When misinformation meets scarcity: a Q&A with Kiera Butler

News deserts are complicated things. Penny Abernathy—the primary researcher behind the oft-cited “news deserts” map—told me last year that while the term originated to mean “a town without a newspaper,” it had evolved in her thinking to mean “a place where there is limited access to the type of critical news and information that [one] need[s] in order to make informed decisions.” Many factors can limit access to critical information: geographic news deserts, undercovered communities, infrastructural or economic barriers, lack of trust, misinformation. We aren’t always adept at illustrating the complex ways in which people navigate the world beyond the news; it’s easier to report on the presence of bad information than the absence of good information, and it’s even trickier to define the ways in which the two inform one another. But even in news deserts—be they geographic, cultural, digital, or philosophical—people access information. Something always fills the void.

For Mother Jones, Kiera Butler—who has periodically reported on vaccine hesitancy for over a decade—wrote about the misinformation epidemic in online mom’s groups: just one example of an information source that has subsumed more trustworthy ways of cultivating knowledge and navigating the world. “During the pandemic, as people have felt more isolated, online communities have become more important than ever,” sociologist Jennifer Reich told Butler. Everyone, after all, believes in something.

CJR spoke with Butler about what her reporting on vaccine hesitancy can tell us about the nature of communication and the role of various actors in offering “alternative” paths to knowledge. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CJR: Your most recent piece is about anti-vaccine misinformation and how it has proliferated in these mom’s groups on social media platforms. What did you learn about what made that misinformation stick, and why people are turning to these groups instead of something else? 

Butler: There was a lot of anti-vaccination sentiment sort of bubbling along for years, and at the beginning of the pandemic, it was just supercharged. There was such a time of uncertainty; everybody was casting around to find their pandemic identity. There were these anti-vaccination groups on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, on Reddit, that all of a sudden really took on a different flavor. You saw these groups expanding the topics that they addressed, from vaccines to mask mandates to school reopenings. And I’ve been reporting on how these forces made their way into very mainstream parents groups, mostly moms’ groups. People would go to these groups for something like a car seat recommendation, and they would find people posting long screeds about vaccines.

This was all happening in the context of parents being the most stressed out that they’ve ever been—people juggling full-time jobs, childcare, homeschooling. If you’re in that kind of a high stress situation, then you can find a lot of solidarity and a lot of identity in these online groups. Somebody’s offering you a tidy explanation for this incredibly stressful experience that you’re having, and that you might be angry about, and that you might be looking for somebody to blame, and that can really catch on.

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It’s not that moms are so dumb, and they’ll just fall for anything and they’re all into essential oils and MLMs and alternative woowoo stuff. In many cases, their actual medical concerns—their pain after childbirth, their questions about their baby’s health—have been dismissed by doctors. Postpartum care in this country is still not great. When doctors are not having the kinds of substantial conversations and giving you the kind of information that you really need, it’s not hard to see why somebody claiming that X, Y, or Z herb is going to help you would be appealing. The pandemic really intensified this dynamic: parents who had already been neglected and unsupported by our medical system were experiencing everything times 1000.

CJR: I’m interested in what you said about the connection between information and support. Because I think sometimes, in media circles, there’s this almost antiseptic discussion of information: just give people the correct facts, and they will believe them. The conversation can be divorced from this idea of support or care.

Butler: I think that’s true. There’s been a big debate during the pandemic about the best ways to message public health information. There are some people who say, just lead with the facts, and the truth will prevail. And then there are people who say, No, you have to have targeted conversations; there’s no one-size-fits-all public health messaging. Having Dr. Fauci stand up on TV and say, “wear a mask” or, “don’t wear a mask.” That’s just not going to work for everybody. Different groups require different messaging. You have to meet people where they’re at.

CJR: There’s a proliferation of conspiracy theories of all kinds right now; public health isn’t the only arena in which conspiracy theories are flourishing. You’ve also written about social media influencers advancing conspiracy theories. You’ve written about online nurses’ groups. Do you see trends cropping up across these different places, in terms of misinformation and how it flourishes?

Butler: There are some similarities, especially with the nurses. I remember just the confusion and head-scratching news of when polls came out showing that nurses and other health care workers were refusing to be vaccinated. These people have been on the frontlines! They have training in science and in medicine. Why would they not get vaccinated? And when I talked to nurses, what I discovered was that there’s this deep-seated mistrust. Honestly, I think maybe the word might be “trauma.” Nurses—along with other kinds of medical assistants, like techs, who perform various roles in hospitals—were being asked daily to expose themselves to a disease that nobody knew much about, without proper protective gear. They were asked to work long shifts. They were asked to be at the bedside of dying people. And they were not given a lot of information. In some cases, at the very beginning, they were told not to wear their masks at the hospital, because it might scare patients. And at the same time, they were being stretched so thin. They were having to work harder, and in more intense conditions than they ever had been asked to work before. And they were not being compensated adequately for that work. Even before the pandemic, the story of healthcare over the last few decades is the empowerment of hospital administrators and the disempowerment of healthcare providers. At the bottom of the totem pole, you have nurses; these workers have been really, really disenfranchised, within the medical system. Hospital administrators have asked nurses to do a lot of things that have gone against their best interests over the past two decades, and there’s a real animosity there toward these very powerful people who don’t always have nurses’ best interests in mind. When you think about that context, and you think about a hospital administrator saying, “everybody has to get this vaccine that’s been approved under emergency use authorization,” it stands to reason that some nurses might have a question about whether or not that request was really the best thing for the nurses. Of course, the science suggests that it’s best, but the larger context definitely helped me understand why some nurses were skeptical.

CJR: I’m hearing two trends emerging. One is the idea that trauma and mistrust go hand in hand. 

Butler: I think that’s right.

CJR:  And then—connecting what you’re talking about with my own beat—it’s not enough to just meet people’s information needs, if their other basic human needs aren’t also being met.

Butler: That’s totally true. There’s another dynamic going on here that we haven’t really talked about: the erosion of authority and expertise. With social media, everybody’s an expert. It can be really hard to tell genuine medical information—or in the case of what you write about, genuine news—from somebody just saying something.

CJR: So it’s a hard problem to solve. Because you have to simultaneously address the structure of the system by which people receive information, while also addressing human needs.

Butler: You’ll also have to somehow distinguish the actual information—the science-backed or actual real news information—from the rest of the fake stuff. One example from the online community that I’m looking at is the rise of the functional medicine doctor. Many of them actually do have MDs, but they also do stuff that’s not backed by science at all. They do a million blood tests—which seems very official—for X, Y, and Z conditions. The things they say sound like a real diagnosis. But it’s not evidence based. I see this happen all the time in mom’s groups. People will say, Oh, I found this great new doctor, you should go check her out. She really listens to you. How is anybody supposed to know the difference between a legitimate new primary care physician and a quack?

CJR: That doesn’t sound like a rejection of expertise so much as a transference of expertise.

Butler: What I see people saying over and over again, is, “I finally found a doctor who listens. I finally found a doctor who gets it, who won’t just dismiss my symptoms, who really wants to find out what’s actually going on with me.” I can’t help but think, if mainstream medical doctors were more able to listen to patients’ concerns, maybe women wouldn’t be so susceptible to people with questionable practices.

CJR: It’s hard for me not to make the connection to a beleaguered and broken media ecosystem; maybe if journalism were better able to address peoples’ needs—or maybe that’s too much to put on journalism, but if our society were better able to address needs—people wouldn’t be so susceptible to bad information. I think the journalism industry is in a state of trying to figure out who we are and who we are going to be. And I think it’s really important to think about how people approach information. 

Butler: It’s changed so much. And it’s always changing. So, of course, we have to keep thinking about it.

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).

EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

  • ALDEN BUYS TRIBUNE: On Friday, hedge fund Alden Global Capital won shareholder approval for its bid to acquire Tribune Publishing (three of Tribune’s board members have ties to Alden, including Randall Smith, Alden’s founder). The Chicago News Guild, which represents employees at the Chicago Tribune, put out a joint statement, saying, “Today, Tribune Publishing shareholders voted to put profit and greed over local news in our country. While we are saddened by the turn of events, we know that our work over the past year — to build allies in the community and to raise awareness about Alden — is not in vain. Those allies will support us as we fight against Alden to protect local news and the cuts that they will inevitably try to make.” (ICYMI, CJR’s Savannah Jacobson profiled Alden president Heath Freeman last summer.)
  • HOW NYC HAS KEPT LOCAL NEWSROOMS ALIVE: In a guest essay for the New York Times, Sarah Bartlett, dean of the CUNY journalism school, and Julie Sandorf, president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, wrote that a 2019 executive order from New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has offered life-saving support to local newsrooms across the city. The order required city agencies and offices to direct at least half of their advertising funds toward local newsrooms and websites; 220 outlets benefited. “The ads provided a way for the outlets to get critical information to New Yorkers who don’t always consume English-language news from the city’s big daily papers or commercial TV and radio stations,” the essay’s authors wrote. “Just as important, these ads from the city kept small news outlets alive when their usual sources of advertising — local businesses — dried up during the economic crash caused by the pandemic.”
  • RECOVERING FROM A YEAR OF TRAUMA: The American Press Institute released a report outlining the ways in which local newsrooms are grappling with the fallout of a year of compounding crises.
  • ENSURING LOCAL NEWS BETTER SERVES ALL COMMUNITIES: For CJR, Tow fellow Letrell Deshan Crittenden argued that we need a rubric to assess how local news covers and serves traditionally marginalized communities. “When we approach newsrooms and ask them to change, too often the ensuing advocacy focuses on a single immediate issue,” Crittenden writes. “But all of these issues are connected.”
  • WARNER MEDIA MERGES WITH DISCOVERY: AT&T plans to spin off WarnerMedia—which includes CNN and HBO—and merge it with Discovery—which owns Discovery Channel and the Food Network—to form one of the largest media businesses in the US, the New York Times reported. “Whether it’s newspapers, radio, or television, the future seems to be either a series of tiny independents—Substack newsletters, podcasts, YouTube creators, and so on—or an increasingly precarious foothold in the land of the giants, with behemoths like AT&T and Disney and Alden Global Capital moving assets around like chess pieces, constantly cutting staff and resources to keep their profits high,” Mathew Ingram wrote for CJR’s Media Today newsletter. Elsewhere, Digiday compiled a cheat sheet on the deal.
  • IN JOURNALISM, PHILANTHROPY LOOMS LARGE: Philanthropic funding for journalism has grown significantly in the US and the UK, the PressGazette reported. Global philanthropic donations for journalism increased by almost six times from 2008 to 2019, and early figures indicate that 2020 was likely a record-breaking year for donations. (ICYMI, in August Tim Schwab wrote for CJR about the relationship between newsrooms and their benefactors by reporting on the Gates Foundation, a major philanthropist in the world of news. And in January, Robert P. Baird profiled Laurene Powell Jobs.)
  • LEGAL COLLECTIVE OFFERS SUPPORT FOR LOCAL NEWSROOMS: For NiemanLab, Hanaa’ Tameez profiled Lawyers for Reporters, a nonprofit collective that provides pro-bono legal support to local news outlets across the United States. Though it isn’t the first initiative of its kind, Tameez reports, Lawyers for Reporters—which is connected to First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund—endeavors to remain connected to its clients and offer them continued support with advice on corporate governance, work with freelancers, privacy policies, copyright infringement, and defamation claims.
  • SOUTH AFRICA CONSIDERS MEDIA SUSTAINABILITY: Journalists and media stakeholders in South Africa outlined possible policy options for media sustainability tailored to South Africa’s media landscape, including a creating a media sustainability fund for public interest media organizations, tax relief for newsrooms, the formation of public interest wire services, funding for media literacy initiatives, and more. The JAMLAB Africa Newsletter lined up some of the possibilities.
  • UK PRINT DAILY RETURNS TO WIDE CIRCULATION: Metro, the UK’s highest-circulation print newspaper, has returned to pre-pandemic circulation levels, passing the million copy mark—“a positive sign for both the paper and the wider UK economy,” Charlotte Tobitt reported for PressGazette. Metro editor Ted Young also noted that the paper had seen a marked return from advertisers.
  • MORE LOCAL, NATIONAL NEWSROOMS UNIONIZE: Last week, MinnPost announced the formation of a union. Forbes staff also announced their intention to form a union.

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: Poynter has put together a list of places to search for journalism jobs and internships. MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites