Until yesterday, Trump’s Twitter account notwithstanding, I have to confess that maybe all the talk about the impact and influence of social media was overblown. I always thought that anyone who would take Facebook seriously as a source for anything other than gossip or soft porn had the mental age of ten, or maybe even less.
However, some new research in a medical journal, JAMA – Internal Medicine, which is published by the American Medical Association, has given me some serious pause for thought.
The article, which you can download here, compares county-level prescription rates for two medicines - hydroxychloroquine sulfate and ivermectin – with whether these counties voted for Trump or Biden in 2020, and found a clear correlation between elevated prescription rates and voting pluralities for Trump.
The study covered counties with a total population of more than 18 million adults, it also compared prescription rates for the two Covid ‘treatments’ with prescriptions for two common medicines - methotrexate and albendazole - which are not prescribed for treatment of Covid-19. The latter comparisons found no correlation between prescription rates and GOP voting strength at all.
Both hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria, and ivermectin, which is used to deworm livestock, were touted by Trump as effective pharmaceutical responses to the Pandemic and then became bandied about on alt-right, conspiracy media channels as ‘proof’ that the Deep State was trying to murder Americans by withholding these drugs. None other than the medical expert Marjorie Taylor Greene has claimed that ivermectin was awarded the Nobel Prize and it was ‘deeply irresponsible’ for Dr. Fauci and the CDC to advise against using it as a treatment for Covid-19.
It should be pointed out, by the way, that the same issue of JAMA which carries the study comparing prescription rates to voting patterns carries another article (download here also) which studied the effectiveness of ivermectin treatments for older patients who already had infections from Covid-19. This study, looking at 495 patients, found that ivermectin did not slow down or mitigate the progression of the virus at all.
Let’s be clear about one thing. No single study about the effectiveness of any medical therapy should be taken as a final and complete judgement about the efficacy of any drug, a caveat which is always stated in all JAMA research. But you will not find a single, alt-right media channel that will give the JAMA articles even a fraction of the space that will be devoted to the rantings of crazies and idiots like Marjorie Taylor Greene.
I can certainly understand why a right-wing politician would spend money running election ads on an alt-right media channel like Breitbart or The Drudge Report, in the same way that a liberal politician would run ads on websites owned by The Guardian or Huffington Post. But I’m not talking here about someone just trying to remind the faithful to show up and vote. I’m talking about a conscious attempt to use social media to spread ideas that are threats to public safety or public health.
It doesn’t bother me when a gun company like Remington runs misleading ads about using their AR-15 to protect yourself against all those street ‘thugs.’ After all, Remington’s in the business of making and selling guns. And if the pharmaceutical company that owns ivermectin, which happens to be Merck, wants to run ads promoting their product, sorry but the 1st Amendment’s protection of ‘free speech’ doesn’t apply to advertising either way.
But to Merck’s credit, last year the company issued a formal statement which said that company scientists found “no meaningful evidence for clinical activity or clinical efficacy in patients with COVID-19 disease.”
How many impressionable people would see Merck’s comment online? Probably nobody. How many would in some way follow the crazy, conspiracy theories of Marjorie Taylor Greene and/or Donald Trump? Enough people to make it more difficult to deal with Covid-19 from a scientific and medical point of view.
And this is why I am no longer quite so blasé about the impact of social media on political affairs except for one thing. I am at a loss to figure out what we should do.