The Structural Problem COVID-19 Revealed that Nobody is Talking About
For the almost six months past, the world has been living through the nightmare of the coronavirus pandemic. This is news to nobody. Around the world, in so-called free democracies, authoritarian countries, in small towns, big cities, and likely in isolated communities we don’t know about, everybody knows that COVID-19 is a problem.
However, there is intense disagreement about what comes next: why the pandemic arose, what we are to do, who is to blame, or even if it is over yet. Now more than ever, some of us are being alerted to the enormous slew of misinformation surrounding the virus that the WHO thought was important enough to classify as an “infodemic” on par with the actual virus. I can speak to the U.S. side of the equation because it is the one I’m most acquainted with. Some think that the virus is a Chinese or Democrat hoax designed to make Trump look bad. Others think that it was caused by 5G cell towers. Some say we shouldn’t wear masks because they make it easier to catch the virus, or keep more of it on your face. People who were forced to accept its existence now say it’s over. More still say that Bill Gates is planning to conduct surveillance on us all by injecting us with tiny machines through a vaccination program.
The sheer volume and creativity of these narratives is staggering, and the effects are tragic. Misinformation has been systematically picked up and repeated by right-wing media companies like Fox and Breitbart to the degree that there now exist notable partisan divides in COVID-related beliefs. In June, PEW Research reported that in their study sample, 29% of Republicans and independents leaning-Republican always wore masks, 23% most of the time, 25% some of the time, 14% rarely, and 9% never. Compare this to 63%, 23%, 10%, 0% and 0% of Democrats and independents leaning-Democrat on the same measures, respectively. Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have seemed to have made it their personal crusade to cast doubt on mask-wearing. In a report from later in July, PEW noted that 34% of Republicans and lean-Republicans believed that the coronavirus outbreak was planned by powerful people, as compared to 18% of Democrats and lean-Democrats — which is a sad bar for comparison.
Those are not the polling numbers that reflect a population who is prepared to face up to a pandemic. It’s no wonder that the U.S. has the highest case and death toll in the entire world — a fact that is also disputed on a highly partisan basis.
Beyond One Infodemic
For many, the pandemic exposed sides of society that they had no idea existed, or simply did not feel as acutely; that Black and Brown people are dying at much higher rates, for a variety of reasons including systemic service work, poor environmental conditions, and lack of access to healthcare; that warehouse and gig economy workers have terrible jobs; or that these diseases are not “Made in China” but rather being spread to humans as a result of ecological destruction. COVID-19 has exposed problems that are hardwired into the systems that sustain those who get to ignore them, and misinformation is yet another of them. Perhaps if this was the only case of conspiracy and misinformation that had risen in recent memory, there would be no cause for alarm or even note.
The very composition of information technologies — particularly social media platforms — is responsible for creating this chaos.
Just as many may ask of systemic racial injustice, “Well, sure it’s bad now, but if it’s so systemic, what are some other instances this has happened?” some may be demanding examples. But, nobody can point at all of the instances where it occurs. Rather, it is the water we swim in. Systemic racism is baked into your psyche, and it need not manifest in police killings to be present, even though it does all the time. Systemic misinformation is also baked into our lives through the systems with which we interface with the world, and it is embedding itself in our psyches as the “normal” way to see the world.
But just for the record, even today the New York Times has a front page story about disinformation purposely seeded by Russia on Facebook and Twitter. And this is hardly the first time anyone has seen the epidemic of misinformation plague social media giants. In 2017, Congress called Facebook to task over it. In 2018, the platform helped facilitate a genocide in Myanmar. Last year, Facebook was fined $5 billion by the U.S. government for its role aiding Cambridge Analytica, who claimed to have significantly helped Trump win the election by using military-grade psychographic technology. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
The very composition of information technologies — particularly social media platforms — is responsible for creating this chaos. It can no longer be viewed as a per-company problem, but a serious defect in the technologies themselves. By nature of their design, and in conjunction with some evolved cognitive processes that we cannot extricate from ourselves, these tools drive us into alternate realities; whether we are manipulated explicitly, or we simply do it to ourselves. In a world where there are so many different viewpoints, where access to them is completely decentralized and unregulated, we are doomed to stumble into lies, become increasingly polarized, and pay the price in big ways.
Perhaps the worst part is that older established institutions are succumbing to the ill effects of this new way of interacting with the world, and reinforcing the fires that crop up. Journalists are scanning social media for stories to pick up and earn them a prestigious breaking headline. Traditional media companies are also benefiting from the whiplash-inducing 24 hour news cycles spurred by a buffet of sensational stories spread on social media. For all of his obvious blunders and psychopathy, Trump’s showmanship instincts have allowed him to grip the nation and drag us from outrage to outrage via his platform on Twitter — a tactic that some of the more savvy have warned of since his early days.
More Crises to Come
Misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic is not the entire story, but simply the latest crisis generated by defective systems that our lives are, in this moment, inextricably intertwined in. Like any systemic issue, the story continues unseen until the next outrage cascades through the population.
Perhaps more dangerous is the ensuing pandemic of fractured realities — a world where many of us have different interpretations of reality that hinder cooperation; one where the streams of information that flow into our minds are divergent, and there exist no levies or dams to control them.
What do we imagine will happen even in the best-case scenario where Trump loses the election by a landslide; will his supporters and the entire right-wing media apparatus simply roll over, admit defeat, and sign up for whatever agenda becomes pushed by the White House? Many of us are stuck in a mindset of top-down authority because that’s what has been pushed onto us for our entire lives. We imagine that a new governmental leader will miraculously force those who have risen up, emboldened by the proliferation of far-right ideology, into the shadows once again. This is a naive narrative that does not recognize the decentralized nature of our technology-driven society. Just because a new leader would be in the White House does not mean that anybody who follows Trump would begin subscribing to Biden. They will still watch Fox News, read Breitbart, see the same right-wing stories shared on social media from their same friends, and remain in their reality — just as we on the left, far left, or center will do the same.
Misinformation is also not the end of the story, and focus on the act may distract us from the results. Perhaps more dangerous is the ensuing pandemic of fractured realities — a world where many of us have different interpretations of reality that hinder cooperation; one where the streams of information that flow into our minds are divergent, and there exist no levies or dams to control them. Once our realities are fractured, it will be likely impossible to sew them back up cohesively unless the tools that facilitated separation in the first place are changed.
Potential Steps Forward
While the specifics of how to address this issue can never be fully laid out, there are some core strategies that we can follow which may lay the groundwork for a new, shared reality. But be forewarned, they may bump up against our worldviews and seem deeply, emotionally uncomfortable. Steps forward to address systemic issues seem to be the most challenging because the mentalities are some of the most deeply ingrained, and unquestioned in us.
Radically reshape your social media. We need to engage in deep reflection on the ways that it can manipulate us without our knowing, and on top of that, set up self-imposed guidelines of usage for ourselves, and constantly re-engage with them, or we will likely fall prey to its worst effects. To any of my skeptical comrades on the left who think this is a right-wing-only problem, look no further than our latest misstep of social justice outrage. At this point, even a curated social media feed is not enough.
Amidst information whiplash and fractured realities, the ground in which to sew seeds of progress is not fertile. The current state of affairs will likely lead to perpetual conflict if we are not cautious.
Intentionally cultivate and deepen radically humanizing connection with others. One of the worst effects of fractured realities is that we see others as text on a screen, and instantly condemn or hate them even though we don’t know them. Then we never have to engage with them again. We can condemn actions that others take, but that may not make them bad people. Have you ever been wrongly judged and condemned for a mistake you made, or something that was completely misinterpreted? The more we build connections with others that are deep, rather than amassing many shallow ones, the more we practice grounding our lives in empathy, and the emotional intelligence necessary to foster shared humanity.
Slow down. The pace of information is only as fast as we allow it to be. If you are someone who has outsize influence in the media and public opinion stream, you may have extra responsibility to carefully, and methodically allow your thoughts to stew, be challenged by differing viewpoints, and honestly check your biases before broadcasting them. For we normal information consumers, we also have more power than we realize: if we maintain vigilance, constant skepticism, and do a bit of research on an issue after reacting to it, we can create healthier information ecosystems that may begin to mitigate the volatile, reactionary nature we see today.
These are by no means easy or comprehensive steps, but they seem critical to maintaining a culture that can actually make progress. Amidst information whiplash and fractured realities, the ground in which to sew seeds of progress is not fertile. The current state of affairs will likely lead to perpetual conflict if we are not cautious.