THR Web Features   /   December 3, 2020

The Virus Without a Vaccine

COVID-19 is not the only ill ravaging our society.

John D. Inazu

( Volunteers participating in phase 3 trial of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in Padjadjaran University, Bandung, West Java, Indonesia. Rio Tuasikal (VOA) via Wikimedia Commons.)

To the world’s relief, a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus is on the way. But COVID-19 is not the only ill ravaging our society: We are also in the throes of an information virus. While medical experts worked relentlessly to mitigate the COVID-19 virus, when it came to the information virus, technology experts targeted our hearts and minds with their algorithms of likes, alerts, and followers. The result: We are infected with a potent blend of rage, insecurity, sanctimony, and intemperance; as these ills fester inside us, they eventually spill out of our bodies and into the body politic as toxicity and falsehood. And no vaccine is coming to fix this disease.

Profit-driven algorithms have combined with dishonest actors, failing institutions, and our own base instincts to produce a free-for-all of news, facts, and norms. Today, tens of millions of our fellow citizens believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Tens of millions more, across the political spectrum, accept ideological spin as sacred truth. And a growing number of people dismiss anyone who disagrees as not only misinformed but depraved.

We are, in other words, losing the ability to communicate with one another, and with it the capacity to trust. And the near-term consequences of these losses will threaten democratic practices, institutional health, and social peace. We can already see some of them unfolding at the intersection of the two viruses: Misinformation about the efficacy of basic public-health measures like mask-wearing means that more people will die.

The more potent strains of the information virus disproportionately affect the right, through mainstream sources like Fox News and Facebook, and fringe movements like QAnon. Still, the left is not immune. The sanctimony and unquestioned certitude over a range of contestable and complicated moral issues creates its own version of a culturally embedded alternative reality. On some college campuses, progressive views about hate speech, policing, and bodily autonomy have become so entrenched that even questioning those views risks falling prey to the online mob. And no, the online mob is not the worst conceivable threat to one’s education or livelihood. But it does convey a very real psychological and social pressure that too often chills debate and stifles dialogue. And it is symptomatic of the information virus.

How do we respond to a virus that lacks a vaccine? Here, as with the COVID-19 virus, we will need extreme measures to slow the spread. Not in the same way that we’ve been asked to do for the current pandemic—social distancing from those outside of our bubbles risks even further enclosing ourselves in echo chambers. But we can distance ourselves from those aspects of the social media that bring false meaning, false relevance, and a false sense of belonging. We could move offline in regularly scheduled intervals, replacing technology with books, conversations, or even silence. We could think more about how to think better. We could recognize that neither the world at large nor our friends and family await our hot takes on the latest breaking news or political controversy.

This pandemic season has forced on many of us the painful absence of face-to-face relationships. When we are once again free to pursue these embodied relationships, we might discover that they also represent our best antidote to the information virus: other human beings who force us to confront complexity rather than caricature, and who challenge us to maintain friends, not just followers. But antidotes, like vaccines, don’t always come easily. They take work, risk, and perseverance.

Antidotes, unlike vaccines, come after the body has already been poisoned. And given the widespread poisoning that has already occurred, time is running out.