The Afterword: In times of crisis, mass media tends to dangerously oversimplify

(Tiffany Kao | Daily Trojan)

The world is at a complete standstill. I’ve been practicing social distancing in my hometown of Montreal for a week now and have spent a lot of time wondering what this week’s column would hold. The internet is exploding with coronavirus takes⁠ — a few hot, some lukewarm and most stone-cold. My opinions on the chaos surrounding the global health crisis have evolved, taking on new forms as I surf through Twitter, Instagram and a handful of news outlets, but throughout, one quote from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr has continued to ring true: “The opposite of a fact is a falsehood. But the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth.”

I know that’s not the most helpful thing to hear; people are scared and they want answers — preferably binary ones. Unfortunately, this is more a time to be patient and reflect than one for resolution. In that same vein, I want to talk about how this pandemic has put a spotlight on how incongruent, for better or for worse, our globalized world can be. More importantly, I want to point out the role mass media and the internet have in skewing this pluralism. 

On one hand, the coronavirus outbreak is decisively a lesson on the dangers of a censored press. Chinese doctor Li Wenliang attempted to warn medics about the SARS-like virus in early December (well before authorities confirmed the outbreak of a novel coronavirus) and was detained by police a few days later for “spreading false rumours.” He was even forced to sign a document saying he had “seriously disrupted social order.” Just a week later, Wenliang developed a fever and ultimately passed away in early February from the virus.  The Chinese Communist Party has come under serious fire, and rightly so, for silencing a truth-seeking whistleblower and deliberately covering up what has quickly become a global pandemic. 

On the other hand, the finger-pointing has prompted xenophobic rhetoric on a mass scale: Chinese-owned businesses have arbitrarily suffered, and President Donald Trump has called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus.” Reactions like these put writer Susan Sontag’s saying, “nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning — that meaning being an invariably moralistic one” in a new light. 

We know how corrosive censorship can be, but we are also witnessing the shortcomings of a free press: Unregulated mass media outlets such as CNN profit off of our panic and play into our paranoia, with each click-bait title being more distressing than the last. It has been, and continues to be, a challenge to sift through all the bullshit and parcel out what is a real cause for concern from what is just fear-mongering.

For the record, I’m not trying to draw moral equivalencies between a democracy and an authoritarian regime; rather, I’m acknowledging that a free press and a censored press beget unique problems, which vary in degree. 

The oxymorons don’t end there. We are watching globalization spread and contract, expand its scope and fold in on itself, all at once. Cornerstones of modern consumerism, organized sports and live entertainment have gone silent. Air travel, once tacit and commonplace, has become a hazardous, virus-spreading machine. International supply chains that we took to be infallible have broken down faster than you can say “country-wide lockdown.” Simply put, the fragility of our defining interconnectedness is showing.

Yet the coronavirus outbreak is also a testament to the power of our interdependence. Many of us who are young and know the world to be divided and disparate are witnessing, for the first time ever, the whole planet experience the same thing. We are all coping in synchrony; we are all participating in lauding or criticizing each other’s strategies. Telecommunication allows us to learn from, react to and build upon ideas and each other at unprecedented speeds — at both an individual and state level. 

Yes, many established systems are falling apart in tragic ways — people are losing money and jobs by the thousands, and private healthcare is failing us — but at least the whole world is watching. This involuntary pause has forced us to take a step back and collectively recognize that we were moving too fast, that we need to work toward a more robust, sustainable way of living — one that doesn’t completely crumble at the front end of a pandemic. Our globalized world is fragile yet powerful, severed yet irrevocably bound.

All this is to say that there are dissonances to take note of amid the coronavirus pandemic, ones that are not and should not be easily digestible. 

The way the internet handles issues transforms our experiences with them, not just because of the size of the problem but also because of the scale of our reactions. In general, online culture encourages us to address serious matters like these with a lack of nuance and context; 280-character tweets, quippy Instagram captions and five-minute soundbites rarely succeed in capturing all angles of a given problem. The result, among others, is often extreme takes at the cost of critical thinking. Extremities tend to be well-suited to gross oversimplification and are an enemy to complex, multifaceted issues.

So, I implore all my readers to put their critical thinking hats on and to remember that mass media and online platforms are more conducive to binary answers than they are to the multiple, often multifaceted, realities that define our world. I encourage you to become well-acquainted with Bohr’s idea that the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth. It may help you better reconcile with the ongoing madness.

For the most part, this issue won’t have easy, cut-and-dry answers ⁠— but that doesn’t mean that there are no answers at all.

Rachel McKenzie is a junior  writing about pop culture. Her column, “The Afterword,” runs every other Tuesday.