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.

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