What is the deal with that weird video about how HCQ cures the coronavirus?

There is a video circulating making the claim that the cure for the Corona virus has always been known. The video clearly violates the terms of major content platforms regarding public health information, this is squarely within their first amendment purview. More communication is not always better communication. This is not to say that the state should be arresting people for what they say, but that if you give everyone an equally loud megaphone you live in a soup of painful noise. The cure claim revolves around the drug Hydroxychloroquine, known as HCQ. A malaria drug. The claim dates to roughly the Ides of March as the second phase of Trump’s magical thinking about the virus, just after disappearance. Remdesivir was never hailed as a miracle drug, Dexamethasone manages immune reactions in critically ill patients — never did either have the pinnace of the elixir HCQ.

I am interested in two dimensions of video: the way that it serves as an attack on symbolic structures and the way that it functions as a classifier attack.

No, it isn’t a miracle cure

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In this scene, a conman sells the town on an in appropriate monorail system by using bad arguments.

In these paragraphs I will review the substantive claims made about HCQ, this does not include full paranoid conspiracy theories. Paranoid conspiracy theory is a powerful style in melodramatic American politics. If one is convinced that the entire world is working on a massive, lethal joke on them, or that all the mechanisms by which information moves are inherently evil/wrong, you need to find a way to get their story to include new elements, to break the loop of fantasy. Hopefully these next two paragraphs

The evidence is abundant and clear: Hydroxychloroquine does not treat or prevent Covid19. There are approved uses for the drug where the benefits outweigh the real risks, like Lupus or Malaria. HCQ has borne a black box (severe side effects) warning for years. It is not intrinsically safe. Randomized clinical trials published in the New England Journal of Medicine confirm that HCQ doesn’t work in any phase of treatment. Even if you go on social media and recruit people who really want HCQ and use it for prevention rather than treatment, it doesn’t work. The “study” that said HCQ worked did not have a viable dataset and was retracted. There is the broader issue that the journal didn’t even know how to properly review the article as big data medicine is not even a nascent field at this point, meaning the article never should have been published. RetractionWatch has now counted thirty retracted Covid studies, many of which are tied to the HCQ concept. The studies based on bad or fake data are indefensible, for the most part the response here is to argue that the retractions were purely political (they were not) or to make the bizzare claim that studies retracting the claim were retracted.

There are hundreds of trials running on HCQ, likely wasting time and energy. It seems possible if not likely that one of those trials might find something, but given the trajectory we are on, these will be statistical noise, not viable evidence. If any of the hyperbolic claims about the power of HCQ were true, they would have appeared in the randomized clinical trials. Natural experiments for HCQ have fallen apart as countries with ubiquitous HCQ use are now in active surge. On this end of the argument, the shell game will begin to find countries with ostensibly low positivity and high HCQ use, even when the ground-truth of the story is much more complex, like a lack of functioning state structures or extreme Covid shame. Not to belabor the rules of causality, but an inductive claim fails when counter examples are presented, not when a single, flimsy, example remains. HCQ advocates are literally running the process of logic backwards. To this point the last fall back strategy for those arguing for HCQ has been to depend on observational claims (which are low power) when much more powerful RCT studies are already available.

And this is where we reach the full stop — there seems pretty clear agreement that HCQ is not effective. Continuing to debate it is a waste of time and energy. As a matter of general principle, people should not be made to debate points that are trivial or arguments made in bad faith. If you are still holding out hope that HCQ is the miracle drug, you should examine your feelings. Why do you want to believe this?

The alternative to the miracle drug, by the way, is not an abyss of despair, but the real solution to the disease: social distancing, contact tracing, wearing a mask, seeking medical attention when appropriate (where they will treat your more dangerous symptoms). This is how we handled disease for almost all of human history, and definitely through the mid-1950s when they found that lovely Polio vaccine. Baby boomers are just young enough not to know what it was like to live with endemic disease. The last horrid polio summer in Minneapolis coincided with the start of the boom — 1946, nationally the last polio summer was 1952. There was pandemic, shutdown, and sharp recession in 1957, if you are keeping score at home. Periodic disease shutdowns are just outside the memory of the good-ole days which seems to be a very narrow slice of the spring of 1959 for the folks who believe in such halcyon times. Social distancing and masks were not invented in 2020 for partisan reasons in the United States.

Why would someone make a video that makes claims that are obviously or even absurdly false?

At the beginning, these claims were being made to win the debate about opening versus lockdown. Finding the cure in the back of the medicine cabinet would have been quite convenient but too good to be true. I believe there are two strategic reasons why the video circulates now, which complement each other.

First, they would be engaged in an attack on symbolic efficiency. They want all arguments to be meaningless and consensus to be impossible. Reasons why you would do this? If you want to dissolve consensus around ideas like masking or medical authority in general. These sorts of attacks have been documented by Russian agents in the vaccine context. This is also one of the reasons why you re-litigate the same claim again and again — to prove your power — — there is no way that the other side can ever reach a conclusion on the matter. Powerful people then can in the name of experimentation and freedom force minorities to litigate their very lives ad nauseam.

This flows in three directions:

A. Flood the zone. Any time you can attack an institution you should. This is the heart of anti-fragility in rhetorical practice: it is easy to destroy credibility and authority, very hard to produce it. In this sense, the video is not serious, it is just one of dozens of random red-herring arguments to respond to. This is why HCQ is back, it is a rock that is available to be thrown. Literally, as I have argued in published research, this can noise the channel to the point that communication is jammed.

B. Validates the Big Giant head. If you are really committed to the idea that a single, charismatic leader is the only holder of truth, destroying all other idols would be a perfectly reasonable strategy. Extreme right media have already turned the HCQ argument to blame Dr. Fauci, not President Trump’s Tulsa Rally for the death of Herman Cain. All real knowledge has always flowed from the leader. Only the leader may decide what is true and false, thus you will forever litigate the same nonsense claim. Notice that this conceptual structure violates the core assumption of the common law and good faith argument in general: their movement is its own judge.

C. Destabilizes the debate. The rhetorical game of the video resonates with other conspiracy logics in American far right culture and is presented in a sermonic, rather than medical frame. It is stylistically and aesthetically disruptive to the idea of medicine as science, focusing instead on “your doctor” as the locus of expertise and care. If they can bring the medical debate into their world of style, paranoid and intense, with a frosting of loathing for experts who think they are better than average folks, the cake ends up being toxic. Polarization here will be asymmetric, unless you count the elderly electing not to die is a radical leftist notion. Much as Stephen Colbert joked that he would “feel the news at you” the conceptual logic of this attack supposes that you can feel the medical truth, rather than finding it scientifically.

At best this is a strategy to annoy and exhaust the public sphere. At worst the rhetorical strategy of the video is acid to dissolve politics. None of this is good faith argument.

Second, the video is an example of a classifier attack, which is intended to seem silly or even outrageous so that people who don’t believe will not continue and thus the time of the attacker won’t be wasted. This was demonstrated in Cormac Herley’s work on the Nigerian Prince e-mail scam. Youtube is an especially troubling site for this sort of discourse, as it is the place people go for demonstration videos. They don’t see it as rhetorical (persuasive speeches for an audience) or even dialectical (argumentative speeches before a judge) — the accord what they see there a dimension of facticity. If someone is unable to distinguish a poorly argued propaganda video from a demonstration of a hammer drill you, the scammer, have struck pay dirt.

For a scammer, false-positives are the worst outcome, it is better that someone ignores your appeal than spends your precious time. I once had a long conversation with a cruise ship raffle scammer. In the short term, I lost thirty minutes of my life, but I have derived more than that amount of time worth of enjoyment discussing the conversation over the proceeding fifteen years.

Consider the link to the article blaming Dr. Fauci, a few graphs up. The evidence provided sinks back into a well not of evidence, but layers of editorials. If you are this far in, taking this credibly, there are some great new takes for you. If you watch an hour long video on parasites, drink bleach, and see the worms in your foundation — you are going to buy some pills from the person who finally got you to cleanse. I presented research on this platform about the use of the President and his group to amplify Bleach drinking. Bleach consumption is a classifier attack.

So who stands to benefit?

Some folks likely want to spend their bandwidth and time selling to folks who want a deeply paranoid style of primary care. Others have magic pills (a staple of the extreme right media ecosystem) or a secondary business that you might contribute to or possibly a church to join. A few may be true believers or doctors willing to go along with bad virus medicine because they think there are drawbacks to shutdown (there are) but that in a world where they choose to believe in the miracle drug the balance goes the other direction. The promoters of the event (Tea Party Patriots) are likely using the claim as a classic classifier, reaching out to new audiences who desperately want to cling to something other than just muddling through.

But isn’t it oppressive to block terrible content?

No. There is no basis in any communication theory for unlimited speech at all volumes in all manners, times and places. Editorial judgement is the breath of life for the public sphere. Take note that the people who are arguing for unlimited speech also argue in bad faith, would be their own judges, and want to peddle conspiracy theories. It is almost like they want communication norms that destroy, rather than promote the public sphere…

I believe the most effective strategy in debating this point is to directly engage the core claim: that HCQ is a miracle cure for the virus. The aesthetic for argument here should not be ridicule, it also shouldn’t be invitation. This is a debate about a claim of fact and we should modulate the affect earnestly upon it. This is your classifier. It is possible you have found someone who is ignorant or confused and they need to actually hear the arguments. You should be able to pick up fairly quickly if they are actually confused or if they were arguing in bad faith the entire time.

Information platforms are right to take down this video. It does not serve a legitimate public purpose and is likely an attempt to damage public health efforts either for small time financial gain or political fundraising. There is a fundamental first amendment virtue in editing a newspaper. To access untrue or misleading information about major events, you should need to approach a platform that is clearly for this purpose, it should not be shelved next to videos that build your trust and credulity.

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