Researchers from MIT monitored social media and infiltrated Facebook groups to assess how people think about and process information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently they published their findings. This research involved assessing visualizations or graphs and other images people used to communicate information. It also involved network analysis, which is a way to analyze groups of people who hold a particular point of view and share or amplify each other’s messages. The team at MIT also qualitatively evaluated posts on Facebook for content and thought processes.
This type of analysis is relatively new, and it seems the MIT researchers followed established guidelines for performing it. One area was of particular interest to me because I am sure researchers probably captured my tweets. The researchers named this the anti-mask network. The network analysis found the anchors in this group were Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and author of four-part series called Unreported truths About COVID-19 and Lockdowns, a blogger @EthicalSkeptic, and Justin Hart, the founder, and Chief Data Analyst for RationalGround.com.
It has always been astounding how the legacy media has relied on a small cadre of bureaucrats and paid contributors to provide information to the public, most notably Dr. Anthony Fauci. In the initial few months, I agreed with the octogenarian head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. I firmly agreed regarding the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, by the public during the pandemic.
As a registered nurse, I trained to “don and doff” or put on and take off PPE as part of Universal Precautions taken to care for patients with bloodborne pathogens. I was well aware this equipment was to prevent blood and other body fluids from getting into my mouth, nose, eyes, or other open lesions on my skin. It was never to prevent me from getting strep throat, a cold, or the flu. So, Dr. Fauci’s original reasoning to reject masks for the public made complete sense to me. His later reversal had me scratching my head.
This flip-flop was one of many things that had me scratching my head and searching for information outside the health bureaucracy beginning in March of last year. While the researchers flagged the three anchor accounts as anti-mask, they shared an immense amount of research on many topics related to the pandemic. The researchers seemed astounded to make the following observations about the network that followed the “anti-mask-network”:
- “For these anti-mask users, their approach to the pandemic is grounded in more scientific rigor, not less.”
- “In fact, the explicit motivation for many of these followers is to find information so that they can make the best decisions for their families—and by extension, for the communities around them.”
- “While these groups highly value scientific expertise, they also see collective analysis of data as a way to bring communities together within a time of crisis, and being able to transparently and dispassionately analyze the data is crucial for democratic governance.”
- “In other words, anti-maskers value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over ‘expert’ interpretations.”
- “Arguing anti-maskers need more scientific literacy is to characterize their approach as uninformed & inexplicably extreme. This study shows the opposite: they are deeply invested in forms of critique & knowledge production they recognize as markers of scientific expertise.”
To a rational person, this all sounds like the researchers stumbled upon a group of people genuinely interested in evaluating all of the information they could find in an emerging situation. Many mitigation measures were determined locally and being able to have informed discussions about various topics with members of local communities was important. It almost seems like they think this is commendable and defensible. Well, you would be wrong.
From their conclusion:
As a subculture, anti-masking amplifies anti-establishment currents pervasive in U.S. political culture. Data literacy, for antimaskers, exemplifies distinctly American ideals of intellectual self-reliance, which historically takes the form of rejecting experts and other elites. The counter-visualizations that they produce and circulate not only challenge scientific consensus, but they also assert the value of independence in a society that they believe promotes an overall de-skilling and dumbing-down of the population for the sake of more effective social control. As they see it, to counter-visualize is to engage in an act of resistance against the stifling influence of central government, big business, and liberal academia. Moreover, their simultaneous appropriation of scientific rhetoric and rejection of scientific authority also reflects longstanding strategies of Christian fundamentalists seeking to challenge the secularist threat of evolutionary biology.
There are also references to the Tea Party and racial resentment. They also lament “the skeptical impulse that the ‘science simply isn’t settled,’ prompting people to simply ‘think for themselves to horrifying ends.'” So, despite rigor, open debate, discussion, and even patience in explaining when other network members did not understand, skeptics are the problem, according to MIT.
They also could not resist making it political and taking aim at the political right using their own biased and incorrect assumptions. It is not clear to me that any of the network leaders they identified are on the right. In fact, Berenson has said he is not. Then you look at the MIT researchers’ bios and find one professor of Anthropology, one junior faculty member, one graduate student, one undergraduate, and a high schooler. They have been steeped in an academic culture that discourages dissent and worships experts.
Four out of five have not even lived long enough to have a comparable crisis to compare the COVID-19 pandemic. In all likelihood, the MIT students have no idea how different this crisis has been handled compared to others. Rather than prevent public panic, many authorities’ actions have encouraged it. Instead of clear messaging with historical or scientific precedent, the messaging was mixed, and very little scientific support for the guidelines issued was given to the public. They also have no idea how badly the primary “expert” Dr. Anthony Fauci botched the H.I.V. epidemic.
As the researchers noted, “Most fundamentally, the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution.” The problem with that statement is they think it is something the anti-mask network believes. Science is a process. The fact that these young academics do not think so demonstrates the corruption and failure of the education system. If these are the future “experts” at MIT, the idea that they find skepticism troubling is terrifying for the future of science and the nation.