Trump’s tweets show how media consumption affects our understanding of COVID-19
After being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for COVID-19, President Donald Trump took to Twitter, claiming to have been “cured” by a cocktail drug created by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. While some Americans may believe this drug can put an end to the pandemic, Timothy Albertson, a distinguished professor and chair of internal medicine at UC Davis Health, stated that it is not necessarily the case.
“The reason you do clinical trials is because you can’t [produce statistically significant data] from one person,” Albertson said.
Albertson has been examining multiple medications for a potential COVID-19 treatment since July, one of which is the same drug President Trump received. He explained that Regeneron’s drug is a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies, which are antibodies made by bacteria that are detected by the immune system to be human antibodies. When injected, these antibodies can be directed at specific sites, such as the spike protein on the SARS-CoV-2 virus. If all spike proteins can be inhibited, this could prevent the virus from replicating.
Although Trump’s condition has improved after treatment, Albertson explained this doesn’t say anything as to whether the drug worked or not. There are multiple other factors that may have helped his condition, one of which being the fact that in addition to Regeneron’s drug, Trump also received steroids and Remdesivir during his stay. According to Albertson, Remdesivir is a semi-approved antiviral drug for hospitalized patients that appears to be working to some extent for treating COVID-19. Since Trump took multiple medications, it is difficult to determine which one worked for him.
In addition, Albertson explained there are many genetic factors to take into consideration which vary from person to person. This is why it is important to establish equipoise, he stated, where groups being studied and compared are made to be as equal as possible with only one variable—in this case, the drug. Such conditions can be created through clinical trials, but not through one person’s testimony. Albertson’s study is currently conducting randomized clinical trials with Regeneron’s drug on COVID-19 patients. He will not know whether the drug works or not until the end of the trials since the experiment is blind and controlled.
“I think people need to be thinking about clinical trials and how important they are for themselves and for humanity in terms of understanding whether a new treatment has potential or not,” Albertson said.
Furthermore, Trump’s tweet telling people to not be afraid of COVID-19 and that he “feels better than [he] did 20 years ago” may cause more misunderstanding about the pandemic as a whole. Magdalena Wojcieszak, a professor in the department of communication at UC Davis, explained that Trump received the drug through compassionate use, which is where unapproved drugs can be used to treat patients in special cases. She stated that those who are less informed may not be aware that the drugs used to treat Trump are not easily accessible to the majority of Americans.
The tweets by the President, “may create this false sense of security that COVID in fact doesn’t need to be taken seriously or that that kind of cutting edge treatment may be available to everybody even though it’s absolutely not,” according to Wojcieszak.
Wojcieszak explained that it is important to consider that a large majority of the American population do not read the news in depth, but rely more on social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, for information. Therefore, most people likely only know this basic sequence of facts: President Trump had COVID-19, was hospitalized, received a treatment and is now fully recovered. With the presidential election approaching and dominating most media, people are less likely to be fully informed of Trump’s exact treatment and may perceive the sequence of events leading to his complete recovery as normal for all people who contract COVID-19.
“Even those who do tune in to more traditional media [or] go online [for news] engage in what communication scholars call ‘selective exposure,’” Wojcieszak said. “Which means that if you’re more liberal, you go to the New York Times or you go to CNN.com. If you’re more conservative, you go to Fox or to other [conservative] publications or directly to the president’s Twitter, which means that different groups within American society have very different realities of what’s happening politically in general and especially with COVID.”
This difference in the type of media Americans consume is heavily reflected in people’s attitudes towards COVID-19. According to a poll by Pew Research Center, 83% of Republicans who only follow news outlets with right-leaning audiences thought the media was exaggerating the risks of COVID-19, whereas 53% of Democrats who only follow news outlets with left-leaning audiences shared the same opinion. In addition, Wojcieszak explained that because the President has repeatedly expressed skepticism in scientific experts, this may have contributed to the lack of compliance with CDC guidelines by a portion of the public.
“If the most powerful man in one of the largest countries [gave] such messages, naturally his supporters [did] not take the situation as seriously as they could have or should have or as people in some other countries did,” Wojcieszak said.
Wojcieszak stated that people should be aware that a lot of the information “circulating on social media is circulating there precisely because it is sensationalist or hyped in some ways.” In addition, all media consumers should know that the sources they rely on are not necessarily objective and may be consistent with people’s pre-existing biases. According to Wojcieszak, because the U.S. does not have a form of public broadcasting that is seen as neutral and the country is largely split into two political parties, it is difficult to prevent the creation of different realities.
“No matter what happens, no matter what information the media puts out there, no matter what you write or what I study, we [are likely to] have [a] very divided society in which different groups of people live in different realities, consume different [news] media, if they consume [news] at all, and have very different responses to COVID and to what’s safe and acceptable,” Wojcieszak said.
Written by: Michelle Wong —firstname.lastname@example.org