Internet and Social Media in the Age of Coronavirus

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On the menu today: trying to keep a cool head on one’s shoulders when there’s a serious public-health crisis and a social-media environment that rewards hyperbole and drama, figuring out why so many members of the U.S. media are quick to defend the good name of the Chinese government, an update on CPAC, and a funny video about teaching your kids at home that feels just a little too real right now.

Practicing Safe Social-Media Distancing

Everything that we’re currently enduring would be worse without the Internet. Without it, we wouldn’t be getting nearly as much information nearly as quickly. Our ability to look up what doctors are saying would be nil. Our ability to know what the coronavirus is doing in other countries would be limited to foreign correspondents. Our knowledge about the crisis we’re facing would be limited to what we were hearing from the television, the radio, newspapers, and magazines.

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The requirements of self-quarantine and social distancing mean we’re all interacting with each other electronically — email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media networks. But at least we’re still interacting. If the coronavirus had popped up in the early 1990s, we would be all stuck talking on landlines to each other — and medical and pharmaceutical technology wouldn’t be what it is today.

With all of that said . . . this is going to be bad. Robert VerBruggen looks at the most pressing problem of hospitals in some parts of the country starting to approach capacity already. This isn’t merely the coronavirus patients; hospitals were already treating lots of sick people.

The world has no shortage of real news right now. Two members of Congress tested positive for the coronavirus. The New York Stock Exchange is temporarily closing the trading floor and moving to all electronic trading for the time being. The Census counting is temporarily being suspended for two weeks. Congress is trying to put together a massive stimulus bill quickly, knowing that millions upon millions of Americans just found themselves out of work, and many service industry jobs will not reappear anytime soon.

In a sudden abundance of actual news, we don’t need any of the overhyped social-media clickbait news. Perhaps that’s why the obsessive coverage of whether this should be called simply “the coronavirus” or “Chinese coronavirus” or “Wuhan virus” or “COVID-19” is so irksome right now. It’s a classic Trump-era debate about whether a particular term is a signal of xenophobia, and whether we need to all practice visible tolerance by rebuking anyone who uses the verboten phrases — even though plenty of media organizations called it “the Wuhan coronavirus” plenty of times up until very recently. This is an extremely comfortable and familiar position for some of our most prominent media voices: “We have suddenly decided this common term is racially offensive and socially unacceptable; quick, let’s all punish anyone who doesn’t go along.”

There is a more sinister theory about the largest institutions of the national media suddenly making a full-court press against Americans associating this virus with China. When you see former U.S. officials declaring, “Today, a San Franciscan would be safer in Beijing,” or headlines like, “Coronavirus has vindicated China, exposed the West,” (the Stanford Daily) and “As virus spreads, other countries can learn from China,” (AP) and “The Coronavirus is making China’s model look better and better” (Bloomberg News) . . . you start wondering, why are so many people who are not paid spokesmen for Beijing sticking out their necks to praise the Chinese government? Out of all of the institutions across the globe who are fighting this virus, why are these people singling out the one institution that did more to hide it and cover up the truth than any other as the one most worthy of praise?

I mean, that’s Bernie Sanders’s job.

Several voices have contended The Atlantic has been particularly soft on China in its coronavirus coverage — with some speculation that this reflects the worldview of owner Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow and heir of Steve Jobs, and who owns significant shares of Apple and Disney — two major international corporations that would prefer to stay on the good side of the Chinese government. We should note this article in The Atlantic from Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, posted today:

The evidence of China’s deliberate cover-up of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan is a matter of public record. In suppressing information about the virus, doing little to contain it, and allowing it to spread unchecked in the critical early days and weeks, the regime imperiled not only its own country and its own citizens but also the more than 100 nations now facing their own potentially devastating outbreaks. More perniciously, the Chinese government censored and detained those brave doctors and whistleblowers who attempted to sound the alarm and warn their fellow citizens when they understood the gravity of what was to come.

Some American commentators and Democratic politicians are aghast at Donald Trump and Republicans for referring to the pandemic as the Wuhan virus and repeatedly pointing to China as the source of the pandemic. In naming the disease COVID-19, the World Health Organization specifically avoided mentioning Wuhan. Yet in de-emphasizing where the epidemic began (something China has been aggressively pushing for), we run the risk of obscuring Beijing’s role in letting the disease spread beyond its borders.

Maybe that’s a wake-up call by The Atlantic.

I have no objection to the cheerful social-media clickbait, at a time when we’re all feeling cooped up, anxious, and unnerved by the headlines. If someone left a the staff a massive tip to help a restaurant to get through the hard times, let me hear it. (And if you can afford to leave a massive tip for your take-out order . . . maybe you ought to do that!)

But there’s a lot of stuff on social media I’m just not going to read for the foreseeable future. I have no tolerance for anonymous Twitter accounts with names like “NastyRutabagaHead1969” telling us how easy this is to fix, if only someone would listen to him.

I don’t want to hear about the amazing healing properties of essential oils right now. Marianne Williamson, you were a hoot last year, but I’m not interested in how this is the time for “integrative politics to heal what’s happening, just like integrative healing for the body.”

So no, I don’t need to hear your theory that coronavirus escaped from Area 51, or that it’s the Bilderberger and Stonecutter plot to thin out global overpopulation. I don’t like Vanessa Hudgens making insensitive comments about people dying, but I don’t really expect Hollywood starlets to be particularly empathetic or insightful commentators about an ongoing global pandemic, particularly when speaking off the cuff on social media.

We also probably could go without campaigns asking for money. Dear campaigns, I know you really need to reach your funding goal before the quarterly FEC deadline, but just about everybody else in the country is dealing with bigger problems right now.

At this time, everyone’s trying to sort out whether they’re responding to this potential threat to themselves and their loved ones the right way. Our society has no shortage of people who want to tell you, “No, you’re underreacting, you should be doing this,” and plenty who want to say “No, you’re overreacting, the right way to respond is to do that.” Social media has hyperenergized our instincts for virtue-signaling and shaming.

Then What Level of Reaction Is Enough?

Yes, I saw the argument from — raise your hand if you had ever read that site before this — contending that governments around the world are making decisions without reliable data. Of course the world’s government don’t have “enough” reliable data. Medical authorities can’t measure the asymptomatic, we didn’t have anywhere near enough tests when this virus arrived upon our shores, and we don’t know how much we can trust the numbers coming out of China. Government authorities have to make the best decisions they can with the information they have available.

I don’t think you need perfect data to realize this is a big deal, right? We’re all seeing what is happening in Italy, right? They said 475 Italians died Tuesday night.

Not many of us noticed the mayor of Florence promoting a “hug a Chinese person” campaign as symbolic gesture against anti-Chinese bias in early February. (Interestingly, Florence’s region, Tuscany, is in bad shape but nowhere near as bad as Lombardy, although it’s possible they may catch up.)

An Update on the Post-CPAC Coronavirus ‘Screening’

Meanwhile, our Jack Crowe has an important update on the claims about testing after the CPAC conference this year. Those initial claims that thousands of people were screened aren’t true:

[ACU spokesman Ian]Walters said that ACU chairman Dan Schneider was informed by Maryland health official Ruth Thompson last Sunday, March 8th, that state workers had conducted 2,000 screenings around the hotel in the wake of CPAC. Schneider relayed that information to Schlapp, who shared it on Twitter and television — but that claim turned out to be false.

In fact, Maryland health workers did not conduct any tests, and Thompson, who serves as deputy director of Maryland’s Infections Disease Epidemiology & Outbreak Response Bureau, misrepresented the so-called screenings and who conducted them, according to Walters. Thompson did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health would not comment beyond reiterating that no state workers performed screenings at the hotel.

Once Schlapp’s claims were challenged by the hotel, Walters reached out to Thompson on Tuesday and she corrected the record, informing him that Gaylord Hotel employees — not state health workers — conducted 2,000 so-called “stand ups” exclusively on other hotel employees in the days following the conference. All hotel employees were summoned to a staff-wide meeting and visual “stand up” evaluations were conducted on each individual as they entered the meeting to determine whether they had noticeable symptoms.

There’s a difference between a “screening” — visually checking for symptoms — and an actual test to see if the virus is inside the body. You have to wonder if some people were comfortable with the general public not knowing the difference between the two.

ADDENDA: The Holderness Family is a family in Florida that makes short video song parodies and sketches. Their most recent one, about attempting to homeschool during the school shutdown and the inevitable slide in expectations, really hits home.

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