Henry Romero / Reuters

Have you heard that 38 percent of Americans won’t drink Corona beer, because they are afraid of contracting the coronavirus?

For the past hours, this finding has spread across the internet like wildfire (or, more apt, a dangerous disease). CNN, the New York Post, and Vice all wrote up the poll.

On Twitter, where “38% of Americans” was the top national trend for parts of the day, many writers with large followings used it as an occasion to condemn their fellow citizens as idiots. “38% of Americans shouldn’t be allowed to roam free,” Benjamin Dreyer, an author, wrote.

The problem here is that the poll, published by the PR agency 5WPR, absolutely did not find what the wags on Twitter say it did. Its dissemination, however, does tell us an awful lot about a screwed-up media system that allows unscrupulous companies and individuals to spread misinformation.

The original press release from 5WPR notes that in a survey of 737 beer-drinking Americans, 38 percent said they “would not buy Corona under any circumstances now.” By presenting this finding in the context of other questions that are explicitly about the coronavirus, the press release creates the impression that Americans’ reluctance to drink the beer is due to the coronavirus. “There is no question that Corona beer is suffering because of the coronavirus,” Ronn Torossian, the CEO of 5WPR, says in the press release. “Could one imagine walking into a bar and saying ‘Hey, can I have a Corona?’ or ‘Pass me a Corona.’”

But this connection is manufactured, and Torossian is ignoring far more mundane reasons Americans might not buy a Corona, including that they don’t like the taste. Of those Americans who did report regularly drinking Corona, only 4 percent said they would now stop drinking the beer.

A number of major news outlets appear to have walked right into the trap. Because they did not understand that the original press release was walking a fine line between deeply misleading claims and outright lies, their articles have inadvertently fallen on the side of the lie. As a viral tweet by CNN put it, the survey supposedly found that 38 percent of Americans would not drink Corona, “because of the coronavirus.”

It is one thing for unscrupulous PR agencies to get their name out by trying to mislead the public in a shameless manner. It is quite another for some of the country’s most prestigious and well-known media outlets to let themselves be played.

After repeated phone calls, emails, and tweets to 5WPR and its chief executive, I was finally able to get access to the full questions asked in the poll. These make clear that the survey was a fishing expedition designed to elicit viral stats. The questions asked in the poll include “Is Corona related to the coronavirus?” and “In light of the coronavirus, do you plan to stop drinking Corona?” But my requests for the results to these questions have so far gone unheeded. Maybe, just maybe, that’s because the results show that most Americans get the difference between a disease and a beer.

Ariel Edwards-Levy, the polling editor for HuffPost and one of the first journalists to register skepticism about the poll on Twitter, has also been unable to get access to the actual data. As she told me, “One of the best things a media outlet can do when reporting on polls is to insist on transparency about exactly what questions were asked and whom they were asked of. It’s also important that reporters treat polling as critically as they would any other source—for instance, being wary of ‘shock’ findings, contextualizing results with other available data, and avoiding the tendency to overstate or overinterpret results.”

By all appearances, journalists working for outlets from CNN to the New York Post have failed this test. As a result, they have made themselves unwitting tools of a clever misinformation campaign. (Journalists for CNN, Vice, and the New York Post have not yet responded to messages asking for comment.)

The strange virality of the Corona poll demonstrates that there are ruthless PR flacks who are willing to play fast and loose with the truth. It also shows that there are many journalists at supposedly trustworthy news outlets who are so desperate to rush to publication that they can wind up misinforming their public. (What else is new?)

The real question is why this obscure poll would, even if it had been true, be able to capture the imagination of so many people. And the answer is as obvious as it is saddening: Clearly, a lot of Americans already think that their fellow citizens are stupid. The real reason a fake finding could have spread so far so quickly is that it confirmed prejudices about the world that many have held all along.

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