How to Follow an Issue

Posted on August 26, 2020 by Jack Kelly
Tags: coronavirus, media, rant

Roughly six months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia, and began upending things down under (mid-March was when major events like the F1 Grand Prix were first cancelled). Do you consider yourself well-informed? How well do you remember everything that’s happened? Do you remember the rise and fall of hydroxychloroquine as a potential “miracle cure”? If pressed, could you back up the things you think you remember, even where the media has retreated from things they once said, quietly edited or retracted their stories, and deleted all their embarrassing tweets?

Most people reading this are already rightfully suspicious of the Murdoch press, but unfortunately the “respectable” sources are also terrible. Even from them, you must expect bad behaviour at all times: institutional bias, misleading wording, and cherry-picking. Don’t even expect real cherries, but you might find some if you’re lucky. Constant vigilance is necessary if you hope to engage with the media and come away with any truth at all.

I will use the tale of hydroxychloroquine as an example, because it’s recent and I have the links, but there’s no reason to expect anything different with any other issue, Hopefully you’ll understand the level of attention required to accurately track even one issue. When each new issue comes along, will need to decide whether it’s worth your time to follow it properly, or to let it pass. Anything less means you will be acting on bad information, which is worse than useless.

Hydroxychloroquine

At the start of August, the ABC published an article about how hydroxychloroquine became so politicised, touching on how hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) went from antimalarial drug, to possible miracle cure, to being tied up with support for President Trump and scepticism of “establishment science”. As usual, the media wilfully ignores its own role in making things worse. As soon as an issue has any connection to Trump at all, everyone in the media immediately loses their minds. If he were to tweet out “it’s going to be a beautiful day tomorrow”, news outlets would immediately start blasting out one of the following two messages:

  1. GLORIOUS LEADER MAKES SUN RISE FOR AMERICAN PATRIOTS
  2. Sunlight is deadly. Stay safe, stay inside.

Trump is really not that great, but his critics undermine themselves with their obvious bias against him. To give the ABC some credit, they are one of the few news sources to get Trump’s “game changer” quote almost correct:

‘On March 19, Trump said the drug could be a “game changer” at a White House news conference with his coronavirus task force.’

Here’s what the US president actually said:

“I think it’s going to be very exciting, I think it could be a game changer. And maybe not, and maybe not, but I think it could be based on what I see, it could be a game changer.”

Notice that the word “could” is literally spoken by Trump, but is not quoted in the ABC article. Why is that? It’s because the media have been using the “game changer” comment against him for months, quoting only those two words, as though he presented HCQ as the definitive answer to COVID-19. Example from The Guardian, published 2020-04-07, also referencing the 2020-03-19 press conference. When you see “game changer” in the more recent ABC article, you’re expected to just nod along.

If you want a decent article about the politicisation of HCQ, Tablet Magazine did a proper piece. They note a lot of things that the ABC miss, correctly pointing out that the study which stopped a lot of the momentum behind HCQ was based on fabricated data by a company called Surgisphere, and that HCQ advocates were not promoting HCQ alone, but specifically promoting:

Nevertheless, most of the trials were run with HCQ alone as a last-resort treatment for patients with advanced cases of COVID-19.

I do not have an opinion on whether or not HCQ/AZ is effective — there’s too much politicisation for me to find truth in that tarpit. My point is this: the anti-Trump parts of the mainstream media (i.e., most of it) rushed to make him look bad and actively muddied the waters around HCQ/AZ to do so. If HCQ/AZ is an effective treatment, that means that these media outlets needlessly prolonged worldwide misery and death just to score points. If HCQ/AZ is not an effective treatment, then the media’s suppression makes it harder to tell whether it’s disfavoured because the research results are coming down against it, or because it’s connected with Trump. This makes it harder for researchers and organisations to correctly assess whether it’s worth their attention, fuels conspiracy theories, and generally prolongs the worldwide misery. Either way, it’s more journogenic harm of the sort that I documented previously, and utterly reprehensible behaviour.

Sneaky edits

Look closely at the ABC article I linked at the start of this essay. Did you notice that the article’s slug (that’s the text in the URL that identifies the article: hydroxychloroquine-coronavirus-drug-now-right-wing-ideology) doesn’t match the headline (“Hydroxychloroquine is a poor coronavirus treatment but a perfect parable for our times”)? This is a sign that the article’s title has changed since publication. Articles are quietly updated all the time with minimal notice, and sometimes even deleted outright. If you’re very lucky you get a “Posted Sat 1 Aug 2020 at 4:39pm, updated Sun 2 Aug 2020 at 9:37am” with no indication of what actually changed. We live in an age of cheap storage, and the diff(1) tool has been around for nearly 50 years. It is inexcusable for news outlets to omit proper change reporting. Posting detailed change histories is technically easy but inconvenient for outlets trying to control narratives, so they don’t.

How to properly follow an issue

So how are you going to actually form an accurate view of an emerging issue? First, you’ll need to get a handle on the broad outlines of the issue and make some effort to compensate for the biases of each news source. Organisational bias doesn’t just affect how articles are written, it affects which articles get run at all. Each side will rush to print articles that fit their worldview; and will delay, minimise or avoid printing articles that run counter to their preferred narrative. Unless you’re keeping at least half an eye on less-pleasant sources like the Murdoch press, you will miss inconvenient details that “respectable” outlets don’t want you to know. (Of course, you then have to work out what the “inconvenient details” actually mean, because it’s almost never what the contrarian news says they mean.)

As you read articles, you need to build an archive to link everything together. At the bare minimum, collect URLs, article titles, dates visited and make notes about each article. Set up some kind of tagging system so you can track who pushed which narratives when. Where relevant, you will want to do this for official mouthpiece organisations as well (in the coronavirus context, this was organisations like WHO and CDC). Official mouthpieces can only speak to certify the completely obvious long after it’s become obvious (remember WHO dragging its feet?), and it’s useful to be able to highlight this.

When you find older articles, check their edit history if you can. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine may help, but will not always have snapshots of any given site. Embarrassed publishers can hide their pages from the archive using a robots.txt entry, and the Internet Archive is currently being sued for mass copyright infringement because of its its “National Emergency Library” project, so there’s a big question mark hanging over the whole operation.

The next level beyond “URLs and notes” is maintaining your own archive of entire pages. In an ideal world, you’d capture pages when you first visit them, and check back a few times over the next week-to-month to detect sneaky edits. Nothing I say on this topic will beat Gwern’ incredibly thorough archiving guide. If you pull articles from your own archive, people may counter with “well you can fake anything these days” and not believe that you saw what you saw. Timestamp the files as you archive them, so that you can prove when you took the archive, and that you haven’t changed the files since then.

Individual competent people are often a much better source than media organisations or institutions, because they aren’t constrained by an institutional narrative. You can sometimes find fellow archivists being smart-alecs on Twitter or in the rare open comment sections on articles, reminding outlets of inconvenient facts that contradict the preferred narrative. These people can be a good source of things you’ve missed, and if they show their working and make correct predictions they make good sources outright. Adam Townsend on Twitter (screenshot) teases us with promises of a great archive of COVID-19-related news:

Does everyone here know that i keep a daily log about covid-19? I’m the archivist. Everything that you forgot, i didnt. Every crackpot tweet they did, i took screenshots. Every article that has since been “updated” I downloaded in the original form from wayback.

Cant bullshit me

Unfortunately, the link to his website no longer works. But you can at least scroll his thread for ideas about how to manage your own archive, for the next time you have an issue want to follow properly.

How well did I do?

How well did I follow the whole COVID-19 thing? I give myself a C-minus. I saw someone else see the smoke early enough to take some preparatory action, and followed the news obsessively in the early months of the pandemic. I uncritically swallowed the misinformation about how “masks don’t work” and about HCQ’s risk profile, and it took too long for me to realise the bad information didn’t fit and that I should reject it. About a month back, I got into an argument with a friend who couldn’t believe that people weren’t following instructions from “professionals like the CDC”. Pulling out archived tweets showing the US Surgeon-General telling everyone to stop buying masks and stating that ‘“professionals like the CDC” burned themselves by lying-to-manage-supply’ was fun but did not go over well. Most of the best material I saw is still in my browser history somewhere, but I only half-remember it and can never find it when I need it. I’ve seen enough to be confident in my beliefs, but when I get into arguments I can only dredge up enough to make a nuisance of myself, but not enough to convince sceptical people. So: C-minus.

Conclusion

If this all sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. If it feels like you could only follow one or two issues properly and have any time left over, that’s because it’s true. News media is both in the business of narrative-building, and in direct competition with entertainment media in the attention economy, so there’s two very powerful incentives to spin everything away from the truth. If even a simple question like “will this drug save lives?” can become so politicised, then I think there are only really two ways to interact with emerging issues:

  1. Dip your toe in the water. Get just enough information so that you’re not blindsided by emergencies, accept that most of what you believe is wrong, and stay the hell away from news media otherwise; or

  2. Wade right in. Set up your archive, take notes, and be able to back up what you say. Because nobody will believe you otherwise.

Anything in-between is not really worth it.

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