, empower politicians, erode freedoms, and help swing elections.

“The fact that a large share of the population overestimates the COVID-19 danger to the young will make a targeted public health response more difficult to agree on. We think it is also likely to delay the recovery, causing a deeper and prolonged recession,” Ms. Desai writes.

The alternative: science

A science-based approach to the disease would have encouraged different public policies. Instead of locking down the economy — destroying small businesses, creating massive unemployment and then blowing through trillions of dollars — we could have focused our resources and attention on protecting the most vulnerable people, those who are old and already had serious health problems. In New York, the governor’s mindless orders to place infected people in nursing homes proved especially deadly, killing thousands.

It would help if more people understood the facts about the disease. That is why I have been trying to help people put COVID-19 in perspective rather than be overwhelmed by fear.

Ms. Desai appears to agree.

“From a public interest perspective, we believe the top priority should be better information and a less partisan, more fact-based public debate. It is shocking that six months into the pandemic so many people still ignore the basic mortality statistics, with perceived risk driven by political leanings rather than individual age and health. Misperceptions of risk distort both individual behavior and policy decisions.”


(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)

One Comment

  1. There seems to be a lot of misinformation for us about this disease, from from those who say it is just a flu to those who overstate its dangers. After all these months and world-wide experience with it, I should think we would be hearing more than just guesses.


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