Popular discourse over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized its “unprecedented” nature, but a deep history of public health crises communication informs how this current crisis is understood and experienced by the US public. Jacqueline Wernimont explains how messaging around life and death at scale have always been mediated by statistics and communication technologies, and explores the consequences of current failures in that mediation.
Moments of crisis are deeply entwined with their representation through media, which are in turn influenced by their technological, historical, and material conditions. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has many historical precedents, it is arguably unique as a transition point toward fully mediated moments of crisis, with implications spanning politics, social cohesion, entertainment, and even mourning and memorialization. This theme, part of the “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series, offers essays that consider what has changed and what has remained constant about the use of media technologies across the history of pandemics. How are forms of connection that are typical during moments of crisis—like public memorializations, information sharing, or mutual moments of comfort or joy—changed or enhanced amid increasingly mediated experiences?
This theme of our “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” essay series has been curated by Jason Rhody, program director of the Social Data Initiative, Digital Culture program, and codirector of the Media & Democracy program; Michael Miller, program director for the Just Tech program and codirector of the Media & Democracy program; Sam Spies, program officer and managing editor of MediaWell; and Penelope Weber, SSRC projects coordinator.
Faced not just with the pandemic itself, but also with erroneous projections that Covid-19 would devastate their populations, African countries have gradually relaxed their public health restrictions. Through conversations with African professors, Duncan Omanga explores how universities in sub-Saharan Africa have responded with a blend of approaches that reveals the uneven higher education landscape both within and between African countries.
Our video is vanishing by design and threatening the collective memory of the largest social justice movement in US history. At the same time, archiving this material raises a host of ethical dilemmas around user privacy and safety. Allissa V. Richardson calls for researchers to think critically about archiving social media video and preserving the voices of the marginalized.
Public access cable channels have rarely been considered essential—that is until the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of public life. Often lampooned or ignored, these channels suddenly offered informational lifelines to more than 3,000 US communities desperate for local news, high school graduations, religious services, entertainment, and education. Their crisis performance underscores the potential for hyperlocal media, as well as the need for regulatory structures that bolster open society.
In the digital age, diary writing, often imagined as an individual and private phenomenon, can be both social and public. As Guobin Yang writes, the social lives of digital diaries written from the epicenter of a global pandemic, such as the “lockdown diaries” of Wuhan, China, took on unexpected cultural and political importance, at once unifying and polarizing a nation as the world looked on.
We learn of many crises only from the media—from far-way earthquakes to spectacular child abductions to life-changing national election results. But the Covid-19 crisis is so close — in our bodies, homes, communities, and schools—and yet we cannot see it. The pandemic poses profound representational challenges, writes Julia Sonnevend, confounding our collective ability to relate to it, to see the suffering, and to act.
Mediating Negative Narratives about Race in the Black Press and Social Media in a Public Health Crisisby Kim Gallon
The Black Press in the United States has a long history of countering negative racialization of Black people’s health. In keeping with this history, the Black Press was among the first voices to productively racialize the public health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting the long-standing health disparities stemming from centuries of structural inequality. This productive racialization of public health—which extends to social media—constructs intersectional counternarratives, defying histories that position people of color as hosts of disease.
What does it mean to wage a war against disease? Martial metaphors have pervaded the news since January 2020 when the coronavirus began to spread, from the rhetoric of political leaders to the imagery around the effort to contain the virus. Joining Jenny Reardon and Tim Hwang in examining these militaristic metaphors, Robert Peckham argues that such metaphors prevent us from engaging with the complexity of the pandemic and its long-term effects.
Misinformation can be deadly. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that fact clearly and tragically. While the big tech companies have taken some steps to rein in misinformation and make credible organizations more visible, they lag far behind the pundits, scammers, and extremists who abuse trust on a global scale. It’s time for companies and researchers to take risks, make bold experiments, and rigorously test ways to slow the speed and spread of deadly deceptions.
Amid the flu pandemic of 1918, face masks came to mark the intersection between public policy and personal action. In the burgeoning Covid-19 epidemic a century later, masks are once again central symbols of tensions between collectivism, public health, science denial, and fatal notions of personal freedom in the United States. Drawing on case studies of mediated mask debates in Indiana, Ariel Ludwig, Jessica Brabble, and Tom Ewing trace the effects of contentious mask debates in 1918, demonstrating the importance of consistent enforcement and complementary measures in fighting deadly disease.