19 Nov 2020 Covid-19, social exclusion and digital inclusion
By Philip Lee
A paradox was evident during the coronavirus pandemic. People turned to digital technologies to be in communication and yet felt increasingly out of communication. Self-isolating people became distanced from the socio-cultural environment in which they were accustomed to live and it began to appear alien. To adapt the well-known saying from L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953), the present became a foreign country, where they did things differently.
Media specialist Michael Traber once described a prison culture of public communication, illustrating it with a parable:
“Try to imagine yourself as an inmate in a prison. In fact you have been in prison all your life. You were born there and grew up there. You live there with many other prisoners. But neither they nor yourself really know why you are there.
You catch glimpses of the outside world, and you wonder what it is like out there. But the fact that you really don’t know does not worry you excessively. Because you consider the state of being a prisoner as normal, the prison your natural habitat. As prisoners, you don’t have newspapers or radio and television sets. But there is an intercom system in your prison. The governor tells you everything that’s going on outside. He should know; he is well informed.
Occasionally new prisoners join you, usually for a short time. They tell you the strangest tales of what is happening outside, stories which confuse you. You are glad when they leave. Then you appreciate all the more the reassuring voice of the prison governor over the intercom.
This worldview from prison is a metaphor of our news culture. We see and hear very little of what is really going on in the world, and what we see and hear are unconnected fragments of an often distorted reality. Again, the real tragedy of this situation is that we consider it normal, that, like prisoners, we trust the media’s intercom system.”1
Surrounding the bubble of news and today’s social media is the habitat of community, bounded by upbringing, education, language, culture, and social mores. It offers security, stability, and the psychological comfort of shared values.
The anthropologist Edith Turner, elaborating on the work of her partner Victor Turner, has written about communitas: the sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning:
“Communitas comes through the readiness of the people – perhaps from necessity – to rid themselves of their concern for status and dependence on structures, and see their fellows as they are… Many circumstances can produce communitas. It often comes in the direst moments of the life of a person or society.”2
The coronavirus pandemic has clearly created a sense of communitas at different levels: the local and the response of neighbours to people in need; the national and the collective response of health and social workers; the global and increased recognition of a common humanity whose sufferings are closely tied to – exacerbated by – political and economic systems. What emerged was a certain sense of global solidarity, even while people, communities, and nations struggled to overcome structural deficits and political inertia.
At the same time, the very sense of communitas was challenged by physical distancing both immediate (family, friends, neighbours) and figurative (fragmented nations and a global village made distant by travel restrictions). While physical distancing was relatively easy in so-called developed nations, in countries of the global South, where conditions are radically different, problems became apparent. For example, in many rural contexts water scarcity meant that basic hygiene such as frequent washing of hands was impossible.
Building more inclusive economies and societies
The world may still be a global village, but barriers have now been erected that it will take time to remove. Paradoxically, separation and isolation, which deny a primordial need for human warmth and touch, have also improved our view of the “other”, the “outsider”, and our sense of human compassion. Many have been struck by the words of UN secretary general António Guterres:
“We simply cannot return to where we were before Covid-19 struck, with societies unnecessarily vulnerable to crisis. The pandemic has reminded us, in the starkest way possible, of the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protections and public services. It has underscored and exacerbated inequalities, above all gender inequity, laying bare the way in which the formal economy has been sustained on the back of invisible and unpaid care labour. It has highlighted ongoing human rights challenges, including stigma and violence against women.
Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. The recovery must lead to a different economy.”3
Guterres quite rightly calls for greater inclusivity in political and social systems that are able to respond more swiftly and adequately to today’s challenges. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities while creating deep suspicion and mistrust. Where did it come from? How might it have been prevented? Why were measures not taken sooner to counter its spread? These legitimate questions were aggravated by xenophobia, racism, denial by national leaders, and once again by the scandal of fake news spread by social media.
Annie Game, Executive Director of IFEX, the global network of organisations promoting and defending freedom of expression, commented:
“Despite efforts to provide timely fact-checking and some form of responsible content moderation, it is much easier to spread misinformation than to counter it. The lie goes viral; the correction generally does not. The problem is exacerbated by some world leaders who are exploiting this crisis and the elevated platform it gives them to ramp up their rhetoric vilifying the media – sowing confusion and distrust among people already reeling from the pandemic and hungry for answers.”
What Michael Traber called the ideological prison of public communication – to which must be added the technological prism of social media – worked against the circulation of trustworthy information and knowledge that might have saved lives. In addition, in a number of countries, e.g. China, Iran, and Thailand, governments failed to uphold people’s right to freedom of expression, vilifying and taking action against journalists and healthcare workers. This ultimately limited effective communication about the onset of the disease and undermined trust. In response, Human Rights Watch made the following recommendations:
- Governments should fully respect the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, and only restrict them as international standards permit.
- Governments should ensure that the information they provide to the public regarding Covid-19 is accurate, timely, and consistent with human rights principles. This is important for addressing false and misleading information.
- All information about Covid-19 should be accessible and available in multiple languages, including for those with low or no literacy. This should include qualified sign language interpretation for televised announcements; websites that are accessible to people with vision, hearing, learning, and other disabilities; and telephone-based services that have text capabilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Communications should utilize plain language to maximize understanding. Age appropriate information should be provided to children to help them take steps to protect themselves.
- Health data is particularly sensitive, and the publication of information online can pose a significant risk to affected persons and in particular people who are already in positions of vulnerability or marginalization in society. Rights-based legal safeguards should govern the appropriate use and handling of personal health data.
- Reliable and unfettered access to the internet should be maintained and steps should be taken to ensure internet access be available to people with low incomes.
Social media platforms change tack
US-based social media platforms, in stark contrast to how they have dealt with misinformation in the past, competed to be responsible and reliable sources of information about the coronavirus. Yet misinformation still continued to mutate and spread. Research carried out by Oxford’s Reuters Institute looked at the spread of 225 false or misleading claims about coronavirus and discovered that 88% of the claims appeared on social media platforms, compared with 9% on television or 8% in news outlets. A key finding was:
“In terms of formats, most (59%) of the misinformation in our sample involves various forms of reconfiguration, where existing and often true information is spun, twisted, recontextualised, or reworked. Less misinformation (38%) was completely fabricated.”
A separate survey by the Pew Research Center, “Nearly three-in-ten Americans believe Covid-19 was made in a lab”, said that, “About half of U.S. adults (48%) report having come across at least some news and information about Covid-19 that seemed completely made up, with 12% saying they have seen a lot of it and 35% saying they have seen some.”
In April 2020, journalists wrote an open letter titled “Rupert Murdoch, Fox News’ Covid-19 misinformation is a danger to public health” (The Guardian, 20 April 2020) calling on them to ensure that the information they deliver is based on scientific facts:
“The basic purpose of news organizations is to discover and tell the truth. This is especially necessary, and obvious, amid a public health crisis. Television bears a particular responsibility because even more millions than usual look there for reliable information. Inexcusably, Fox News has violated elementary canons of journalism. In so doing, it has contributed to the spread of a grave pandemic.”
However, elsewhere Covid-19 brought out the very best in public service media. Many are the television and radio stations and newspapers that focused in depth on how institutions and individuals were dealing and coping with the pandemic. It was not solely a matter of health advice and statistics. Many also focused on the psychological impact on people and communities unable to care for each other, their loved ones, and those who succumbed to the virus.
The Financial Times urged that the burden of the pandemic should be shared fairly. Reviewing moral codes held by religious traditions, the newspaper (11 April 2020) cited Rabbi Hillel (“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”), Jesus Christ (“Love your enemies”), and Immanuel Kant (“Act according to the maxim that you would wish all rational people to follow”). Recognizing that the threats which unite us also divide us – rich and poor, young and old – the editors concluded:
“Within all the moral traditions that insist upon the universal nature of our obligations to one another, the answer seems quite clear: we should act as if we really believed that ‘we are all in this together’. Those with the means to do so must help everybody else cope with the virus and with the costs of coping with it, not only today, but in future.”
It will be impossible to heal the divisions and to shape a future in solidarity without communication. The same digital platforms that today reinforce rumour, misinformation, and fake news can also provide what the historian Simon Schama calls “the oxygen of sociability”.4 They can contribute to greater understanding between people, to establishing new values, and to building a new sense of trust. But they will have to be monitored and regulated by independently appointed and financed bodies acting within appropriate legislation, and by civil society, which has a vested interest in genuinely democratic communication systems and in the public accountability of Big Tech.
Only strict oversight can guarantee a digital future in which people and communities are able to communicate with all the imagination and creativity that make them human. Only then will people gain a sense of communitas that is truly inclusive. ν
1. Traber, Michael (1995). “Beyond patriotism: Escaping the ideological prison”. In Javnost, Vol. 2 No. 2.
2. Turner, Edith (2012). Communitas. The Anthropology of Collective Joy. Palgrave Macmillan.
3. “Recovery from the coronavirus crisis must lead to a better world”, The Guardian, 2 April 2020.
4. “In a sickly time”. FTWeekend, 11 April 2020.
Philip Lee is General Secretary of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) and Editor of its international journal Media Development. His publications include The Democratization of Communication (ed.) (1995), Requiem: Here’s Another Fine Mass You’ve Gotten Me Into (2001); Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (ed.) (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (ed.) (2008); Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012); and Expanding Shrinking Communication Spaces (ed. with Lorenzo Vargas) (2020).
Photo: United Nations COVID-19 Response on unsplash.com