The big digital paradoxes of the pandemic

Guest post by Dr. Chris Dornan, former Associate Professor Carleton University School of Journalism & Communication

This is a transcript of a presentation by Dr. Chris Dornan on October 28, 2021 as part of MediaSmarts Presents The Walrus Talks: Our Digital Lives (a Media Literacy Week event).

It’s oddly timely that Facebook should choose this moment to rebrand itself as Meta, a nod to the metaverse it wants to build. Because, in the late 20th century, just as the internet was coming into being, cyberpunk science fiction authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson began to imagine that the metaverse would become so seductive that it would supersede the world of flesh and objects. In Tad Williams’ 1996 novel Otherland, for example, the cyberspace has become so superior to reality that people come to psychically inhabit what amounts to a realm of electronic imagination, while the care and administration of the real world has been allowed to deteriorate. Ethnic groups petition to have their customs and mores encoded in the software of the virtual universe as a means of preserving their cultures, which are dying back in the physical world.

The pandemic has brought a version of that into being, in which the plane of existence has migrated to the digital arena. What we mean by “the public” is a congregation of citizens, but at the onset of the pandemic, congregation was itself the major threat to the public good. In order to dull the rate of infection we had to seal ourselves off from one another. Schools shut down. Workplaces emptied. Bars and restaurants, gyms and theatres, were all shuttered at various points and for various durations.

And yet for all that, a facsimile of life went on. Although schools closed education went on – in a jury-rigged electronic classroom perhaps, but it went on. And yes, there have disruptions in the global supply chain, but everyday commerce continues, the machinery of industry being tended by people working remotely. Parliament continued to sit via Zoom, and the bureaucracy of the civil service continued to function. There may have been a global health emergency, but those parking tickets still had to be paid, income tax returns still had to be filed and processed.

And for an isolated, anxious population, there were at least the compensations of the screen. One might not have been able to be in the same room with loved ones or relatives, but you could still see them and talk to them. And while there was nothing fun about the pandemic, there were still communal entertainments to be had. Entire societies binged themselves on The Tiger King, Bridgerton, Squid Game.

This is not to say that our lives have been merely inconvenienced by the pandemic. I think, for example, of the single mother whose job as a convenience store clerk meant she had to leave the house every day, and to come into contact with scores of strangers, any one of whom might give her the disease, while her kids were left at home to do their remote schooling unsupervised, cut off from the contact with their friends that is so essential to young people. The pandemic has meant hardships whose toll we will only come to reckon once the crisis has passed.

But as bad as it has been, imagine how much worse it would have been had the pandemic occurred only 25 years ago. The state of the internet in 1996 simply wouldn’t have allowed white collar workers to work remotely en masse. Empty offices would have meant closed businesses, and closed businesses would have meant mass unemployment. The wheels of bureaucracy would have ground to a halt. Schooling, if it were to continue at all, would have meant children all but teaching themselves from textbooks. The social, economic, and psychological scarring of the pandemic, had it occurred 25 years ago, would have been infinitely worse.

On the other hand, the same digital technologies that have allowed us to ride out the pandemic are also themselves responsible for a form of social scarring. They have certainly complicated efforts to manage the emergency, if only by providing the deluded and the obstinate with a megaphone.

Back in 1996, the public conversation wasn’t just curated by agencies of authority that we called the mass media, it was conducted by them. They spoke and we listened. The mass media set the news agenda, they told us what was important, they drew the boundaries between the legitimate and the illegitimate. They provided a forum for public debate, but that debate was not carried out by members of the public. It was carried out by proxies – newspaper columnists and politicians, academics and experts.

In the world of 1996, public discourse would have been closed off to extremist, hysterical views that undermined measures to manage the crisis. This is not to say that there wouldn’t have been anti-maskers and anti-vaccine advocates, but the social responsibility of the news media would have denied them a platform for their militancy. 

The ascendance of the social media platforms has liberated public discourse from the tyranny of the legacy media. Individual members of the public now have a public voice in a way that was unthinkable in the 20th century. In many respects, this is exhilarating. It is emancipatory. But it also means giving licence to crackpots, to bigots and bullies. Ignorance and prejudice now have the wherewithal to shoulder their way onto the public stage. The experience of the pandemic has pointed up something that the social media platforms had already set in motion: the erosion of trust, not only in authority, but in one another. Acrimony supersedes fellowship. What the social media companies promised us was a world of connectivity, but all too often it is a connectivity of antagonisms.

So, the management of the public health crisis has also had to encompass the management of irrational dissent – of people whose beliefs and actions will only prolong and worsen the crisis. What’s at issue here is not just an assault on public authority. Lord knows, from Jason Kenny to Boris Johnson, government leaders during the pandemic have given the public good reason not to trust them. It’s that social media grant authority to clearly detrimental behaviour. They let everyone speak their truths, with the implication that all these different truths are equally legitimate. But some truths aren’t truths at all, and no healthy society should grant legitimacy to demonstrably harmful conduct.

The pandemic is itself a form of injury to the body politic. But it has also highlighted the social injury that the social media giants, left to themselves, have midwifed into the world. We know the antagonisms that flourish via Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and 4chan aren’t good for us. We are painfully aware of the extent of cyberbullying and doxing and online stalking, and the sheer venom of so much of what courses over the platforms. And if Facebook whistleblower France Haugen is to be believed, the hidden algorithms of the social media colossus are geared to stoking animosities and conflict, because conflict generates attention, and attention is the coin of social media profit.

The problem is that we don’t know what to do about it. Freedom of expression is core to liberal democracy; it is its central promise. The social media revolution granted freedom of expression to everyone – an unbridled, universal freedom. To attempt to regulate that freedom smacks of authoritarianism, of an assault on liberty and democracy itself. But the pandemic has underscored that we can’t go on like this. We will have to do something to try to contain the social damage without somehow imposing anti-democratic constraints on public discourse.

Last year the Public Policy Forum assembled what it called the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression – a blue-ribbon panel that spent nine months wrestling with just this issue. In the end, the Commission argued that the time has come for some form of state regulation of the social media companies, although not all the commissioners were unanimous about what this should look like. But some form of intervention is clearly in the offing. Only last week senior figures at Facebook wrote an op-ed article in the Globe and Mail that not only conceded that but invited policy makers to collaborate with Facebook in fashioning a more regulated future.

I don’t know what the future of social media holds. If this is the state of digital media now, lord knows what it will look like when it comes to be administered by next-generation machine intelligence. But I am confident that tackling the ills that social media have visited upon us, while preserving the good that they have made possible, is going to be a public policy priority in the immediate term.

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