A few months ago, no one had anything good to say about the internet.
The pandemic has exposed both its best and worst sides. On the plus side, the advances it’s brought in the form of open access to scientific research and near-real-time sharing of new research has enabled a faster medical response to the novel coronavirus than has ever been possible before. On the minus side, that same speed means that hoaxes, fake cures, misinformation, and flat-out lies can be posted and circulated, adding risk for everyone as we try to do the right things to keep ourselves and others safe. (Although: when you have a US president suggest that drinking bleach might be a cure at a press briefing carried live on TV…the internet really isn’t your problem.)
We’ll take the bad side first. It’s less depressing that way. Divisive conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins are spreading. The same leaders who used social media to become leaders in the first place continue to use the same sites to deflect blame and spread misinformation that suits their personal agendas. Trump is of course Exhibit A, with his repeated early April references to “the Chinese virus”. There appear to be competing conspiracy theories on either side of the Pacific Ocean that either China or the US military cooked this thing up in a lab to inflict on the other.
As I write this, the conspiracy theory that has had the most play this week is the belief that the incoming next generation of mobile networks — 5G — is somehow linked to spreading SARS-CoVid-2. I can sort of follow the chain of reasoning from “started in China” to “Chinese company Huawei is inflicting technology so dangerous the US government wants us to ban it” to “that mobile mast must be destroyed before it infects us all”… but only sort of.
A friend of mine took to Twitter to explain, in an elegant thread, why 5G and the coronavirus cannot be related in terms of physics – but can be and are related by the human fear of new, invisible things, especially when two come along at the same time, like buses, and one is lethal. Every new radio technology has found people claiming it’s harmful, all the way back to the 1920s, he writes, and from my limited memory it’s true. Twenty years ago, at a local meeting our MP was assailed by people complaining about the nearby presence of mobile phone masts (then 3G). Eventually, I asked: “How many of you have mobile phones?” Almost all did. Well, did they want the phones to work or not? That 5G and COVID-19 have come along at the same time is what outgoing Skeptic editor Deborah Hyde would call “coincidental regrettable timing”.
That’s the bad side of social media: a recording that’s had millions of views and promulgates the 5G-coronavirus connection, the Guardian revealed on April 24, is the work of a pastor from Luton posing as a former Vodafone executive. Although it’s been taken down, users keep putting it back up. In other rampant conspiracy theories, Bill Gates is one of the biggest targets after someone discovered a 2015 video in which he predicted a pandemic; others blame George Soros.
But then there’s the good side. For many of us, the internet is what’s making it possible to get through this lockdown without feeling wholly alone. For one thing, there’s the huge libraries of books available for download, music and videos available for streaming, and online courses available for study. Zoom meetings and video calls aren’t a substitute for physical presence, but they do take the edge off isolation, and provide something of a group social life where phone calls are only one to one. The move online for many events around the world opens up attendance at distant things that might not have been accessible before. A working paper finds a stronger correlation between the ability to consistently self-isolate at home and the availability of high-speed broadband than the correlation with income. Ensuring universal broadband access should be on the list for preparations we need to make for the next pandemic. Add education to the above reasons: online teaching is not really feasible without broadband and laptops.
The internet is also enabling the modern equivalent of the flotilla of small boats that add up to real force. Designs for homemade masks, face shields, and gowns are circulating so that home sewers and makers with 3D printers can help fill gaps in the supply chain. This “ad-hocracy” is organised through Facebook and other groups so that the items they produce find their way to the people who need them.
Finally, as a counter to untrustworthy world leaders, the internet offers direct access to scientific experts and the journal articles they publish. Open access preprint servers mean scientists around the world can review each other’s research in near-real time and incorporate the latest results without waiting for months for publication and having to hope their institution can afford the subscription fees. Presidents proposing things as dangerous as injecting bleach can be fact-checked while they’re still finishing the sentence.
So never mind the “techlash”. Disasters like this one are why the internet was built in the first place.