"How scared do you think I should be?"
That was the question I posed to friends this week in wake of the COVID-19 virus that is now spreading around the globe. Fear, after all, seems like a reasonable reaction. The spread of the virus has been shot through with uncertainty about the disease itself, and also framed by images of bare shelves and shifting, worrying statistics (exponential growth! 3 percent mortality!). It's enough to make one want to never leave the house again.
Social media, something I often find to be a balm, hasn't helped. The sheer pace of information has made it hard to know what's true, what's reasonable, and what's just sensational. How scared should I be? I genuinely don't know.
How do you survive a pandemic in the age of social media? I imagine that many people turn to the internet in times of uncertainty for the same reason I do: to inform themselves, because knowledge feels a little like power. You can't control if someone coughs on you at the mall, but at least you can tell your friends about risk or provide some useful information about how to guard yourself — so that you too can answer that question about how scared to be.
The trouble is that effort to inform oneself relies on the idea that more information is good — a reasonable thought before social media. But now, the shortened timeline between the availability of information and contextualizing it can often confuse.
Take the recent briefing from the World Health Organization. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that "globally, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died," which was promptly spread out on news sites and social media. Trouble is that the wording of the statement is about reported cases. There are undoubtedly many people, possibly tens of thousands, who have COVID-19 but have only experienced mild, cold-like symptoms and never thought to get tested. The actual mortality rate is likely much lower.
Even if a correction or more detailed, expert reaction comes later, the damage is already done. It's a terrifying statistic, and fear is insidious, sort of like a contagion itself. The more vaguely inaccurate information spreads around, the more people panic, and the more unbalanced the reaction. Witness the stories about stores selling out of all sorts of things because of people suddenly hoarding — even toilet paper — and you get a sense of how things can spin out of control quickly.
This is all to say nothing of the mountains of misinformation that is being peddled either by bad actors or people who simply don't know any better (it's being compiled by BuzzFeed's Jane Lytvyenko here).
It points to the fragile nature of the information economy in the digital age. On the one hand, the tendency to push out information as it comes along leads to a great deal of misunderstanding and needlessly worry. On the other, downplaying the risk is arguably even more dangerous and, adding to the trouble, it seems that some efforts by the U.S. administration to stave off panic have resulted in being unprepared, or at least underplaying what is potentially at stake.
I find myself at a bit of a loss, entirely unsure how worried I should be, and how much I should change my day-to-day life — or, more urgently, that of my elderly parents, who statistically are at far greater risk for serious effects — simply because it's hard to pin down good information, even from usually reliable sources.
What it seems we need isn't just the obvious things — washing our hands frequently, avoiding unnecessary social contact and travel, or staying away from crowded places — but instead a kind of information hygiene: a set of habits to stop the spread of bad data and misleading falsehoods.
As individuals, those habits are about the same as they should be for other types of misinformation: Evaluate sources, don't spread information that you cannot verify is true or accurate, and be ruthlessly skeptical. A good approach to information in 2020 is, unfortunately, to assume that things are wrong until proven otherwise.
But these kinds of broad, social-scale problems also require more than individual solutions. Instead, media itself needs to teach people digital media literacy as other things like the education system or government catch up to the internet. A good example is found here on OneZero, which suggests cross-referencing information as a way to evaluate it.
Meanwhile, official channels need to step up to the risk of misinformation contagion and get in front of misleading data being bandied about. Regular, daily updates are key, as is easily findable and easily digestible information online. As but one example, a Canadian official said "wash your hands like you've been chopping jalapeños and you need to change your contacts" — which sounds funny, but is exactly the sort of grounded, easy-to-understand information that helps ordinary people.
There has been something eerie about the rise of COVID-19. As The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal put it, instead of talking about the future, the idea of a virus that interrupts global supply chains and could tank the economy means that "now the future has arrived." It's not so much that viral illnesses are new, as it is the connected nature of information, biology, and technology that create these difficult new dynamics. How worried should you be? About COVID-19, I don't know; but about the state of trust and information in the 21st century: probably a lot.
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