Navneet Alang is a Toronto-based freelance technology culture columnist
Here in the profound strangeness that is life in 2020, the news and the seemingly ceaseless talk of COVID-19 feel like an overwhelming tsunami. Not only is information about the virus itself hard to pin down as good data changes from one day to the next, everything else happening in the world threatens to get lost in the flood, too.
One example: Late last week, Facebook started mistakenly marking some articles and posts about the COVID-19 pandemic as spam. Users reported that an array of reasonable posts about the novel coronavirus – from news on Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s diagnoses to reports by reputable media organizations – were being flagged as “against community standards."
As it turned out, it was a glitch in Facebook’s anti-spam tools, and the company moved to fix it. But amid the cacophony of news about the virus, a bug in the system that so many rely on for information was particularly unnerving. It reinforced the notion that what we see is determined by an arcane black box of algorithms and rules that can feel unfair or, more plainly, just arbitrary. And in a moment in which trust is central to how we react to the pandemic, the Facebook glitch reinforced the idea that having faith in the information economy is harder than ever.
The trouble with COVID-19 is that it isn’t just novel as a disease, but also as a social phenomenon. The nuanced differences between social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining, for example, all need to be communicated to and learned by society at large. With that novelty comes a need for clear, authoritative information.
But our relationship to both authority and information has changed, mostly because the systems and media through which we get that information have also changed. Glitches in filtering, dubious policies such as Facebook allowing misleading political ads, and the broader reality that almost anyone can post almost anything mean the presence of doubt is hardly surprising. And when authoritarian leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, or public figures such as Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk deliberately downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, it only adds to the confusion. If the hierarchies of authority that once existed were a kind of filtering system to separate the wheat from the chaff, the platforms given to powerful but misguided figures help upend that dynamic of trust.
It is a phenomenon compounded by the way in which social media flattens information such that it all appears and feels the same. It’s what writer Nicholas Carr calls content collapse: “the tendency of social media to blur traditional distinctions among once-distinct types of information – distinctions of form, register, sense, and importance.” That shift is part of the lag that made so many of us late to understand the gravity of what we are now living through.
What it produces is a broader sense of mistrust. Think, for example, of the people you surely know who claim that they see ads for certain products after mentioning them out loud. Thus far, we have no evidence that our apps or phone makers are listening in to our conversations, but the objective truth of the matter is almost besides the point. Rather, the opacity of how and why we see what we do on screens produces its own pall of doubt.
But if the form of how we experience things is one half of the trust economy, the other is the content itself. For one, we are exposed to far more information, which has an overwhelming effect when it comes to discerning good from bad, or even current from outdated. Consider how quickly advice changed regarding whether you should be out and about, or if a trip to a local restaurant was well-advised.
Then there is the proliferation of bad actors or people who simply don’t know any better spreading false information. What it produces is a potent mix of mistrust, at a moment in which a naive sort of skepticism can quite literally be deadly.
The upending of hierarchies is a profoundly ambivalent thing, and we have to remember the benefits – the way social media has given voice to the powerless, helped form movements of resistance and democratized information.
But the consequence of that change has also been an undermining of trust in the information we are bombarded with day in and day out. And when determining what we can and cannot rely on is a matter of life and death, we must figure out a way to try and restore some of the division between the trustworthy and not, the true and false – lest all of it, and all of us, end up washed away.
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