Petty Little Hate Machine: “Fake News”, Information and the Pandemic.

During the various announcements on restrictions to combat the spread of Covid 19, several exhortations have now been made to the public to stop sharing stories online and to stick to the official information issued by the HSE. This has been in response to the number of fake stories doing the rounds on Whatsapp in the middle of the crisis, ranging from dubious advice about drinking hot tea to combat the virus to stories about a “full lockdown” involving the army.

Such stories are, of course, not helpful in a public health crisis and can compromise health, both physical and mental. Many of us have despaired at being forwarded information from relatives, others have railed angrily against various individuals promoting false news, one prominent name in particular featuring heavily.

However no more than with healthcare, poverty or the job market, continually relying on individual moral purity to do he heavy lifting will not lead us out of these challenges. Nor does it explain or encompass everything related to information, how it is processed and how it is acted upon. It does offer a means for the more privileged among us to feel good, and to explain away the sharing of misinformation or the breaking of restrictions as being down to stupidity, ignorance or malice.

But our ability to process information and our ability and freedom to act upon it are not divorced from each other. In the days leading up to the restrictions, when it was clear there was a gathering storm, I saw a level of denial and dismissal among friends and relatives, with the common factor being their social occupation. Many of the deniers were frequently involved in customer service, hospitality or service industry roles, and clung to the idea that less people had (at the time) died from Covid 19 than the common flu or cited other pieces of information that may have been half truths at best. By contrast, those in the technical or managerial professions were already concerned with staying at home and were making preparations and sharing information supportive of restrictions before the government made their announcement.

My own personal reckoning with the realities of Covid came when I was sent the details of a briefing given by an epidemiologist to healthcare workers. The briefing spoke about the best, worst and nightmare scenarios, and with some of the social media content I had seen from Italy and China, confirmed how devastating the virus could be for society. I was sent into a highly depressed state, and was met with incredulity from family over how serious I was taking things.

Denial was not just the preserve of the masses, and the responses from different governments as the virus began to spread were telling. Brazil, the USA and the UK all initially dismissed the threat of the virus to varying extents and did not introduce restrictions until after many other countries. They now face longer and steeper curves of cases and deaths, and a complete overwhelming of their healthcare systems.

It is of course unfair to compare ordinary workers to the quasi-fascists that occupy the corridors of power in those countries, but they are similar in one respect only. It was in their material interest for the virus not to be as deadly as it clearly is, and for restrictions to not be as tight as they inevitably have to be to combat its spread. For Bolsonaro, Trump or Johnson, the need to keep their economies functioning and generating profits overwhelmingly dictated their response. By contrast, precarious workers did not want to have to face the reality of being forced to work in potentially deadly conditions, and could not conceive of a situation in which they would be both safe from the virus and from starvation or eviction.

So how should we respond to these developments? For workers, they need the maximum state supports that can be given, and the saluting of them as heroes is a poor substitute for the better conditions and hazard pay they sorely need. Social networks, without regulation, will continually do what is in their interests in terms of generating profits, no matter how much we complain about our family group chats. As for the right wing, their lies and prevarication in the interests of profit generation will likely be with us so long as they are. A concerted effort to prevent centrist or even supposedly progressive governments from following them in attempting to sacrifice their citizens for the sake of capitalism is needed.



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