A global pandemic in the current digital age is a recipe for disaster. Government transparency is not necessarily threatened by the internet or the nature of social media spreading so-called “fake news”. Rather, the lack of government transparency causes more misinformation as we slowly lose faith in our governments. The internet just made it incredibly easy to satisfy our continuous hunger for information and something to trust.
Let us compare the US and Germany. One nation’s government highly condemned for their response to the Covid-19 crisis, and the other applauded for it.
As of May 14th, public satisfaction with the German government’s response to the crisis was at 59% whereas, in the US, this figure was a staggering 33%.
Recently in the US, Rick Bright, immunologist and public health official filed a whistle-blower complaint. Bright had previously been appointed as head of the agency in charge of the pandemic response until he was removed with no clear reason.
“Americans deserve the truth,” he said in his testimony, “the truth must be based on science.” Bright revealed the ways in which the American government’s lack of planning for this crisis was going to have its grave repercussions. He warned of a second wave of virus cases accompanied by the challenges of seasonal influenza.
When Bright was asked if it was true that anyone could get tested if they wanted to in the US, as the government had declared, his response was a blunt “no.” It was revealed that in the US, supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) was already declining at severe rates. However, President Trump’s response to Bright was to call him a “disgruntled employee.”
Therefore, it may come of no surprise that Trump’s approval rating has dropped by six points to 43% in approximately a month.
Germany, on the other hand, has increasingly gained media attention due to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s highly acclaimed response to the crisis. Germany has been hit hard by the virus just like America; however, their numbers have been declining and they have slowly begun to lift lockdown. The response to the virus in Germany was and is still effective, because it has been reactive to each twist and turn that Covid-19 has taken.
The nation also had continuously been praised for its low fatality rates from the virus. By mid-May, deaths per million of the population in Germany was 96 whereas, in the US, it was 273. It is said that the trick Germany had up their sleeve was being medically prepared, in part meaning that they were committed to the testing of the virus in the very early stages.
Their preparations were not limited to medical aspects. Their economic measures also eased the effects of the virus. A wide variety of business owners and families received. As early as March 23rd, the German government introduced a 750 billion Euro economic package. Furthermore, by January, a team from Berlin had already created the world’s first diagnostic test for the virus which has since been shared around the world. Merkel’s approval ratings increased 11 points to 79% also in the space of a month.
In recent years, the US has been losing to Germany in terms of the level of trust consumers have for the news that they absorb. In America, 31% agreed that they were exposed to false news in a week in early 2018, whereas in Germany only 9% agreed to this statement. Also, as of February 2019, the share of adults in America who trust the news media most of the time was 32%. In Germany, this number was 47%. Already the disparity is clear.
This becomes more harmful in the context of the Covid-19 situation. According to the Reuters Institute, in the US, 42% trust search engines as a way of receiving news about the coronavirus, and 25% from social media. For Germany, these numbers were lower, 33% had trust in search engines, and 15% trusted social media.
From the same survey, the “proportion that says they have seen ‘a lot’ or ‘a great deal’ of false or misleading information about coronavirus” in a week in Germany was lower than in America. For example, the proportion of those that claimed to have seen false or misleading information from news organizations was 29% in the US, but only 16% in Germany.
In nations such as Germany where their response to Covid-19 was highly praised, trust in the news that they consume is lower, the levels of misinformation are also low, whereas the opposite pattern is seen in nations like the USA whose government’s response is considered alarming to many. The less governments show responsible and stable leadership during this crisis, the more prone many are to trust news from news media sites and social media, rather than information that comes directly from the government.
The more trust we put into news sources without being critical, the more we believe it, and the more we share this information with others on social media or simply by word-of-mouth. This leads to an increasingly complicated and confusing web of misinformation, which is the last thing anyone needs in the midst of a pandemic.