Hegseth, hand washing and social media

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Fox News host Pete Hegseth has said on air that he has not washed his hands for 10 years because “germs are not a real thing”.

That’s the headline you read on dozens of media sites and shared throughout social media (this one from BBC News). Instant reactions (mine included) were “ewwww…” followed by negative comments on Fox News in general. But when you stop to think about it, could it be true? Can someone actually go a decade without washing his hands?

No. Surely he bathes or showers regularly. One can’t believe a TV show host would be so unhygienic. His co-hosts would surely comment. Maybe he’s not as observant of the niceties of personal hygiene as others, but a whole decade?

And face it, it’s difficult to believe that even a Fox News host is so stupid as to not believe in germs. Alex Jones, and maybe the other fringe wingnuts like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers could believe such piffle, but surely not a mainstream media host with a university education. Could he? OMG!!!! the tweets erupted.

Predictably, social media lit up like a pinball machine over this comment. So Hegseth tried to explain:

Mr Hegseth later told USA Today that his remarks were intended to be a joke.
“We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell (a hand sanitiser) in their pockets, and they sanitise 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life,” he said.
“I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.”
Of the public reaction, he said it was ridiculous how people took things so “literally and seriously” so that their “heads explode”.

He’s right. We react and often over-react. We are knee-jerk trained. Social media has made us into Pavlovian emotional hair-triggers. I am sometimes guilty of it, too, because I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. No matter how hard I try to use reason, sometimes those eager little response hormones kick in first. Having our beliefs confirmed is comforting and reinforces them.

But Hegseth’s joke, if indeed it was one, didn’t get everyone laughing. It was a joke without a punchline. A lot of people believed it was true. And others found fault his later explanation, as noted in The Guardian:

On Twitter on Monday, Hegseth gave mixed messages. He claimed he had been joking and paraphrased the president in blaming the media for being so “self-righteous and angry”. He also said he supported drinking from hosepipes and riding bikes without a helmet…


The Washington Post piece headlined the story, “A Fox News host said he hadn’t washed his hands in 10 years. Was it a joke? We can’t tell.”

Forbes took the whole incident very seriously, with a lengthy piece on the benefits of handwashing and the dangers of being Hegseth:

Let’s think about what could have happened to Hegseth’s hands over the past decade. Published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, a study analyzing data from 4,775 people in the U.S. found that 95.9% of people poop from three to 21 times each week. Assuming that Hegseth would fall within this normal poop group, since 10 years means 520 weeks, Hegseth would have hit the can somewhere between 1,560 and 10, 920 times over the past decade. That then would have been the number of times he did not wash his hands after doing the plop. I feces you not, or maybe in this case feces you yes.

A walking column of feces! And Hegseth’s subsequent Twitter comments didn’t clarify things. Quite the opposite: at first he confirmed then denied not washing his hands, so readers were unsure which to believe. Not surprisingly, a lot of media (and readers) took his later explanation as a blatant backtrack CYA move. In later interviews, he tried more face-saving:

“My half-hearted commentary to the point is, we live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell in their pockets, and they sanitize 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life. I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.” Of note, Dictionary.com defines “half-hearted” as “having or showing little enthusiasm,” which is a bit different from the term “light-hearted.”

Yeah, he’s right despite the hyperbole: we live in a culture that believes all sorts of pseudoscience, New Age and marketing claptrap instead of actual medicine and science. From obsessive hand sanitizing to drinking breakfast smoothies to “detox”, we do foolish things, most of which make someone else money rather than contribute to our wellbeing. We’re being conned daily and we seldom wake up to that brutal fact.

And we sometimes forget that humans survived for millennia without bubble-wrapping or New Age woo hoo to protect ourselves from the threats of daily living. Still… wearing a bicycle helmet is like wearing a seatbelt while driving: a common sense approach to self-protection. Vaccinations are common sense protection against easily-prevented diseases. Washing your hands after you poop is a common sense way to keep you (and others) from getting sick later (think: e.coli and lettuce…). 

But by gratuitously adding other examples to his list of hedonistic acts, Hegseth tossed the baby out with the proverbial bath water. I expect in future Republicans will try to ban bicycle helmets while Democrats try to make them mandatory. Okay, I jest.

Hegseth’s “I don’t wash my hands” has become a widely-spread meme regardless of its truth. It’s the topic of school-marmy editorials on hygiene and serious articles on health and bacteria, especially those living on Hegseth. Bloggers rail on about him, his education and his upbringing. Almost no article, even those who recognize the joke, can end without some cautionary warning from the CDC or other health authority, just in case you decide to follow his allegedly-joking example:

Joke or not, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, washing your hands is vital in the prevention of illnesses and the spread of infections.
“People frequently touch their eyes, nose, and mouth without even realizing it. Germs can get into the body through the eyes, nose and mouth and make us sick,” the CDC says.
“Removing germs through hand washing therefore helps prevent diarrhea and respiratory infections and may even help prevent skin and eye infections.”

Fox News cartoon memeI believe Hegseth was trolling us. And he won. Sort of: it also backfired, in part because Fox has a reputation for not being very close to facts, truth or science. Metaphorically, if the sun were science or objective reality, Fox would be Pluto. Or Ultima Thule. Or maybe Alpha Centauri. Hegseth’s comments, regardless of his intention, merely confirmed for many Fox’s divisive anti-science, anti-intellectual views. And the media made sure we noticed. As The Guardian noted:

Fox has form, however, when it comes to denying scientific fact just because it is not immediately observable. Analysis by the progressive watchdog Media Matters for America found that Fox News hosts tend to discuss climate change when the weather is particularly cold, seeking to cast doubt over accepted science regarding rising global temperatures.

Fox News memeSo joke or not, a lot of people on social media treated it like truth and that reflected both on Hegseth and the company. Had one of his co-hosts had the wit to ask him at the time, “Are you joking?” he might have been able to rescue the situation with a simple, “Yes, of course,” and perhaps explain his attempt at humour, then expound on the bubble-wrapped society he criticizes. They didn’t and he didn’t, and as a result both he and his employer took a reputation hit (and reinforced some people’s belief that Fox News hosts are idiots).

Not that I have any sympathy for Fox. They’re part of a much bigger problem than this episode. But the Hegseth-handwashing furor was an indicator of many non-Fox factors at play. Social media can turn a fatuous comment like his into a shitstorm within seconds because people are so polarized and so quick to judge that we don’t always take the necessary time to think it through before we share or comment (and yes, mea culpa, I am sometimes guilty of this, too).

And in our charged, highly-polarized and politicized world, we seem to have lost our sense of humour. If a Fox News host said it, it can’t be funny: it has to be an attack on Democrats (conversely if a CNN host said it, Republicans would have been just as noisy in their condemnations). You can’t blame Trump for that, it’s much older and deeper than him, although he and his party, and his favourite news channel certainly have escalated the confrontation and condemnation more than others of late. And as a result, on social media everyone tends to react along these fracture lines, rather than contemplate and consider. Like a pack of wolves baying in concert, when we should all be laughing. But I find it hard to laugh with Fox news. At them, well, okay.

Last week, the Science Post published a piece with the headline, “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.” That post was shared and commented on by a lot of people – who clearly never read the article even though with such a headline, it just begged to be read. If they had opened it, people would have read this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Nullam consectetur ipsum sit amet sem vestibulum eleifend. Donec sed metus nisi. Quisque ultricies nulla a risus facilisis vestibulum. Ut luctus feugiat nisi, eget molestie magna faucibus vitae. Morbi luctus orci eget semper fringilla. Proin vestibulum neque a ultrices aliquet.

Science Post trolled is. Call it a test. Some of us failed. But it showed how quick we are to react to a headline, how rapidly our confirmation bias kicks in. Just like it did with the Hegseth story. We wanted to confirm what we already believe about Fox News and this gave us the comfortable foundation for that confirmation. And even after he denied it, we don’t really believe him because that would erode the bias that props up our world view.

Hegseth will be remembered as the guy who never washed his hands, not as the guy who joked about our germ-obsessed society. As noted on a BBC article titled, “Why so many people believe conspiracy theories,”

It may not be terribly cheering to learn that conspiracy theories are so embedded in political thinking. But it should not be surprising.
“It’s often the case that we’re constructing our beliefs in ways that support what we want to be true,” Prof Bartels says.
In the end, we want to feel comfortable, not be right.

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