How Dis/Misinformation Begins

I’m sure we all know by now that the Internet and social media is often a shit hole of bad information.

Part of being in library school is to recognize bad or unverified information, because a decent chunk of being a librarian and information professional is to pass on good, verified information from trusted sources written by people with authority on the subject to your patrons and researchers.

Disinformation (false information, intended to mislead, like propaganda) and misinformation (false or inaccurate information, often intended to deceive) is rampant. Not everyone knows how to distinguish them from the actual facts. Sometimes it’s hard to research if something you see is true or not! Sometimes it’s really hard to do that! Sometimes you see something and react really viscerally to information!

I’m going to get academic in this post, so buckle up.

On April 6th, I opened Twitter to see this:

This tweet was part of a thread, but this is, of course, the most salient part of that thread. Mark Levine is a New York City Council Member representing upper Manhattan. He is also the chair of the City Council’s Health Committee. So he is an authoritative figure, yeah? He knows about the city healthcare system and how stressed it has been under the strain of COVID-19. He, like of all us New Yorkers, knows that the death toll is high and that several of the hospitals have refrigerated trucks as temporary morgues.

Crematoriums and funeral homes are definitely dealing with more volume than usual.

But the idea of temporarily burying people in mass grave trenches in parks is alarming, right? It causes a viseceral sense of “this is all wrong.” Note his use of “Soon we’ll start.” What does that imply? That this temporary burial thing will start soon–just as we’ve been told we may be at the start of the apex. “Likely will be done” sounds like it’s only a possibility, but I feel like “Soon we’ll start” is the true headline here.

He tweeted this later, which happened to be the first tweet I saw about this mess:

So here, he clarifies: burial in parks is the contingency plan. Contingency plan, to me, says “in an extreme emergency.” Are we at the point of that extreme emergency? Is the contingency plan really to mass bury people in parks? Have all the graveyards in the area run out of space? Are all the funeral houses in the area that swamped?

In which case, which parks? How many bodies?

So then what happens? Well, Governor Cuomo gives a daily press conference on the COVID situation. Today, his talk began at 11 am. A reporter asked him about this contingency plan and the governor said he was unaware of it.

But of course, the information spreads, because it’s extreme and it fits the storyline of an overwhelmed city. A lot of media these days, unfortunately, only publish the most sensational news. Or they publish things without verifying them with multiple sources.

It went straight to the most gossipy tabloid-masquerading-as-a-newspaper in New York City: The NY Post.

From here, it spreads even further:

Normally, I would believe or at least take into account something NPR or the Times might put out. But when I looked at the NPR story, I saw that they only quoted Levine, basically rehashing his Twitter thread. That’s not reporting.

New York is an old city. There are old mass graves in many places in this town, from the bodies buried under Washington Square Park, to Martin’s Field in Queens, and the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. When Manhattan ran out of burial space long ago, cemeteries were founded in what later became the outer boroughs: The Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens especially—sometimes, I refer to Queens as “the land of cemeteries.”

When someone dies in New York City and the body is not claimed, the remains are buried on Hart Island, the city’s potter’s field, an island in Long Island Sound.

Our hospitals are very busy, people are very sick, people are dying at the same time in large numbers, morgue space is maxed out. Funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematoriums are busy. In addition to the volunteer medical personnel coming to New York to help (thank you all!), we probably do need some mortuary professionals to come help as well.

But other than Levine’s tweets, there’s no evidence that park burials would be a thing—not when Hart Island exists.

Our mayor, Bill de Blasio, has also been doing a press briefing everyday. Naturally, he was asked about this today.

Mind you, I’m not holding the mayor up as a paragon of facts, but he ought to know about the city’s contingency plans.

After this press conference, another tweet:

Okay. So no, bodies will not be temporarily buried in city parks.

But let’s think about this. In a matter of hours, his first tweets made the rounds into various publications, was retweeted a bunch of times, quoted, shared. I heard it in a report on the BBC World News. How many will print retractions? Or clarifications? How many people read his thread or the articles based on his thread and are now convinced that New York City is really, really hard up? (I mean, we are hard up, but not to that point) How many people now think that we will soon start burials in, like, Flushing Meadows or Pelham Park (because trust me, Central Park wouldn’t get a trench dug through it)?

How many people with sick relatives or friends did this information get to today? How many of them are now carrying this unnecessary anxiety on top of everything else we’re dealing with? How many isolated New Yorkers read this today? How many people out of state or overseas heard about this?

It’s extremely irresponsible as fuck to put this kind of information out into the world in a time like this. It induces anxiety on top of anxiety. The least anyone can do is verify the damn thing before tweeting it.

And this, ladies and germs, is how disinformation or misinformation can spread like a goddamn wildfire.

Be better than that.

6 thoughts on “How Dis/Misinformation Begins

  1. Yesterday, even my father — who is usually one of the calmest, most level-headed people I know, the type you want around in times of emergency or chaos — casually said to me, “I heard they’re going to start burying bodies in Central Park.” Ugh. I didn’t see the tweets until later in the day.

    Thanks for the breakdown in how such misinformation spread. I would have expected better from the NYT and NPR, but that might be overly optimistic of me.

    Useless fun fact (because we could all use a little fun right now): de Blasio’s sign language interpreter looks EXACTLY like one of my best friends. I keep meaning to see if I can dig up a clip to send to some of our other friends who no longer live in the area because the resemblance really is striking.


    1. His sign language interpreter is very expressive! That’s funny that he looks like someone you know!

      I saw the second tweet in this post first and then went to backtrack (yesterday morning) and watched it spread, all while feeling an underlying feeling of furiousness. Hence, this post.


  2. Thanks for putting this all together. I wonder if it’s a change in the times from print media to online media? Maybe for print they were more careful since space is limited? And with online there’s unlimited space and retractions are easier to post?


    1. It’s been happening for a while, I think, and even the stuff they put in print isn’t always *fantastic* but it’s better than this crap.

      I look at the NYT print edition for work sometimes and there are always retractions printed about something published the day before

      But online is easier–they need content–something sounds juicy–and I guess they don’t check. How many people read the retractions though?


  3. Even if it was true, it’s still extremely irresponsible to tweet something like that. Not only did he spew non-facts, but the “information” wasn’t necessary to throw out there to begin with. It pisses me off when people purposely spread anxiety, like a plague. No one needs this kind of crap. Not now. Not ever. He’s trash, and everyone who reported it is trash as well. Because you’re totally right. Fact checking is not that hard. If you’re a reporter, it’s called doing your damn job. Most people aren’t going to see the retraction. It’s just so icky, and they all need to be held accountable. But of course they won’t be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. EXTREMELY irresponsible. SO irresponsible. There’s no purpose to it but fear mongering, causing anxiety. There are people very sick in the hospital, people dying, and their families can’t be with them because of this virus–as if the refrigerated trucks aren’t bad enough?


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