POLITICS
12/16/2014 02:59 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Ebola Panic Wins 'Lie Of The Year,' But The Real Culprit Goes Free

A tourist poses for a photo next to Jeff Hulbert from Annapolis, Maryland, dressed in a protective suit and mask demanding fo
A tourist poses for a photo next to Jeff Hulbert from Annapolis, Maryland, dressed in a protective suit and mask demanding for a halt of all flights from West Africa, outside the White House in Washington, DC on October 16, 2014. Top US health officials faced a grilling Thursday by lawmakers infuriated over the nation's fumbling response to the Ebola outbreak, as the Obama administration scrambles to contain the disease's spread. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Thomas Frieden has become the most prominent target of the criticism, which has mounted as it emerged that a second Texas health care worker infected with the deadly disease was allowed to board a commercial flight despite reporting a low-grade fever. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

As is their wont, the folks at PolitiFact have gone back and conducted a thorough review of a year of lies and falsehoods to offer readers their "Lie Of The Year" -- trusting, with the faith of a small child, that here in these last two weeks of 2014, no one will offer up the sort of reality-capsizing deception that has earned this distinction in the past.

Previous winners of this dubious honor have been lies that stood out as zeitgeist-marauding deceits whose distortions reverberated across the political landscape. 2009's honoree, Sarah Palin's claim that the Affordable Care Act called for "death panels," set the woolly-eyed tone that would come to define conservative opposition to Obamacare. Last year's Lie Of The Year, President Barack Obama's assertion that "if you liked your plan, you can keep it," blew a gaping hole in the president's approval ratings, which subsequently played a major role in the Democratic Party's midterm wipeout.

This year, PolitiFact returns once again to that intersection of politics and public health, attaching its shameful accolade to all of the nonsense that occurred after Thomas Eric Duncan -- a Liberian man who traveled to Texas in September -- became the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States:

Duncan’s case is just one of two Ebola-related fatalities in the United States, and since Duncan traveled to Dallas, more Americans -- at least nine, and likely many more -- have died from the flu.

Yet fear of the disease stretched to every corner of America this fall, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said Ebola was easy to catch, that illegal immigrants may be carrying the virus across the southern border, that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy.

The claims -- all wrong -- distorted the debate about a serious public health issue. Together, they earn our Lie of the Year for 2014.

PolitiFact says that one of the factors its researchers weigh when determining the "Lie Of The Year" is the extent to which "a myth or falsehood infiltrates conventional thinking." There's no doubt that America's first Ebola outbreak provided a fertile space for the paranoid style in American public health crises, a space in which outsized panic and conspiracy flourished.

So why does this feel oddly unsatisfying as a "Lie Of The Year?" Maybe because lots of what was wrong about the way people talked about Ebola was less about an active attempt to deceive, and more about people simply being complete idiots.

Take, for example, George Will, one of the people PolitiFact singles out for making false claims about the virus. As PolitiFact itself reported at the time, Will went on "Fox News Sunday" in October and said a bunch of wrong things about Ebola, including likening it to an airborne disease. It turns out that Will got his information from a commentary posted by two University of Illinois professors on the website of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Per Politifact:

The commentary, co-written by Lisa Brosseau and Rachel Jones, argued that health care workers treating patients with Ebola should wear respirators. Face masks, they said, are not enough.

We asked Brosseau if Will had correctly relayed her work. Brosseau said her views had nothing to do with Ebola spreading among the public at large. The focus was on health care workers treating people in the isolation wards.

"We were concerned about aerosols generated by infected patients in the most severe stage of the disease," Brosseau said.

Will had mistakenly connected the pathway of infection in a hospital room with someone coughing or sneezing in public.

The key phrase here is "mistakenly connected." See, when George Will actually wants to misrepresent scientific research in order to concoct an elaborate lie, he knows how to do it and he goes for it. (He also knows that he has a cretin of an editor who sees the controversy created by misinformation as nothing more than a monetization opportunity.)

In this instance, however, I'm not sure if you can call Will a "liar." Rather, he's just being vastly stupid -- a descriptor I'd attach to many of the people PolitiFact blasts in its "Lie Of The Year" examples:

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., described Ebola as "incredibly contagious," "very transmissible" and "easy to catch." Mostly False.

Internet conspirators claimed President Obama intended to detain people who had signs of illness. Pants on Fire. Bloggers also said the outbreak was started in a bioweapons lab funded by George Soros and Bill Gates. Pants on Fire.

A Georgia congressman claimed there were reports of people carrying diseases including Ebola across the southern border. Pants on Fire. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Americans were told the country would be Ebola-free. False.

See, that, to me, is a piquant mix of people who are utterly clueless about Ebola and yet still bent on talking about it, and fever-swamp denizens, lost to reality, doing what comes naturally to them.

Of course, when it comes to the elaborate fearmongering about Ebola potentially coming over the border -- which nested public-health paranoia within nativist fears of immigration amnesty -- it's worth questioning whether the people enunciating this sort of demented wrongness are doing so because they're actively operating in bad faith, or because they're just nimrods. Having examined this phenomenon myself, I can tell you it's not perfectly clear whether the people who spread these fears were truly seeking to deceive, or whether they were simply swept up in genuine -- if uninformed -- concern. With that in mind, I might have given Sen. Mark Pryor's (D-Ark.) willfully false Ebola attack ad against his Republican opponent (and eventual conqueror), Rep. Tom Cotton, higher billing than multiple examples of Rand Paul just not knowing what he's talking about.

PolitiFact does note that politicians became much less concerned about Ebola after the midterm elections were over -- which suggests that many of the political figures peddling Ebola-paranoia may have done so simply to win an election. But what that decline also suggests is that there's a target more worthy of blame. As PolitiFact notes:

Over the course of November, Ebola mentions on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC dropped 82 percent, according to a review of closed caption transcripts. Mentions on the three cable networks dipped another 35 percent in the first week of December.

At the same time, at least 3,578 more people contracted Ebola, according to the World Health Organization, and another 1,119 people died. Overall, the death toll has crept near 6,400.

"Look where we are now, do we hear much about the epidemic in Africa any more? Do we hear about the effective measures that hospitals have put in place? The list goes on and on," said Adam Lauring, assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School’s division of infectious diseases. "Perhaps some of it is the 24-hour news cycle, the Twitter-verse, etc. Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that this all hit right before the election and it was easy to politicize."

Here, Lauring bring us closer to identifying the actual culprit behind the Great Ebola Lie: a media -- especially a cable news media -- that went out of their way to amplify whatever Ebola nonsense came along. If anything, the media gets off very lightly in PolitiFact's retelling of the Ebola scare. But make no mistake, it was the media that turned "being obviously wrong about Ebola" into an airborne, infectious disease. Without them, this is a story about isolated idiots being incorrect in the privacy of their own homes.

It's a pity that this only gets glancing mention in PolitiFact's round-up, but that's probably the nature of things. PolitiFact exists to police what is true and what is not on a case-by-case basis, not necessarily to criticize the means by which wrongness becomes transmissible. And taken as a whole, our brief interaction with Ebola in 2014 did feel like we were swimming upstream in a river of misinformation -- and we're lucky that we didn't pay a higher price for being so misinformed.

Still, it's strangely unsatisfying to have a "Lie Of The Year," that points its harshest finger at the idiots and the dupes, and not at an actual liar.

Could there have been a better example of a "Lie Of The Year?" Perhaps! I'm guessing that "Rolling Stone rigorously and vigorously fact-checked Sabrina Rubin Erdely's story" and "torture was an effective means of extracting critical information from suspected terrorists" came in too late in the year to qualify for consideration.

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BEFORE YOU GO

  • 1 Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
    Not as far as we know. <a href="http://www.who.int/features/2014/ebola-myths/en/" target="_blank">Ebola isn't contagious unti
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
  • 2 You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne,
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne, so unless someone coughed their phlegm directly into your mouth, you wouldn't catch the disease. Though medical staff will take every precaution to avoid coming into contact with the body of an infected person at all costs, with stringent hygiene there should be a way to contain the virus if it reaches the UK.
  • 3 Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
  • 4 Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals <i>want</i> to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
  • 5 Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly dia
    LEON NEAL via Getty Images
    They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
  • 6 Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Afric
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.
  • 7 Ebola doesn't have a cure
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British su
    John Moore via Getty Images
    There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British sufferer William Pooley and two other Americans who caught the disease in west Africa and they all recovered. Supplies of the drug have now run dry, and it has not been through clinical trials to prove its effectiveness. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug's supplies are exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch. But an Ebola cure is very much on the horizon, and would have come sooner had it been seen as any kind of priority for drug companies before it started reaching the western world.
  • 8 Ebola is a death sentence
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are m
    ASSOCIATED PRESS
    It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are more positive, a death rate of around 60%. Those who have decent, strong immune systems, are able to access intravenous fluids and scrupulous health care are far more likely to survive, which is why the survival rate of westerners who contract the disease is far better. Experts have suggested that, rather than waste money on pointless airport screenings, funds could be used to improve infrastructure in the affected nations to help halt the spread of the disease at source.
  • 9 Ebola turns you into a zombie
    Just,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/06/ebola-zombie-risen-dead-viral-hoax_n_5937728.html" target="_blank">
    Renee Keith via Getty Images
    Just, no.
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