Being Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 and Cultural Studies

Banner image featuring a graffiti spray painted mask and the series title.

Jobb Dixon Arnold

July 28, 2020

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began at the tail end of 2019, internet traffic has surged by as much as 60% compared to before the outbreak. Government measures to contain the spread of the virus have restricted mobility and imposed regimes of social distancing, helping to channel more people online and for longer periods of time. Prior to the pandemic user generated big data available and aggregated online was already being described as the “world’s most valuable resource.” The ability to control, curate and network such huge amounts of information online has become a critical part of our evolving human culture.1 The shift online during COVID-19 raises questions about the ways that this added engagement is shaping popular discourses, as well as the role that mediated platforms are playing in containing viral spread while also policing the “new normal” of our online and offline worlds.

What we think and feel about the worldwide upheaval and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has largely been mediated by online information and remote interactions. COVID-19 is an emotional catalyst that has accelerated and in some cases has changed the underlying dynamics of conflict. How does this happen online? In 2014, a controversial Facebook study demonstrated what was described as “emotional contagion” across social networks.2 By changing the Newsfeed ranking algorithm, they showed an ability to influence the emotional valence of “hundreds of thousands of emotion expressions in status updates per day” from positive to negative and vice versa; they were even able to decrease or increase engagement on the platform.

These online engagements impact everything from global political conflict to private mental states.3 Prior to COVID-19 “deaths of despair”—defined as the combined number of deaths by suicide, alcohol-related illness and drug overdoses—were already an epidemic across North America.4 In 2018, over 180 000 people in the US and tens of thousands of people across Canada died from deaths of despair and projections suggest that COVID-19 will steepen this curve by as many as 75 000 additional deaths. COVID-19 emergence in the context of widespread cultural despair has added fuel to the already volatile mixture of identity politics, nationalism, mass migration and climate collapse.5 Simultaneously, COVID-19 has created opportunities for decentralized practices of mutual aid. COVID-19, like climate change, is a reminder that being online in-and-of-itself won’t save us from sickness, death, famine or even the possible extinction of our entire human species.6 Only timely and sustained collective human action can do these things, and online communications can help with this.

Online forms of emotional contagion can catalyze short-term political engagement and facilitate social connections, but they often lack the range of embodied practices and emotional labour needed to ground social change or even social adaptation.7 Hybrid online-offline platforms, on the other hand, are critical points of interface where information has the potential to inform practice. But the diverse social movements that have been most successful at connecting online engagement to off-line action are also the most surveilled, infiltrated, and policed because their successful hybrid forms challenge powerful interests.8 Reportedly, in the United States, for instance, the very same data firms employed by the government to do “contact tracing” of people infected with COVID-19, also worked with law enforcement agencies to monitor protests, predict unrest and target dissent, increasingly through the lens of “domestic terrorism.” Data-analytics have also been used to identify COVID-19 outbreaks in “social media clusters” before they are registered at local hospitals in ways similar to those methods used by police and security agencies to identify nodes of political unrest before they explode. These emerging “counter-insurgency” style tactics, information control, and surveillance are not as novel as the new strain of the Coronavirus. While concern over emergency law in the context of COVID-19 is warranted, these techniques of governance exercised over the domestic population have become normalized since September 11th 2001, when the United States was attacked.9

It is not clear how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, or what the “new normal” will look like afterwards. The ways that humans interact and are managed at the interface of increasingly blurred online-offline worlds will be important factors in determining what comes next. Adaptive, hybrid relationships that enable global information sharing and coordination are keys to regionally responsive relief efforts. The ability of networked humans to spread strategies and tactics for collective survival, while preventing the re-inscription of old political, financial, and racial modes of dominance is a critical online and offline challenge as well an opportunity created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

1 Steven J. Heine, Cultural Psychology. Second edition. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 2012).

2 Adam D. I. Kramer, Jamie E. Guillory, and Jeffrey T. Hancock, “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks,” PNAS, 111, no. 24  (2014):8788-8791.

3 Roger Mcintyre and Yena Lee, “Preventing suicide in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” World Psychiatry 19 no. 2 (2020): 250-251.

4 Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

5 Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961

6 Robert J. Lifton, The Climate Swerve, New York: The New Press, 2017.

7 Zeynep Tufecki, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.

8 Bernard E. Harcourt, The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War against Its Own Citizens, New York: Basic Books, 2018.

9 Giorgio Agamben, States of Exception, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Jobb Dixon Arnold is an Assistant Professor in Conflict Resolution Studies. He has a PhD in Cultural Studies and an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research background in the psychology of trauma and resilience. His works focuses on the cultural dynamics of peace and conflict during periods of social and political upheaval and transition. 

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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