Stories in the Time of Pandemic

I wrote this back in August and sat on it for a bit. It’s still relevant, I think, and I’ve been meditating a fair amount on the nature of stories, social media, and the impact it has on propaganda.

A blog post for the sake of a blog post, huh? I guess this is what happens when I swear off Twitter.

One would think that a pandemic of this scale would have been a good time for me to finally kickstart that science communication blog I created years ago but never touched. It seems like the appropriate time, given the sheer amount of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracies circulating as fact.

Or the rising sentiment that science is an opinion rather than a rigorous method of uncovering the truth.

Or the regression to toddler-levels of object permanence, where, because people aren’t seeing a virus with their own eyes, it therefore must not exist.

Or the virulent anti-Chinese racism that has penetrated discussion across the political spectrum.

This isn’t meant to be a blog post about the pandemic, specifically. It isn’t – despite my academic background and training – a decrying of the growing scientific illiteracy being normalized in our populations.

It isn’t about all that, but I’m not above mentioning it.

Beneath the infallible truth that a small, barely-alive shell of protein harbouring a few particles of genetic machinery and code is responsible for chaos and widespread death is a set of complex narratives that have been woven and spread around to lay blame and explain to the masses how such a disaster could possibly occur.

Because what seems to be swathes of people eating up conspiracy theories and blindly succumbing to hate is actually a world grasping with a scary unknown and learning to cope and accept an uncomfortable new normal.

There isn’t an excuse for the conspiracies or the hate, but it’s an exercise in how stories travel unmitigated across social media, how literacy on the level of critical thinking and comprehension has shown to be lacking despite our Age of Information.

(It is also worth remembering that science is not free from bias. It has been part of a broad conversation within the scientific community, as researchers are encouraged to publish, else perish; as researchers have been found guilty of manipulating results as to suit their hypothesis; as academia pushes only for positive results, ignoring the benefits of pointing out that a reliable method may not be as reliable as it appears.)

Narratives shape the fabric of conversation. We rely on them to understand the discordant chaos of billions of people, the decades- to centuries-old conflicts that shape current, existing political climates. Narratives grapple, and shave, and condense. They take a thing of many branches and cut it down into something linear.

And then they get passed around.

They get shared in quick, text versions of soundbites called tweets where discussion in good faith becomes increasingly difficult as parties involved are only interested in having the Final, Correct Opinion in a fleeting conversation that, no matter how viral it can go, will disappear in a day or two.

Some of these narratives are dangerous. And some of them stick around in public consciousness.

Within the context of the pandemic, all those racist, anti-science, anti-government, anti-establishment conspiracy theories lead to serious, devastating consequences. These are the narratives that public health officials and scientists have to fight against.

Because people want to believe in stories. Stories help make sense of the world.

And the truth is buried in there somewhere. It’s many layers down, requires an understanding of several different variables, and can’t be summarized succinctly in a Twitter thread. This statement is true of many issues, not just the pandemic.

Perhaps in the stranger wiring of my somewhat neurodivergent mind, I’ve turned my nearly infuriating insistence on finding patterns in everything into study and analysis, where trends come and go but the way people react and then counter-react can suddenly be viewed in waves of patterns of behaviour. And the systems we’ve created – with social media and its lightning-fast pace of information sharing – has exacerbated these trends and amplified these patterns of behaviour. Fringe movements start to become the norm, for better or for worse.

I am a storyteller. Fiction writing is certainly part of it, but my academic pursuits have always been on the side of science communication – and effective science communication utilizes storytelling to bridge the knowledge gap.

This is the role of public health in the situation we’ve found ourselves in. How do we communicate to the world that this is the best way to move forward, for the sake of your lives and everyone else’s around you? How do we ensure there is a sufficient level of understanding of our crisis such that we can protect our population while also preventing such a crisis from occurring again? How do we take information and data gathered by scientists and doctors and create effective policy such that the population can follow safely?

These are much simpler questions when we don’t have the breadth of dangerous narratives to fight against.

I am perhaps a bit harsh on my friends when they use certain phrases that, while I know their intentions are good, can imply incorrect or harmful ideas. Because while I know and they know that their intentions are good and that they are speaking in good faith, the continued use of certain phrasing can perpetuate misconceptions at best and feed into existing disinformation at worst.

A somewhat harmless example: while it can be tempting to describe the way a virus infects its host and the disease’s subsequent pathogenesis as a virus’ “intent”, such language can perpetuate the conspiracy theory that it was “created.” That there is some sort of “design” behind what is in fact an aspect of nature. This extends also to personifying it, such as calling it “evil” or saying that it “knows” where to infect.

Now, these are valid tools science communicators use when describing pathogens, but the context hits differently when SARS-CoV-2 is surrounded by a rather largely-supported conspiracy theory that it was created in a lab in whatever country your particular flavour of the conspiracy believes.

So, forgive me for being harsh.

There are countless stories floating around the internet at any given moment. To count the narratives surrounding this pandemic would be hard, if not impossible, as they seem to replicate and mutate just as quickly as SARS-CoV-2 itself. They’re out there, unleashed and left to roam the world, empowered by the culture of social media and its pace which outruns fact-checking. They’re backed by bad actors with political motivations, sowing discourse and strengthening divides. They’re broadcast uncritically on national TV as traditional media frantically tries to keep up with the new.

When the pandemic began, editors and agents everywhere anticipated a surge in pandemic stories. The influx, partly because people were inspired by this new, novel part of their lives; partly because stories are how we, as people, cope with our experiences, especially as we learn just how helpless we can be in the greater scope of the world.

It is thus worth remembering that many of the narratives built and shared during this crisis are fiction. They’re fictions created to understand our world and the widespread suffering, and they’re shared among the scared as they search for answers. And as the way we communicate with each other grows increasingly rapid, the flow of information accelerates the pace at which we share our fears and the subsequent attempts to explain them away with fictions formed by those equally as scared.

This phenomenon of collective fear and reaction penetrates deeper than the conspiracies surrounding COVID-19. Narratives and stories have been created and shared this way for years now, and can be traced back centuries to when these were used as broad tools of control in propaganda. The unknown causes fear, fear creates pointed explanations leading to hate, hate turns around to have repercussions on people.

With the advent and popularization of social media, ideas about almost anything have been shared to the extent that it’s become an incredibly useful and powerful tool for fearmongering.

How can we then say that fiction is unimportant? How can we witness the shaping of our political ecosystems or the very way we interact with each other, and continue to believe that storytelling does not affect our reality?

The way we create stories, the way we tell them, and the slants we choose are all critical in how we move forward. Fiction will be there as we begin to imagine our new futures – and cope with the past that led us to our current state – and we have to reckon with how we compartmentalize some stories and allow others to run free. We have to grasp that our conversations are not free of narrative and narratives are not free from our conversations.

Because stories shape our perspectives of the world and the impact we allow them to have will be entirely on us.

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