Covid-19

Maverick Citizen Op-ed

The world is drowning in Covid-19 communication but isn’t much smarter for it

Social Media. (Photo: thedrum.com/Wikipedia)

Covid-19 has evolved into the new super brand heralding a new world order of communication, social interaction and existence. That’s not necessarily good news.

During the height of the lockdown a WhatsApp message did the rounds with a picture of a rock guitarist playing to thousands of waving people. It read: “In 1969 the Hong Kong virus (H3N2) killed over one million people worldwide and over 100,000 Americans. Instead of shutting everything down and ruining people’s lives, they held Woodstock.” 

Given that one of us was a hippie and a Woodstock fan at the time, this got us thinking: what was different then?

There could of course be many answers (e.g. medical science was not that advanced, people were more ignorant and so forth). However, from a communications point of view, one huge difference stands out: 1969 was long before the digital communication revolution and Web 2.0.

By contrast, in the environment in which we find ourselves today – a post-truth society ruled by a concentration of powerful platform owners like Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft – it is almost as if Covid-19 was waiting to happen. 

The perfect recipe for the perfect storm, in which four things collided:

  1. A society obsessed with social media, networking and AI. There can be no doubt that we live in an era where Big Data, smartphones and cyber networks on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have overtaken hierarchies or ‘institutions’ as we knew them – and exert far more influence.
  2. A society afraid of dying and obsessed with living forever.  Especially as the alluring prospect now beckons that biotechnology and AI can not only reshape and re-engineer life, but  also extend it into infinity. As Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum puts it, 4IR is the first revolution that will “change what it means to be human”.  It is predicted that Homo sapiens – or should we rather say the genetically engineered post-human of the 21st century – will become part machine as algorithms and apps monitor and regulate everything inside our bodies that threatens good health, including exposure to viruses (as we have now learned). Besides, who wants to die anyway?
  3. A society obsessed with political correctness, ‘triggers’ and a ‘cancellation culture’. Being woke, ‘normalising’ and hashtag activism are the order of the day. At times, important issues are trivialised into photo ops, where you should repost, tag, nominate 10 people and not forget to make it “snackable content” because nobody reads long posts any more, right? Worse still, the hashtag itself, and not the issue, becomes the topic of debate. Any perceived forms of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and so on is exposed and targeted, and the offending party will be shamed, trolled and in extreme cases gang-stalked. We are all the same and those who think differently are dead in the water.
  4. A society where governments have become hugely concerned about losing control and people have lost faith in political leadership. Over the past three decades, governments have increasingly ceded power to digital networks. No longer is their top-down communication believable. No longer can governments control what people think (however, for the first time in history, the technology exists for governments to track and monitor citizens in intrusive ways). All-knowing, all-seeing and globally vocal ‘netizens’ (as the historian Niall Ferguson calls them) – empowered by technology – can now talk back, bottom-up… and can make or break governments, leaders and elections within a matter of days, if not hours.

Enter Covid-19. Suddenly the world is confronted with a super infectious virus (emanating from China to boot), manifesting itself in deceivingly flu-like symptoms (or none at all); where even a sneeze or a cough becomes un-PC, and the whole world loses it. 

Networks network with other networks. Conspiracy theories, fake news, science fiction, panic, fear and guilt abound, capturing society in the ultimate double bind.  

All meet in one single cataclysmic force: summarily branded as Covid-19. And governments clamp down, using the opportunity to reassert power and take back control via structures such as ‘command councils’ where no talking back is tolerated, thereby availing themselves of the chance to right all the wrongs they believe exist in society.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. In this case, it is more frightening.

Covid-19 communication has gone viral to an extent wholly unprecedented in mankind’s history, in the process becoming more contagious than the virus itself. Covid -19 has become an infodemic.  

The tyranny of thought

As Covid communications spiralled out of control, it left a ‘spiral of silence’ in its wake. People were too afraid to question the new dominant order of things. It was simply not done. Entirely un-PC. The tyranny of thought was all pervasive. In the process, people began to fear other people (and the police) more than the virus itself. Especially the thought police. Naming and shaming and censoring became the order of the day. 

We were all equal before Covid, our new god.

Why is that? The reason is simple. No man is an island. And in the face of human catastrophe – or what the world believed to be a human catastrophe – the alarmist narrative, right from the World Health Organisation to governments and reputable mainstream media, was such that humanity had no choice but to comply with top-down restrictions and lockdowns that were enforced.

Years ago, social scientists had already provided convincing evidence that attitudes can change just about anything if you get people to talk about it. And how do you get people to talk about it? By ‘agenda-setting’ via the media and networks, thereby creating ‘issue salience’. 

Once the issue is salient, people talk about it and then social dynamics kick in, such as opinion leaders and peer group pressure. If the pressure is compelling enough and the social risk of non-compliance is high enough (e.g. fear of alienation or rejection), the resultant attitude change is much bigger, much swifter and possibly much more lasting.

If one sets about changing people’s attitudes and behaviour, which is what all forms of intentional persuasive communication have in mind, the principles are the same. Certainly, as far as propaganda is concerned, it works best when the following are in place:

  •   An authoritative and credible communicator (e.g. governments, scientists, WHO)
  •   (Captive) audiences that are fearful and less informed than the communicator; and
  •   A message that tends to be one-sided, contains just the right blend between rational and socio-emotional appeal, and is repeated often enough in all media, including social media.  

Leave the rest to social dynamics, opinion leaders and the networks and, voila, the effect is multiplied zillions of times.

Whatever you call it – information, persuasion, propaganda, brainwashing, nudging, branding, neuro-branding (or all of them) – as far as Covid is concerned, it certainly worked. The world became compliant.

In its essence, the process still boils down to a ‘two-step flow’ of communication as originally promulgated by Katz & Lazarsfeld, where the message flows from the sender via opinion leaders in the media to the audiences. The one major difference today is that we don’t know where it starts, or who really calls the shots: the hierarchies or the networks? We also do not know whether the message is controlled by editors, journalists, agitators, networks or institutions.  What underlying assumptions  inform the question of who calls the shots?

And, are we even asking the right questions?  

Who is calling the shots?

A lot has been written by communication scholars (including one of the authors) about how the digital communication revolution in the 1980s, coupled with the rise of postmodern thinking, has catapulted the world into a new ‘emerging paradigm’ of communication, characterised by radical shifts from linear top-down transmission to two-way bottom-up transactions; from one voice to many diverse voices; from consensus to dissent; from (institutional) power to (network) influence, and from control to self-organisation.

The confounding thing with Covid is, while the cacophony of voices in the social media may have been deafening, we have also seen a return to controlled top-down communication where one voice only was heard, global consensus was reached about the threat of the pandemic and the required behavioural changes, and dissent was hardly tolerated (ask the scientists and journalists that questioned the lockdowns and its rules; ask Nick Hudson of PANDA).

What if there is another layer to all this networked influence?

With the advent of the digital communication revolution in the late 1980s, communication scientists  have predicted a widening knowledge gap as a result of Big Data algorithms. These could potentially create ‘digital dictatorships’, giving power to a small and select group of people coined as the ‘information elite’ who, at best, would be unable to make information intelligible to ordinary netizens, thereby widening inequality.

There is however another menacing possibility according to Prof Shoshana Zuboff at Harvard Business School and Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality. Zuboff likens social media to a marketplace that “trades exclusively in human futures”. One where AI behavioural predictive modelling can almost guarantee how you will respond to digital content by ‘recommending’ priming content over time to herd/shape you into your perceptual bubble. 

To Lanier, the result is the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in users’ behaviour and perception. In this world, the platform owners (aka ‘platform capitalists’) with the best predictions win. For platform owners/capitalists to win, their AI needs data, pieced from different sources, sometimes without your knowledge and consent. 

They need data about where you eat, live, work, play – when you get your period, your voice print, your fingerprints, your face print, your mental state, your heart rate, your intimate partner, your kids, your folks, who your friends are… the list goes on.

What can we make of this? Does this mean the old power asymmetries still exist and have simply reconfigured and mutated into a guise platform users are oblivious to? One in which they have the illusion of control and agency?

We do not have the answers. We only know that Covid has become about much more than a virus; a new tyranny of thought, a new mode of existence, branded as the ‘new normal’ with everything it entails (physical distancing, masks, sanitising, vaccinations, PPE, Covid alert apps, Covid-friendly businesses). In addition, Covid has also become the catalyst for huge changes in business and productivity models (working from home, fewer office buildings and much more).

Covid has evolved into the new super brand heralding a new world order of communication, social interaction, and existence.

Covid the Super Brand

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt said the status and wellbeing of humans are based on their capacity to construct a common social world through interaction and communication. Indeed, beyond basic biological needs, the need to be ‘connected’ is arguably the greatest need of humanity.  

To be acknowledged as a result of that connection – thereby developing a sense of self-worth – is arguably the second most important need. This is what Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other networks play into. This is also why Mark Zuckerberg dreams of ‘meaningful communities’ and ultimately one united ‘global community’ via Facebook AI.

‘Others’ have always been significant to the development and affirmation of the self, as explained by eminent social scientists (George Herbert Mead and Leon Festinger among others). Without the ‘we’, the ‘me’ cannot exist.  This is what brands are all about, and are good at. 

To subscribe to a brand means you are subscribing to the narrative of social networks or ‘tribes’ important to you, and who provide you with the feedback that validates your sense of self. 

Through branding we create narratives as a form of ‘meaning-making’ or ‘sense-making’. Mankind made sense of Covid through the creation of (sometimes beautiful) narratives around nature taking its own back; mending our social relationships, or sometimes more moralistic narratives around religion or the dangers of smoking (a ‘zol’) and drinking with Covid in our midst. 

Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari regards brands as ‘myths’ that we construct around inanimate things – a form of socialised creativity which has been hardwired into humanity from the days of the Pharaohs. Mankind needs these myths, or narratives, if the masses are to be mobilised. And myths, according to Harari, are more important than the truth to retain power.

As a colleague in the branding industry once wrote: “Man created brands because they need brands, just as they needed their gods of yore.”

Brands are ubiquitous. Everything is branded; not only products, but cities, spaces, buildings, lifestyles, political parties, social movements, presidents, churches etc. 

#BlackLivesMatter. #MoveOneMillion. #MenAreTrash. #CancelCulture. #FeesMustFall. #AmINext. #PutSouthAfricaFirst and a myriad others.  Read a society – read its aspirations, read its weaknesses – and you have the winning formula for a brand. Which is exactly what Lord Tim Bell and his Pottinger cohorts did when he turned ‘white monopoly capital’ into a brand.

In an era of information technology, society is more susceptible to brands than ever before. Sociologist and scholar David Arvidsson wrote in his seminal piece “The logic of the brand” that branding is no longer about material production, but about the production of ideas, knowledge and lifestyles which no longer are in control of institutions or companies, but  are outsourced to technologically empowered crowds. 

As renowned brand author Marty Neumeier explains, people no longer buy brands – they “join” brands. In effect, brands have really become social networks or tribes. And by joining the tribe, we are no longer alone; we belong, and become part of a “meaningful community”.  

By their very nature, brands thus represent intangibles (or “added value”, as marketers call it). In a post-truth era, where no single truth is accepted and nothing is fixed, the very absence of tangibles and the domination of ideas is part of the new informational capitalism (and thrives under it). 

Today, the key to a spectacular return on investment is to generate a platform where users willingly network and produce marketable content. Covid, the brandwagon, may be the best example of this ever. Not only has Covid created the world’s new narrative, but it has also generated the platform for network narratives in which the value added by these narratives translates into brand value.

What to make of this?

The answer is, we don’t really know. We can only respond to some of the questions we have raised in the writing of this piece. These questions include the following: 

Do we believe, or imply, that there is a deeper conspiracy behind Covid? Not necessarily. Although we do not purport to have any  expertise, beyond our knowledge of communications, in the vast multi-disciplinary territory associated with the pandemic, we accept that Covid may simply be a random infectious virus triggered by a random event occurring in China (or elsewhere), which triggered a chain of events with huge consequences for humanity. It may simply be part of complexity, or randomness, which, in line with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, cannot be traced back to a cause or deeper agenda.

Do we believe the world overreacted? Yes. Without detracting from the risk the virus poses (and still poses) to predominantly the elderly, the infirm and those with comorbidities, the price the world paid was too high – and not justifiable in terms of an estimated infection fatality rate of less than 0.1% globally, according to PANDA. 

We believe networks turned the epidemic into an infodemic, followed by a ‘panicdemic’. We believe the pressures were brought from the networks, bottom-up, and that governments reacted top-down to regain power (and perhaps because they had no choice). We believe they are still reacting to save face. As the cracks in governments’ own power structures have been unmasked (corruption and looting, weaknesses in health and educational systems, police brutality), a new wave of hashtag reactions and disillusionment with political leadership has been triggered.   

Do we believe the cyber networks capitalised upon it? Absolutely. Not only has Covid created a global digital super branding platform for the ‘new normal’ and the profound socioeconomic change it has triggered around the globe, but Google and Facebook’s share of digital advertising (already substantial) will skyrocket.

Do we believe that Covid shifted power irrevocably away from mainstream media, governments and politicians to powerful platforms? Yes. Digital platforms and AI have disrupted and toppled the old order of communication. And it will happen again. Covid-19 will be replaced by a new crisis in due course, entrenching platform power even further.

Do we believe the world is in a better place? No, not necessarily. Despite the good that advances in digital communication technology have brought, there is such a thing as too much communication. Amid the noise and murky messiness it has created in cyberspace, a darker tyranny may be emerging – far less tangible but far more ominous than the tyranny of the politicians or regimes we are familiar with. Covid-19, the superbrand, has helped to promote this tyranny.

The crisis is not Covid-19… the crisis is communication. 

It is, we believe, entirely manmade. Caveat emptor. Be very, very careful. The world may soon be drowning in too much communication. Sadly, though, none the wiser. DM/MC

Nina Overton-de Klerk is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Communication, University of Johannesburg and National Head: Masters and PhD  in Brand Leadership, IIE Vega. Caroline Azionya is a Lecturer in Strategic Communication, University of Johannesburg and completing her PhD research on user interactions on digital platforms in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

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