Inside the Digital Society: Going viral

I took a break from blogging last week. Since I last wrote, two weeks ago, a serious health problem in some countries has become pandemic. It’s the main news item everywhere; critical to the health of millions today; an existential fear for more; utterly disruptive to social relationships, economies and livelihoods in more and more countries.

Yesterday I heard a reporter say “the hashtag #staytathome is going viral” – without realising what he said. This time, “going viral” is for real.

The priority at present isn’t digital, but like anything today the coronavirus crisis has implications that are so: how does the digital world impinge on the coronavirus?; how might the coronavirus affect the digital world?

We also need to think about those implications, for the present and the future. Two general points first, and then six issues we need to think about.

The public good

My first general point’s about the public good. The internet has coincided with a shift in public attitudes in many countries away from social solidarity to a more individualist outlook.

Instead of seeking to ensure good government, libertarians have disparaged the role of government in general and populists have exploited differences between majorities and minorities to undermine social solidarity within the countries they (aspire to) rule.

Many internet insiders have also emphasised the individual at the expense of the societal. For them, to take a phrase from Robert Reich, “the word “public” means a sum total of individual needs, not the common good.”

Time, in my view, for a rethink. There is such a thing as society, and the internet is part of it. A health crisis like today’s demonstrates that the right to life is at least as much an economic, social and cultural right as it is a civil and political one.

Testing the digital society

My second point’s that this crisis tests the digital society that’s in the making. It tests the extent to which it can replace offline with online, analogue with digital, rather than merely supplementing what society has meant so far – and it tests how far that might be desirable as well.

How far, for example, can/should home working replace offices, home shopping replace high streets, distance education replace classroom teaching, virtual networking replace face-to-face time?

It tests the adequacy and the efficacy of online ways of doing things against the ways we’ve always done them. It may identify real positives, but it will also expose limitations and real problems. It should suggest to us what can’t be fixed by going online and may offer ways of fixing things that don’t go well online.

And it will do this at a time of great social and economic stress.

There’s much to learn, and, while the focus for governments and others is on dealing with the real and current crisis, we should learn what we can both now and for the aftermath. I’ll suggest six issues that learning should be focused on, mostly in the form of questions.

First, research

Big data and other new technologies, like biotech, are crucial to developing vaccines and treatment methodologies for this and future health crises. So this crisis should test the capacity of big data to (help) achieve those outcomes. What can it do that older methods can’t? What can’t it do that older methods can? What are the limitations posed by data quality and data availability? How should future data be collected? What are the implications for data protection?

Platforms and data corporations have boasted for a decade that social media analytics let them track (for example) the spread of influenza faster than traditional methods, and so promote the public good. They’ve been remarkably silent about this during the coronavirus crisis. Is it proving more difficult than they made out? Are data being made available to governments as well as advertisers and commercial partners? Is analysing them proving to be useful? If not, why not?

Second, communications

The internet’s the greatest source of information that we’ve known, so, it’s always been argued, it will be invaluable in crisis.

But in a crisis the key issue about information’s trust: where it comes from, how it’s validated. People trust those that they consider expert (who may or may not be expert in reality). Governments and medical authorities will rightly use all channels of communication. Those that have been trusted in the past (public service broadcasters, perhaps) are more likely to be trusted than the internet.

But the internet’s also the greatest source of disinformation that we’ve known. Here’s leading British commentator on the digital, John Naughton:

In the pre-internet era, information was curated by editorial gatekeepers and official government sources. But now anything goes, and sense-making involves trying to find out stuff on the internet, through search engines and social media. Some of the information gathered may be reliable, but a lot of it won’t be. There are bad actors manipulating those platforms for economic gain (need a few face-masks, guv?) or ideological purposes. People retweet links without having looked at the site. And even innocently conceived jokes (a photograph of empty shelves in a local supermarket, for example) can trigger panic-buying.”

The current crisis has led many journalists to think more about their role in validating evidence. Where are people getting information to guide behaviour in this crisis, and what does that tell us about the relative importance of different sources, of the role of gatekeepers? How should journalists and platforms (alike) handle the marketing of fake cures, the blaming of ethnic minorities, the campaigns of anti-vaxx campaigners?

Third, association

Efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus have included drastic suspensions of freedoms of movement and association, not just in authoritarian states but also in democracies. Few people are objecting to these, whether they’re enforced by law or social solidarity. Populations at large are viewing them as necessary in what is being seen as existential crisis. ‘Civic responsibility’ is back in fashion – but digital surveillance (geolocating smartphones, for example) and enforcement are also being used.

Four questions then.

  • What’s to be learnt from this experience of enforced controls on physical association?

  • Will online association be effective as an alternative form of social interaction for those in lockdown?

  • How will people’s perceptions of surveillance and freedom of association change as a result?

  • And will surveillance and enforcement mechanisms be dismantled once the crisis ends (with likely differences in different states)?

Fourth, behaviour

The kinds of lockdown and reduced association that people are experiencing now in parts of Asia and Europe – and, likely, many other places soon – will test out changes in behaviour that have been touted for decades as consequences of a digital society (for good or ill).

What will happen when people are closeted, alone or in their families? Will online interactions substitute effectively for wider family gatherings, friendships, trips to pubs and restaurants?

How will their use of the internet and online services be changed? Will online shopping replace trips to the high street? Will distance education replace lessons in schools and lectures in universities? Will streaming displace entertainment venues? Will these things be effective or long lasting? What will be the impact of social isolation on online gaming or on online dating?

Lockdown’s a test of what might happen in the longer term as online services affect the economic viability of offline services. And it may shorten that term by undermining viability right now.

Lastly, I’ll pick two more specific aspects of behaviour out of many I could mention.

Fifth, home working

Home working has become more common in recent years but not taken off as widely as proponents had predicted. Nor has videoconferencing replaced real conferencing, even amongst digital enthusiasts. ICANN and the IGF make efforts to include remote participants but for most participants it’s the networking in coffee bars and corridors from which they gain the most.

The coronavirus is forcing millions of employers and employees into homeworking, thanks to travel bans, lockdowns and self-isolation, while many more meetings and conferences have gone online. This is a live experiment in how well homeworking and virtual meetings work as substitutes for traditional office-working.

How well will they work in practice?  What’s gained and what's lost in transition? What lessons can be learnt about how home and online working might be made more effective, and about appropriate balances between office and home life? Will people who’ve experienced them want to go back to commuting? Or will they prove too disruptive to home life, too difficult to manage alongside responsibilities like childcare?

Sixth, gig working

Gig working is touted by its platforms – Uber, Deliveroo, the like – as offering its workers flexibility, but it also makes them vulnerable. Platforms avoid the costs of good employment practice and compliance with employment law. Workers, in particular, lose their incomes if they’re too ill to go to work.

So the virus is a test, too, for the gig economy. Some governments see online deliveries as the answer to keeping the older and more vulnerable fed and watered. But how will that work if those delivering feel they have to go to work when sick in order to pay rent and feed their families? What lessons can be learnt from this about fair working practices in the digital society?

In conclusion

Different countries are experiencing the corona crisis at different times in different ways. In particular, so far, it’s affected Asia, Europe and North America more than Africa.

Everywhere, though, it’s going to have a major impact on societies and on economies – and to shift the balance between offline and online, analogue and digital. We can and should learn lessons from it about the value and the risks inherent in digitalisation.  We should think about the role the digital society will have in remaking social interactions and economies when the crisis ends.

And, in the meantime, perhaps we could stop saying things are “going viral” with a happy grin.

Image: "Don't panic", by Michael Kowalczyk used under Creative Commons license

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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