World

The Coronavirus Plague and Social Media

People wear masks in Hong Kong, China, January 31, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Navigating the outbreak in a world of endless unverified information

Certain news stories drive me to an unhealthy reliance on social media. With my infant daughter sleeping in a bassinet beside me, I watched a series of individually broadcast livestreams of the mayhem developing in Paris on November 13, 2015. I suppose the first step is admitting you have a problem.

I doubt I’m the only person who seems to find every discomfiting YouTube video or Twitter thread about developments out of Wuhan, China.

Even just having your digital ear open for the chatter, you hear that Shanghai has been almost entirely “shut down,” with its residents driven to social-media boredom and rumormongering. You hear that Wuhan has been half-evacuated. I can’t even begin to comprehend what it would look like to evacuate half of a city that is larger than New York or London. Or wonder what that might mean for the rest of China, absorbing a population of that size, when the coronavirus is contagious well before it shows symptoms.

As in all tragedies, the alt-right-ish comedian Sam Hyde has been falsely and hilariously blamed for the spread of coronavirus. Earlier in the week there was a long Twitter thread by Matt Parlmer, urging people to look at the signs coming from China — the massive shutdowns and travel restrictions — that signaled a number of very likely events to anticipate, namely the disruption of global supply chains and international travel. This has now happened, and we are on the way to its being a global emergency. Firsthand accounts about how under-resourced Wuhan is for this outbreak are sprawling across YouTube. Here’s a particularly vivid one, with rumors that the virus has been known about by cab drivers in Wuhan since mid-December.

Today, a verified account on Twitter that I’ve never seen claimed that Indian scientists had discovered traces of HIV in the coronavirus. For all I know this is a totally scientifically illiterate thing to say. But there the claim is, with uncertain authority, which bolsters the conspiracy theories that the coronavirus is the product of a Chinese biological-weapons facility located near Wuhan.

Many goodhearted and decent people are on social media urging restraint. New contagious diseases are, of course, prone to induce panic. They warn us not to share any information that isn’t from a reputable public-health organization.

I wish the human mind could be reassured and calmed this way. Waiting for the official statements has actually worsened the pit in my stomach. For half the week there was speculation across unverified social media that the World Health Organization was dragging its feet because it didn’t want to embarrass China or imply that such a large and important country was responding poorly. Finally, on Thursday this week, the World Health Organization declared an international emergency. And in its statement, it cringingly praised China: “The Committee emphasized that the declaration of a PHEIC [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] should be seen in the spirit of support and appreciation for China, its people, and the actions China has taken on the frontlines of this outbreak, with transparency, and, it is to be hoped, with success.” Even the unidiomatic English grammar somehow has me imagining a Chinese official with extremely specific instructions dictating to the WHO.

The White House press briefing also contained statements emphasizing that the U.S. efforts to monitor and contain coronavirus are “complementing” China’s efforts. I’d rather have no comment appraising China’s performance in this crisis rather than ones that seem so forced and emphasized.

Maybe in the days to come, government authorities will get ahead of this public-health crisis and, like SARS, it will cause great anguish but not fundamentally disrupt the order of things. But our public officials need to think hard about how they communicate in a new world in which they are far from the only source of compelling information. Or perhaps the interruptions in the supply chain lead to major economic disruption worldwide and make everyone question the wisdom of placing so much critical industrial and commercial infrastructure in the middle of country that still contains hygiene practices known only amid extremely poverty, and a Communist government that regularly lies to the public, to itself, and to the world.

Until then, I’ll be nervously twitching through my phone and stocking up the pantry.

Most Popular

U.S.

Baby Please Come Back, Says Andrew Cuomo

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg famously described New York City in 2003 as a “luxury product,” and therefore priced accordingly. The price hasn’t changed, except to go up slightly — taxes, rents, everything. But few would argue that the product New York offers remains first-rate. The theaters are closed. The ... Read More
U.S.

Baby Please Come Back, Says Andrew Cuomo

Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg famously described New York City in 2003 as a “luxury product,” and therefore priced accordingly. The price hasn’t changed, except to go up slightly — taxes, rents, everything. But few would argue that the product New York offers remains first-rate. The theaters are closed. The ... Read More
Law & the Courts

New York’s Lawless NRA Lawsuit

The latest bananas news from the banana republic that is the State of New York: The attorney general, a political enemy of the National Rifle Association, is seeking to have the advocacy organization legally dissolved. The pretext is financial corruption and self-dealing on the part of the NRA’s ... Read More
Law & the Courts

New York’s Lawless NRA Lawsuit

The latest bananas news from the banana republic that is the State of New York: The attorney general, a political enemy of the National Rifle Association, is seeking to have the advocacy organization legally dissolved. The pretext is financial corruption and self-dealing on the part of the NRA’s ... Read More
Elections

Joe Biden’s Authoritarian VP Finalist

Last year, Senator Kamala Harris may have become the first presidential candidate in history to laugh derisively at the idea that the Constitution limits what a president can do. When former Vice President Joe Biden said that her plan for gun control by executive fiat didn’t pass constitutional muster, she ... Read More
Elections

Joe Biden’s Authoritarian VP Finalist

Last year, Senator Kamala Harris may have become the first presidential candidate in history to laugh derisively at the idea that the Constitution limits what a president can do. When former Vice President Joe Biden said that her plan for gun control by executive fiat didn’t pass constitutional muster, she ... Read More
World

The ‘Rough Sex’ Problem

John Broadhurst, a 41-year-old multi-millionaire from the United Kingdom — convicted of “manslaughter by gross negligence” after he killed his 26-year-old girlfriend Natalie Connolly during so-called “rough sex” — will walk free after serving only half of his 44-month sentence. Like many countries, ... Read More
World

The ‘Rough Sex’ Problem

John Broadhurst, a 41-year-old multi-millionaire from the United Kingdom — convicted of “manslaughter by gross negligence” after he killed his 26-year-old girlfriend Natalie Connolly during so-called “rough sex” — will walk free after serving only half of his 44-month sentence. Like many countries, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Government Misconduct Frees Cliven Bundy

Politically charged prosecutions — even ones that are thoroughly justified — often end badly for the justice system. So it appears with the federal prosecutions of Cliven Bundy and his sons. The government blew its case against Bundy's sons by overcharging them, resulting in a jury acquittal in 2016. Today, ... Read More
Law & the Courts

Government Misconduct Frees Cliven Bundy

Politically charged prosecutions — even ones that are thoroughly justified — often end badly for the justice system. So it appears with the federal prosecutions of Cliven Bundy and his sons. The government blew its case against Bundy's sons by overcharging them, resulting in a jury acquittal in 2016. Today, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Misguided Attempt to Dissolve the NRA

Closing out the week with some variety: The evidence of mismanagement and wasteful spending at the NRA is real, but New York State attorney general Letitia James is on a vendetta against the organization in just about the worst possible way; an eye-opening question about Susan Rice perhaps having undisclosed ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Misguided Attempt to Dissolve the NRA

Closing out the week with some variety: The evidence of mismanagement and wasteful spending at the NRA is real, but New York State attorney general Letitia James is on a vendetta against the organization in just about the worst possible way; an eye-opening question about Susan Rice perhaps having undisclosed ... Read More