I like to think that the quarantine encouraged a period of sober reflection on issues ordinarily upstaged by the usual demands of daily living—reflection that now demands action. The pandemic gave society literal pause, in which to re-evaluate priorities. It signalled an opportunity to reset expectations, to raise the bar. It created a situation in which we were obliged and willing to listen to our leaders; in exchange we now insist that they listen to us. Yet I can’t help wondering: how is it that for weeks on end the news and social media were obsessed with nothing but Covid19, then suddenly were obsessed with nothing but police brutality and racial discrimination? Does the mind really have a single track, able to focus only on one theme at a time? Given that reality is multifaceted, what are the implications of this as a phenomenon?
Of course, during the shut-down there was a genuine reduction of the activity that could lead to notable events competing with health-related news. And unquestionably, police brutality and racism are such serious chronic issues that people passionately want to bring them to a final reckoning, now that they feel freer to emerge from isolation. Many of the people taking to the streets have actually been victims of racism or police brutality or know someone personally who has been. They know what they are talking about. Yet, I remain concerned about the bandwagon effect in which the media seem to have a one-track mind. However appropriate and urgent, the fixation on pandemic-related matters (and now on race-related matters) also raises the question of what is newsworthy, and what is the proper role of news casting. Far from being a comprehensive and in-depth account of world events, the principal role of the news seems to be to spread “memes,” which are the mental equivalent of viruses. The expression “go viral” is no coincidence.
The term infodemic has been used to describe the widespread misinformation and fake news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. More broadly, it characterizes this era of social media. If the news and social media are vectors of that disorder, what are its background causes, and what might be the cure? What makes society (people) susceptible to rumor, hoax and fad—a condition that could be called infodemia. Basically, it’s the challenge to sift the true or worthy from the confusing chaff of information with which we are daily bombarded. Infodemia is the downside of modern connectivity.
Part of the problem is the proliferation of new information channels, where anything goes. Social media and self-publishing lack the editorial functions built into traditional modes. On the other hand, part of the problem lies with the old channels—the news media and the traditional publishing industry. These have morphed into commercial giants whose interests, motives, methods, and dominating point of view are suspect. Consolidation renders them top-down and hyper vetted. Concentration of ownership means power to exclude all but a few voices. Ironically, it is technologically easier than ever to print a book or article, but harder than ever for a new or marginal author to emerge. Monopoly makes a monoculture. Alternative channels have emerged to compensate, which are rapidly displacing the conventional ones. But, if the latter are too selective, the former offer no discrimination at all. We used to rely on editors to provide us with quality literature. Now they simply defer to our taste (or lack of it) to determine what the market will bear. We used to rely on journalists and newscasters to vet the information with which we are daily glutted. Now they seem all too anxious to jump on the bandwagon of what they think the public wants to hear about. This is the kind of feedback loop that becomes a vicious circle.
But that is hardly news. In fact, it resembles the crisis of faith introduced by the printing press. For centuries, religious ideas had been vetted by a priestly hierarchy, who had privileged access to the written word. The “one true church” carefully guarded its advantage by regimenting one true doctrine. Then suddenly printing gave wide and easy access to scripture and diverse commentary on it, as well as to the pagan writings of the ancients, bypassing Church control of knowledge. The Reformation was not only a religious revolution and a protest against the corruption of the Church. It was also a media revolution. The more orthodoxy was challenged, the more literature attacking or defending it proliferated. The medieval worldview was shattered; but from the debris emerged the synthesis we know as the modern worldview.
The other side of burgeoning information was the burden placed on the individual to sort through it. Your beliefs could determine your fate, both in this life and the next. While the Church had long told its flock what to believe (its own version of fake news), suddenly people now had the means and the need to decide for themselves. But, the burden of choice is anxiety. The stakes were high, since you could go to hell or be burnt alive! We are living through a similar media revolution, with its burden of choice and attendant anxieties. We have similarly cut loose from orthodoxies and authorities in which we formerly had faith, released to fend for ourselves in a wilderness of information and conflicting opinions. The challenge is once more to know what to believe—where to stand or not to stand. The potential is once again for a new vision to emerge from this chaos. Eternal hellfire may no longer seem a threat to most people. But the stakes remain high, for hell on earth remains a real possibility.
Perhaps the only cure for infodemia is common sense. If there is truly such a thing, it surely has a dimension of empathy and fellow-feeling as well as maintaining an even keel. Unfortunately, common sense did not prevail in the Reformation, which was plagued by extremism and civil wars. Despite the ideology of progress, it did not fare well in the 20th century. It did (barely) prevail during the Cold War, to the extent that no nuclear attack was actually launched—despite a few close calls, inquisitorial repression on both sides, and the inflammatory rhetoric of the period. The world seems now on the brink of a new unity, occasioned perhaps by the pandemic as a common cause. It seems to be moving forward to redress the deep roots of disunity. These include racism (and more generally Otherness) and police brutality (and more generally the unequal distribution of wealth). Hopefully common sense will prevail to guide us, wiser now, into a more equitable future.