Shelter from the storm

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We’ve been dealing with the new way of life for six months now, and this very strange year has brought out much that we didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, about the world in which we live. We’ve been left dazed and confused, to coin a phrase, by the incredible number of deaths and confirmed cases of Covid-19 around the world, and by how easily our entire social systems can be thrown off kilter. It’s said that times of crisis brings out the best and worst in people, and I suppose the same could be said for nations as well.

There are fears for our children going back to school; fears about our seniors and vulnerable, and the way in which this pandemic has affected them in long-term care homes and residences. Last week, a staff member at Dundas Manor tested positive, though asymptomatic, and the residents and staff were tested with no other cases being identified. We are not out of the woods yet.

But there have been effects on society generally that will not be easily put in the past, even after this virus has been dealt with. It had been a growing aspect of life over the past years that trust issues have become central in our thinking. In short, who do you trust to tell you the truth? I’m glad to say that trust in print media has risen in the estimation of the public, and social media platforms are now far less trusted. This is, in part at least, because of the failure of organisations like Facebook and Twitter to deal with misinformation and hate speech issues in any responsible way.

At the same time, various authoritarian governments around the globe have used the pandemic to increase ways to undermine, intimidate, threaten and even imprison media workers who seek to hold them to account. Journalists have always been a target of such regimes and many are murdered each year for reporting the truth. That is the everyday experience of many in such countries, but, thankfully, not in ours. Nevertheless, even democratic governments have been happy to attack the media (or the Main Stream Media – MSM – as they put it), in order to undermine public confidence in what they report.

We have become used to terms like “fake news”, “hoax”, and “alternative facts” being thrown around without care for the effect they have on society. We have seen governments lie openly, then deny they ever said those words. That attitude to politics and behaviour has even raised its head in Canada, when politicians take the low road and make accusations that go way beyond what the facts may warrant. To some extent, though perhaps to a decreasing extent, this kind of descent into the mire can be addressed at election time, as long as the damage is not too severe.

But then there’s the other, really concerning, aspect of society that has revealed itself more and more during this strange year. Conspiracy theorists have always been around, and the internet has only made their theorising easier to disseminate. Who killed Kennedy? Was the Moon landing in 1969 faked? Are we being brainwashed by what the government is putting in the water supply? Did life on Earth begin with aliens seeding the planet? There is no shortage of theories, and, apparently, no limit to the imagination of conspiracy theorists.

Two aspects of this rise in theorising should concern us. The first is that the weird and lunatic fringe theories are being treated the same as some genuine ones, ones by which we are warned of genuine dangers. The other is that the fringe theorists, or those who were once on the fringe, have become mainstream, spreading fear, doubt, division, and genuine fake news (an interesting concept!) across the free and open world wide web. People with the most outlandish theories are even capable of getting elected in democratic votes. Qanon is just the most obvious example, and it’s not the only one.

What can we do? Not a great deal, sadly. We have praised the Internet for providing us with a relatively cheap way of talking to each other and sharing our thoughts in a most unfettered way. Now we have to face the fact that we have a duty to ourselves and our communities to think about what we read, to be selective about what we promote and retweet, and to build up a set of sites and sources that we have tried and tested and know are reliable. Not easy, certainly not as easy as allowing some algorithm to do that for us. Personally, I would love both Facebook and Twitter to just go away and leave us alone. But they have made themselves part of the furniture now, and that is unlikely to happen, especially given the enormous amount of money they make for the few. So, we’re stuck with them, unless we can get back to what they were supposed to be at the beginning: a great way to stay in contact with faraway friends, people with similar interests, etc. Instead, they’ve become the most effective way to spread fear, hatred, conspiracy theories and division. Maybe we could boycott them for a time and see if they respond? Whatever we do, we need some shelter from that particular storm.

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