When fake news goes viral: Lessons of a lie about ivermectin

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Bogus stories used to be the rare exception. Now they’ve infected the media business.

False stories used to be limited to a single outlet. Now they spread like wildfire, fueled by technology that burns past the remnants of any guardrails.

It’s crept up on us almost to the point where it’s the New Normal.

And what distorts the situation even further is the flood of misinformation and propaganda masquerading as news, leaving us without a set of commonly accepted facts — on election fraud and vaccines and just about every other issue.

But there’s one factor here that is undeniable: Nearly all the mistakes, missteps and misfires go against conservatives. This was evident on an almost daily basis when Donald Trump was president. When it comes to left-leaning outfits and commentators, the trigger finger has never been quicker — as long as the target is on the other ideological side.

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Now I’m not saying either side has a monopoly on false reporting. But in the era of woke newsrooms, a growing share of the wrong-headed attacks come from the left. And in the battle for clicks, only a dwindling minority feels any need to check on allegations before helping them go viral.

In the era of woke newsrooms, a growing share of the wrong-headed attacks come from the left.

The latest fiasco involves ivermectin, the drug used in both humans and animals, which some people are using to treat Covid-19 even though the FDA says it’s useless. So the right is sympathetic to the drug and the left dismisses it as snake oil for Trump types.

The NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City, KFOR, ran a story quoting a single doctor for a piece as saying gunshot victims and others were being turned away from local emergency rooms because they were overrun by people who had overdosed on ivermectin.

A single phone call would have disproven the story, but that, apparently, is too much to ask these days. After all, not a single hospital with this problem was identified.

The hospital system this physician is associated with said that not only had its ERs not been overrun, it had not treated a single case of ivermectin overdose, and the doctor hadn’t worked at that location in two months. Total fake news.

Rolling Stone has taken plenty of heat, and deservedly so, for helping take the story nationally and broadening it to include a swipe at podcaster Joe Rogan, who says ivermectin helped him get over the virus. This is the same magazine that reported on a gang rape that never happened at the University of Virginia, based on a shaky source, and settled a lawsuit by paying $1.65 million to a fraternity there.  

But Rolling Stone had plenty of company. From Rachel Maddow (who has left the KFOR tweet up) to the Guardian, from Newsweek to the Daily Mail to the Daily News, lots of places trumpeted this non-news.

Some people are using ivermectin to treat Covid-19 even though the FDA says it’s useless. (iStock)

Some people are using ivermectin to treat Covid-19 even though the FDA says it’s useless. (iStock)

Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone reporter who now writes for Substack, noted that MSNBC’s Joy Reid said that other patients should get priority “rather than allowing the ivermectin people…to take up all the beds.”

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Taibbi ties this embarrassment to “innumerable other media shipwrecks in the last five years. These include everything from wrong reports of Russians hacking a Vermont energy grid, to tales of Michael Cohen in Prague, to the pee tape, to Julie Swetnick’s rape accusation, to the Covington high school fiasco, to Russian oligarchs co-signing a Deutsche Bank loan application for Donald Trump, to Bountygate…and dozens beyond: the media business has become a machine for generating error-ridden moral panics.”

You have to stop and catch your breath after that paragraph. And he’s right, I can think of a bunch of other examples off the top of my head.

These days, says Taibbi, “the goal of every broadcast is an anxiety-ridden audience provoked to the point of fury by the un-policed infamy of whatever wreckers are said to be threatening civilization this week: the unvaccinated, insurrectionists, Assadists, Greens, Bernie Bros, Jill Stein, Russians, the promoters of ‘white supremacy culture,’ etc.”

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I can’t escape the feeling — and again, this crosses partisan lines — that Taibbi is right when he says the lefty media are willing to tolerate some errors as long as they feel the attack stories are “aimed at deserving targets.” But he goes a bit far for me in saying that “people like Maddow, Reid, and the editors of the New York Times opinion page have taken over the role once occupied by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.”

I wouldn’t compare these pundits and places to a religious right leader, and they aren’t monolithic — there are some reporters even at the outlets that routinely bashed Trump who try to be fair. But as the Times firings over the Tom Cotton op-ed underscored, even management has trouble standing up to the mob in this politically correct era.

This ivermectin controversy is already fading, but something else will take its place in a few days or a few hours.

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