On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki led the Biden administration’s first press briefing. Though no stranger to press briefings (Psaki served as traveling press secretary for President Obama during both of his presidential campaigns, and as State Department spokesperson from 2013 – 2015), a clear theme emerged that likely struck a different tone from Obama-era briefings:
“When the president asked me to serve in this role, we talked about the importance of bringing truth and transparency back to the briefing room.”
Moments later, Psaki continued along the same vein, stating that “rebuilding trust with the American people will be central to our focus in the press office and in the White House every single day.” Psaki and the Biden administration are clearly trying to demonstrate a sharp contrast between their media approach and the constant flow of disinformation that defined the Trump era. For Psaki’s first question, Associated Press White House Reporter and President of the White House Correspondents Association Zeke Miller asked for further explanation of their media philosophy:
“When you are up there, do you see your primary role as promoting the interests of the president, or are you here to provide us the unvarnished truth so that we can share that with the American people?”
Though perhaps not difficult to answer, the question was of obvious import. Disinformation and lies from government officials, particularly the Trump administration and President Trump himself, have had devastating consequences. On January 6, armed insurrectionists violently stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 Presidential Election that resulted in at least 6 deaths. They were spurred by false claims of a stolen election created and constantly asserted by President Trump along with support from prominent Republicans, most notably Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
But the violence at the Capitol was far from an isolated incident – it was years of falsehoods and disinformation from the Trump administration reaching a crescendo. And it is far from the lone consequence: the United States recently eclipsed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. The dissemination of information to the American public during the pandemic has been tumultuous, and the advent of misinformation and lies surrounding COVID-19 has prompted the coining of the all-around unfortunate portmanteau “infodemic”. Between persistent falsehoods surrounding the efficacy of face masks and constant lies from President Trump, the United States has particularly struggled with keeping citizens informed and making safe choices. This blog has previously discussed that this disinformation and lack of clarity surrounding the virus and the corresponding regulations can be weaponized, specifically for voter suppression.
Combatting disinformation in the face of COVID-19 will be a key task for the Biden administration, and Psaki has made clear that it will be a focus of their media strategy. In response to Miller’s question she addressed the media, saying “we have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.” Though this may be the correct tone to strike for an introductory press conference, the Biden administration’s job for the dissemination of information extends well beyond accurate press briefings. While a return to a degree of transparency and “normalcy” will be lauded by some, the challenges posed in the age of COVID-19 and disinformation make a return to the “normal” conditions that preceded and produced President Trump woefully insufficient. Instead, they require a reimagination and expansion of the process by which the government distributes information, as well as a targeted effort towards limiting disinformation. This blog has previously discussed the latter, and Twitter’s recent ban of Trump has prompted a sharp decrease in disinformation related to the election. This is an important bellwether for the efficacy of de-platforming and its vast implications. The remainder of this post will examine the federal government’s dissemination of information recently compared to the early stages of the pandemic, with a focus on the long-term effects of lack of government clarity in messaging.
This blog previously discussed the entrenched cultural ideologies the United States currently faces that inhibit COVID-19 response. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 requires a uniquely collective effort. Wearing masks, limiting non-essential travel and gatherings, and abiding by stay-at-home orders were and are necessary steps to prevent undue cases and casualties. Such collective action requires a level of awareness and information among the participants, along with a clarity of what action should be taken in light of that information.
In his January 21 remarks, President Biden emphasized the impact of wearing a mask, stating that “by wearing a mask from now until April, we’d save more than 50,000 lives going forward; 50,000 lives. So I’m asking every American to mask up for the next 100 days.” It was a clear directive with a defined timeline and intended result. Such a simple statement stands in stark contrast to the muddled messaging from the federal government during the Trump administration, in which experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci often found themselves forced to contradict the president.
It is impossible to quantify the damage to public trust and confidence in the federal government’s handling of a public health crisis that stemmed from its indecision and lack of coordinated, informed action. Potentially the most damaging instance of mixed messaging and indecision was the federal government’s policy on masks in the early stages of the pandemic. The CDC repeatedly asserted in January and February of 2020 that they do not recommend the use of face masks for the general public. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams similarly advised against wearing masks, even suggesting they may increase the spread due to people improperly using them. In a tweet, Adams aggressively implored the public not to buy masks, and that they are not effective in preventing spread in the general public. In late March 2020, the CDC and other health experts were reconsidering their stances on masks. Eventually, the CDC reversed, calling on all Americans to wear cloth face coverings as early as April 3, 2020.
Dr. Fauci has explained the apparent reversal, stating that the lack of early endorsement for public use of masks was an attempt to prevent shortages of critical PPE for healthcare workers. He also acknowledged their insufficient appreciation for the impact of asymptomatic spread. After increased data and a realization that cloth masks were sufficiently abundant, the CDC began recommending the use of face masks.
But was the damage already done? The efficacy of masks and the ability of the government at various levels to enforce a mask mandate was a significant point of contention in the pandemic. And the damage likely extends beyond participation in mask wearing. Mask participations falls along partisan lines: even as late as December 2020, there is a clear partisan split. In a poll from KFF, when leaving their house and expecting to see people, 99% of Democrats responded they wear a mask all or most of the time, while only 76% of Republicans do the same. Splits like these lead to further ideological entrenchment and dissent between members of these parties. Ideological splits becoming more pronounced over time is not a new phenomenon: opinions on climate change have become increasingly partisan over the past few decades. Though their timelines are quite different, viewing them as analogues for the partisan public erosion of trust in government information and science may prove illuminating. Both notably suffered from their science developing very publicly, non-committal messaging from government in their early stages, and insufficient contemporary information distribution.
The ineffective and largely non-existent federal public information campaign, particularly regarding the impact of stay-at-home orders and the effectiveness of PPE is a failure the Biden administration cannot afford to repeat. But an effective campaign would extend well beyond press conferences. In the absence of leadership from the federal government, state and local governments were forced to take on the responsibility. While their efforts were important, potentially 50 differing sets of messages and regulations in an already confusing and overcrowded information climate has clear drawbacks. Now, the Biden administration plan emphasizes “establish[ing] clear lines of communications with all governors, state public health officials and immunization managers, and local leaders.”
Coordination with state and local governments will be particularly important in vaccine distribution. But even with Biden’s goal of 150 million shots in 100 days, masks are needed to stymie the spread of COVID-19, particularly following a disastrous December and January that will have the highest and second-highest COVID-19 death toll by their conclusion. Public confidence in vaccinations may be even more crucial. A December KFF poll found that only 41% would definitely get the vaccine, while another 30% would probably get the vaccine. Dr. Fauci estimates that 70-85% of the population must be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Compelling vaccination is often met with hostility and misinformation. Any delays brought on by a failure to increase and maintain public confidence could translate to the loss of thousands of lives.