Online resources provide a much better tool for understanding COVID-19 than broadcast news
Had South by Southwest not been canceled, I would have been giving a talk there this morning about fake news. I think they wanted me to get all worked up about the danger of deepfake videos, but I was having a hard time freaking myself out.
It seemed to me that deepfakes would eventually restore the primacy of trusted news agencies and journalists. The less we can trust the veracity of videos, the more we must depend on those whose responsibility it is to determine the provenance and context of everything. If anything, the more accustomed we become to the idea that video pictures have no more claim to truth than text or speech, the less power these constructed images will have over us.
The bigger threats to public coherence aren’t the internet’s falsified videos at all, but television’s truthful ones. The preponderance of sensationalist, fearmongering images distracts us from everything that actually matters. In a glib nod to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, I had decided to call my SXSW talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Fake News.” I meant it as more than a clever allusion. For, like the montage of documentary atomic bomb footage at the end of that movie, the images flickering on our television sets may be true, but they are not the things we should be worried about. In fact, if we turn off the TV and look online, we put ourselves in a much better position to understand and confront our challenges. Never has that been more apparent than during the coronavirus pandemic.
Television treats the virus the only way it knows how: As if it were a branded image. That 3D representation of COVID-19, complete with a scary theme song and designer logo, is how TV wants us to relate to the virus. No context, no call to action. Just another bit of sensationalist news porn constructed to paralyze viewers into passive submission. Like a picture of an atomic bomb blast. Pure terror.
The real story is not happening on the tube at all, but here on the ground in the real world.
Of course one could argue that terrorizing Americans is the only way to get them to act. But that’s not what television’s sustained assault is conveying. Instead, it tells us we are in the midst of a slow-motion crash of unknown magnitude, and we must remain with our eyes glued to the screen if we wish to survive. Yet by surrendering our faculties to the tube, we relegate our real-world problems to the narrators on television. And, like any good storyteller, their focus is on the characters: President Donald Trump, the Chinese mask-wearers, Dr. Anthony Fauci, former Vice President Joe Biden, and even the virus itself. The otherwise invisible threat must be rendered for the screen.
Meanwhile, Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo attempt to embody our moral outrage, criticizing every Trump administration move as if he were intentionally steering the Titanic into an iceberg. For viewers, it feels good for a moment: Here is a villain, someone to rally against.
For his part, Trump is intent on using television to undermine the gravity with which our health experts want us to treat the virus. His incoherent speeches suggest he still doesn’t know what all the fuss is about — as if the crisis isn’t quite bad enough even to pull him out of his daydreams. He shakes hands and shares a much-handled microphone with his health administrators, even as they explain the importance of social distancing. Even his decision to discourage testing for those exposed to the virus seems devised less to promote the disease than to depress stats around the virus. What’s actually happening on the ground doesn’t matter. All that counts is how it looks on TV.
The real story is not happening on the tube at all, but here on the ground in the real world. And to engage with the ground, our digital platforms may be the better choice of media.
In neighborhoods around the country, people are creating Google Groups, WhatsApp lists, Facebook groups, and other simple ways to communicate with one another. Whether sharing testing data, medical information, food availability, or simply comforting one another, we are using the microlocal capacities of the internet to escape television’s competing “narratives” and take control of our own experience. Schools are communicating directly with parents and students, using facts and transparency to combat fear and uncertainty. “A student lives in a home where relatives tested positive for COVID-19,” an email explained to residents in my town just last night. “Our students and parents can expect to hear directly from teachers by Tuesday about what teachers will be doing to ensure that there is a continuation of learning.” These are true but also actionable facts delivered straight to the inbox. No video required.
Sure, a whole lot of what happens online simply reflects and amplifies television’s shortcomings. Where TV may generate the sensemaking vacuum, the internet is all too willing to provide a full spectrum of alternative, often false narratives.
One of the first memes to spread online was a set of instructions for how to test oneself for COVID-19 by counting the number of seconds you can hold your breath. Likewise, the folks interpreting QAnon are convinced that the virus and quarantines are giving cover to an imminent Trump military operation to capture over a thousand deep state pederasts.
But these internet narratives, however far-fetched or misinformed, reveal the desperation people have to comfort themselves through media — to become active participants in an unfolding crisis that television tells them is absolutely out of their control. If I can hold my breath for 10 seconds, it means I don’t have the disease? If I just sit back and eat canned food for a couple of weeks, will the military dismantle the deep state, round up a ring of pederasts, and erase my debt?
We are not spectators of the COVID-19 show, but participants.
And many have found more constructive ways to exercise that same impulse. For them, the net is rising to the occasion in ways that television — with its addiction to the image — just can’t do. For instance, unsatisfied with the paucity of facts on TV, Avi Schiffman — a 17-year-old Washington State high school junior — built what may still be the most comprehensive and accessible map of available global data on COVID-19. He collected and cross-referenced data available through the APIs of national health departments, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He’s not only showing data of contagion rates and deaths but because “it would be cool,” he’s also posting more positive information such as the numbers of people who have recovered. “It shows that it is not all negative. The recovery number is big.”
Likewise, Safecast, an organization created after the Fukushima disaster to collect and map radiation data by giving sensors to people around the world, has initiated a similar effort for COVID-19. In their words, “We find ourselves again trying to better understand what is happening. In part, because the situation is changing so rapidly, but also due to a lack of transparency, conflicting reports, partisan spin, and intentional misinformation make it hard to keep up.” Instead, they are working on how to apply their learnings from crowdsourcing nuclear information online toward promoting the sort of participatory public activity and awareness that can address this crisis actively as internet users instead of television viewers.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the virus. I am. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the television determine my relationship with this thing. We are not spectators of the COVID-19 show, but participants. This is the moment we need to leverage the very best of our emerging digital sensibilities and capabilities. The less we fixate on images designed to distract, hypnotize, or trigger us, the more we invite our agency to the fore.
This is how we, as a society, develop the cultural immune response required to face such a challenge together.
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