Media, Policy, Politics, Psychology, Truth

Zika hype and how the media fail to serve us

Noam Chomsky wrote that, “Citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for meaningful democracy.”

Any time the mainstream media latch onto an issue and make it a big story you can be sure that it’ll be spun, doctored and distorted so that the public can’t take a well-informed position on the subject. Examples of this are countless and pervasive. About a year ago, the Zika virus story suddenly burst forth, seemingly out of nowhere, linking the mosquito-borne virus with frightful birth deformities in infants of affected mothers, including microcephaly. The story led to mass trip cancellations, abortions, unnecessary carpet-spraying against mosquitoes (which killed millions of bees), and much hysteria in general. As it turns out, the virus is harmless.

In April of this year, a Congressional Research Service report concluded that there was, “absolutely no sane reason for the scary headlines and the panic they cause. The virus is harmeless… There is absolutely no reason to be concerned about it.” Indeed, for much of the blogosphere, echoing the doubts expressed by doctors working in the affected areas of Brazil, the likely cause of the birth defects was not Zika virus but a chemical Pyriproxifen added to the drinking water in order to destroy the larvae of Zika infected mosquitoes. The timing and geography of the epidemic of microcephaly were consistent with the practice of adding Pyriproxifen to drinking water. Rather than investigating this angle – so that we may know the real cause of the problem rather than panicking about the wrong one – the media ran with the mosquito-borne virus story.

By today, these same media have much explaining to do. While Zika spread like wildfire across the continent, microcephaly and other birth defects haven’t. Now they have to backpedal furiously, pretending that this all takes them by total surprise. Here’s from Washington Post on 25th October 2016:  “[to] great bewilderment of scientists, the epidemic has not produced the wave of fetal deformities so widely feared when the images of mishappen infants first emerged from Brazil. Instead, Zika has left a puzzling and distinctly uneven pattern of damage across the Americas. According to the latest U.N. figures, of the 2,175 babies born in the past year with undersize heads or other congenital neurological damage linked to Zika, more than 75 percent have been clustered in a single region: northeastern Brazil.

Indeed, those fetal deformities were so widely feared because the media did their best to whip up the fear – including the use of the images of mishappen infants. Similar campaigns are now orchestrated so regularly that any intelligent observer should by default disbelieve and question such stories and be vigilant about the way the issue at hand might affect the life of their own community. Having observed them for at least two decades now, I find that several attributes characterize these premeditated, orchestrated media campaigns:

  1. The story is based on a spectacular or freightening event or scenario: examples include things like the anthropomorphic global warming, a middle-east tyrant slaughtering own people, mass shootings or terror attacks, a dangerous infectious disease (avian flu, swine flu, ebola, Zika…) threatening humanity, downing of a civilian aircraft, color revolutions, etc. Similar strategies are used to defame and demonize important persons.
  2. The story gains momentum very rapidly: as when something nobody’s ever heard of before suddenly becomes a household word.
  3. Cause-and-effect relationship is established almost immediately: often, the cause of an event becomes established even before an official investigation could begin.
  4. Uniform media coverage: nearly all media reports are structured around the same essential talking points. Nuances, doubts and context are not offered and only a small number of talking points are repeated almost non-stop. Media coverage is uniform even internationally: American, British, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and all other “free world” media will essentially publish exactly the same renditions of events.
  5. Low tolerance for dissenting views: expressing doubts about the official narrative is dismissed or discouraged by labelling it as “irresponsible talk,” “hate speech,” or “conspiracy theorizing.” At times it is outright punished, like when model Vanessa Hessler got sacked by the German telecom company Alice because she publicly stated that the media was misrepresenting the Ghadaffi family. Hessler knew them because she had been dating Muammar Ghadaffi’s son Mutassim for several years. The telecoms firm stated they cancelled Hessler’s contract because she, “failed to distance herself,” from her comments on Lybia. So much for freedom of speech in the west. Hessler’s fiancée Mutassim and his father Muammar were subsequently both killed.
  6. The story usually dissipates and dies before any real investigation can present its findings. This only reinforces the suspicion that the media hype served to further some agenda and when its objectives are met it is no longer useful or interesting.

It is time for us to wise up to these campaigns because we can’t hope to help solve our societies’ many problems if we are misled with distortions and lies. If we will know the truth, says the bible, the truth will make us free. The contrary could also be true: that lies will enslave us.

Alex Krainer is an author and hedge fund manager based in Monaco. Recently he has published the book “Mastering Uncertainty in Commodities Trading“.

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