Fake times and real life during the pandemic

By Angus Bancroft

One of the effects of our arm’s length social life is that we interact with a limited range of interactional cues: our subconscious interpretation of body language, eye contact, tone of voice, is heavily truncated by the technology. There are many implications of that, not least for how we teach and engage students. They will have little sense of teachers and themselves as a classroom presence. It also has caused me to reflect on how we use these cues and others’ reactions for information verifiability. A part of my research is investigating how fake news and disinformation campaigns are produced and valued in the marketplace.

Disinformation operations are deliberate attempts to undermine trust in the public square and to create false narratives around public events. Rid (2020) outlines three key myths about them: 1. They take place in the shadows (in fact, disclosing that there is an active campaign can be useful to those running it) 2. They primarily use false information (in fact they often use real information but generate a fake context) 3. They are public (often they use ‘silent measures’ targeting people privately). Research indicates that how others respond to information is critical in deciding for us whether it is factual or not (Colliander, 2019). Social media platforms’ ability to counter the influence of fake news with verification tags and other methods are going to have a limited effect, other than enraging the US President.

Overall disinformation operations are about the intent, rather than the form, of the operation. For that reason tactical moves like disclosing an operation’s existence can be effective if the aim is to generate uncertainty. According to Rid (2020) what they do is attack the liberal epistemic order – the ground rock assumptions about shared knowledge that Western societies based public life on. That facts have their own life, independent of values and interests. Expertise should be independent of immediate political and strategic interest. That institutions should be built around those principles – a relatively impartial media, quiescent trade unions, autonomous universities, even churches and other private institutions, are part of the epistemic matrix undergirding liberalism. 

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this order has been eroded and hollowed out from multiple angles over the past decades by processes that have nothing to do with information operations. Established national, regional, and local newspapers have become uneconomic and replaced with a click-driven, rage fuelled, tribalist media. Increasingly the old institutions mimic the new. Some established newspapers evolved from staid, slightly dull, irritatingly unengaged publications to an outrage driven, highly partial, publication model. The independence universities and the professions once enjoyed has been similarly eroded by the imposition of market driven governance on higher education, the NHS, and other bodies. On the other hand Buzzfeed evolved in the opposite direction for a time. It also doesn’t take a genius to note that the liberal epistemic order was always less than it was cracked up to be, as noted by the Glasgow University Media Group among others. 

The erosion of this may be overplayed – for example, most UK citizens still get their news from the BBC. however survey data notes that there is a definite loss of trust in national media among supporters of specific political viewpoints (Brexit and Scottish Nationalism being two). The liberal epistemic order was therefore neither as robust, nor agreed, nor as liberal as it proclaimed itself to be and may have been contingent on a specific configuration of post-WW2 Bretton Woods governance. We can see plenty of examples of where this faith in the impartiality of institutions was never the case e.g. widespread support for the Communist parties in Italy and France, which had their own media, trade unions and social life.

Building an alternative reality was a key aim of progressive movements at one time. Labour movements often had their own newspapers, building societies, welfare clubs, shops and funeral services. Shopping at ‘the coppie’ (The Co-Op) said a lot about one’s belonging, social class and politics. That alternative reality can be the basis for social solidarity. That isn’t to compare the two. Fake news is inherently damaging to any effort to build a better society or understand the one we are living in. But real life and life organised independently does provide a defence and a basis for building a resilient post-pandemic society. Part of this is resisting and questioning what underlies fake news – the continuous attack on autonomous knowledge and Enlightenment values which have eroded the resilience of democratic societies.

References:

Colliander J (2019) “This is fake news”: Investigating the role of conformity to other users’ views when commenting on and spreading disinformation in social media. Computers in Human Behavior 97: 202–215. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2019.03.032

Rid T (2020) Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pandemics in past times – a rogues gallery

by Liz Stanley

An interesting visual depiction of pandemics in past times appeared on internet sites a while ago, with these placed in an order of how the most to the least lethal has been gauged. It uses a fuzzy ball shape for each, seemingly based on Covid-19 images. It originates with an internet  body called VisualCapitalist.com. It shows a rogues gallery, with each pandemic fuzzy ball standing for much pain and suffering, millions of deaths, enormous grief, and profound changes in the social, economic and political order.

The website is published by an editorial team at VisualCapitalist.com under the caption of Covid-19 and provides some connected visuals and text on ‘the facts’ for the various pandemics featured. Its ranking of pandemic morbidities from the Black Death (most morbidity) through to SARS (least morbidity) rests on sources which the text and footnotes acknowledge are sometimes less than fully reliable.

For instance, what it calls ‘Spanish Flu‘ is not usually called this now and wasn’t generally called this at the time. Spain was neutral during World War I and had wider reporting of non-war items than combatant countries, and its King had had the influenza; and the 1918 to 1920 pandemic was given many names, at different times and in different places. Also the figure of 200 million deaths in this pandemic is a guesstimate on a range which other sources indicate as starting with something much less than this and ending with something rather more.

The VisualCapitalist.com website provides some helpful information about its graphics and data and its mission concern with media changes and the role of data in this. It is an organisation with a mission, and its account of this is interesting.

However and in spite of its footnotes and brief cautionary comments, its view of ‘the facts’ of pandemics in past times and the data used still has to be taken on trust.

So what do these images add up to? They are posters, with the advantages and disadvantages of such. They are striking in having a colourful and visually striking clarity in conveying information. The ‘history of pandemics‘ information is laid out in bite-size chunks on them with one pandemic following another in morbidity order, and in fact covering a vast time-period although this is difficult to discern without scrutiny of the small font captions beneath each pandemic image. And the ubiquity of this fuzzy ball image does a lot of work, for as well as being striking it coveys, perhaps without really meaning to, that these pandemic are linked and take the same visual ‘viral’  form as Covid-19.

The local and the global: the 1918 influenza epidemic in New Zealand

Annette Hay and Mary Holmes

Annette Hay is an archivist and Special Collections librarian at the Auckland Public Library in New Zealand. Mary Holmes is a Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Edinburgh. In the 1970s they attended Northcote Primary School together.

Northcote Primary School, 1976. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections N0105018.

The big grey concrete building was a bit intimidating, but inside the classroom was big and lit up by huge windows. As we started school Annette’s great aunts delighted in telling her that she would be learning in a building that her great-grandfather had died in. Northcote Primary School, had been used as a temporary hospital in the 1918 influenza epidemic. That big grey building had only just been built, and as the flu hit New Zealand that November, it was quickly put into service.

Northcote Primary School as a hospital, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, BO155
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections. 1571-2

There was a lesser wave of flu that went through the country some months before the bad one hit in late October 2018. The first wave affected the vulnerable: elderly, babies, and those with underlying illnesses. When the second more deadly wave arrived it killed off the healthy younger people, those in the 20 to 40 age group. One of the theories for this was that the more vulnerable who had caught and survived the first wave, had built up antibodies, and those who it hadn’t touched had no defence against the second wave. In just over two months the flu proceeded to kill around 9000 New Zealanders (the country’s population was around 1,150,000), hitting Maori communities particularly hard. There was a special graveyard created for Maori victims of the influenza in Northcote. It was at Awataha, near what is now Akoranga Drive. Some dispossessed Maori lived there in the early twentieth century, given sanctuary on land owned by the Catholic church until they were removed in the 1920s by the church and white settlers eager to more intensively farm and build on the land. Colonialism and wider world events played their part in the tragedies of the epidemic.

It is impossible to separate the story of the 1918 flu and the soldiers of World War I. As the war approached its eventual end on the 11 November, the stories of the epidemic are mixed up with the stories of returning soldiers. Annette’s grandfather, Will Hay, was one of those soldiers. In 1916 Will joined up and served with the New Zealand army in France, he survived gunshot wounds, gas and influenza, but arrived back in New Zealand at the end of 1918 to find that his father had died of the ‘Spanish Flu’ on the 25th of November, aged 51. Scottish born Balfour Hay had been nursed until he died in what became our primary school class room.

The epidemic was another blow to a country reeling from the loss of 18000 New Zealanders in WWI, but Northcote seemed to escape relatively lightly in the flu epidemic, with only 10 deaths in the official records. Like the current Covid 19 crisis, however, the count can be contested. For example, newly-wed Gladys Maxwell was from Northcote but died, aged 26, nursing her husband in a military training camp near Wellington. She was probably not counted in the Northcote toll. Nevertheless, it does seem that Northcote did not fare so badly. Why?

Northcote is a suburb of Auckland, NZ’s largest city, and now it is only 15 minutes drive across the harbour bridge to the city centre. But in 1918 there was no harbour bridge, although regular ferries ran to the city and the population of Northcote had grown to around 1600 – hence the need for a new school building.

Perhaps Northcote’s death toll was relatively low because the narrow piece of water between it and the city helped Northcote isolate? Perhaps it was because it was a village-like and almost semi-rural suburb (known for its strawberry growing) where most people were not wealthy but lived in comfort in houses on reasonable sized plots of land? They had some distance from each other and many grew vegetables. There were not the close together houses and poverty of some of the inner city suburbs that fared much worse. Perhaps however, being able to receive care locally may have made a difference, preventing locals who fell ill from having to go to the overfull Auckland Hospital. Perhaps the care people received in our primary school classrooms was so good that most recovered?

The mayor of neighbouring Birkenhead at the time was certainly reported in the Auckland Star as being of the opinion that without the efforts of staff at the hospital, there would have been many more deaths in the districts. He particularly thanked the Doctor in charge of the hospital, Dr Margaret McCahon (probably the woman in the middle of the front row of the framed photograph above), who later married and became Margaret Roper. Margaret, born in Timaru, in the South Island of New Zealand, was 36 at the time and she came with experience, having been medical inspector of schools for Otago and Southland and Medical Officer at St Helen’s Hospital in Auckland. Margaret was in charge of nurses and volunteers, including some of Annette’s great aunts Ruth, Doss and Louie Tremain and Gertrude Stewart – mother of ‘Jock’ Stewart, a close friend of Mary’s uncle. As it turns out, Margaret McCahon travelled abroad to do her medical training. She graduated MB ChB from the University of Edinburgh in 1908.

Photos from Dovetail Archives, Annette Hay’s collection

Somehow the big grey concrete building seemed haunted but not tainted by that epidemic. But that is just a memory. The building was demolished in the late 1970s, just over 50 years after it was built. The layout of separate classrooms was no longer thought appropriate for new ways of teaching. Of course, the point is not really to remember the building, but to remember the victims of the epidemic and the staff of nurses and volunteers who were under the direction of Margaret McCahon.

Sources

Auckland Star, (1918) ‘The Epidemic. Return to Normal. Northcote and Birkenhead Districts’, 2 December, page 6.

Rice, G. (2005) Black November: The 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press.

Verran, D. (2006) ‘The Northcote Fuel Tank Farm to1989’, Speech given to the Birkenhead Historical Society, 13 May.

Wordsworth, J (1985) Women of Northern Wairoa. Orewa: Jane Wordsworth, pp 51 – 54.

Thinking Comparatively

Graham Crow

The sociological habit of thinking comparatively across time and space proves particularly useful at times when the familiar world is turned upside down and we are forced to reflect on what is ‘normal’. To-day my principal role was to act as internal examiner for a PhD viva in the changed circumstances of COVID-19 ‘lockdown’. The ‘new normal’ is the viva conducted virtually (in our case via Skype), and the whole thing passed off successfully aside from a delay to our schedule related to connection issues. Certainly academic standards were not allowed to slip.

In the run up to the viva I had remembered a passage from Harrison E. Salisbury’s book about the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War when the city was surrounded and Hitler’s troops and their allies sought over a period of nearly three years to starve the population into submission. Defiance by the city’s occupants was famously crystallised by Shostakovich’s Symphony number 7 and its remarkable performance in the city (as well as elsewhere). But Salisbury’s book recounts many other acts of resistance, including the example of which I was reminded this week: ‘The presentation and defense of doctoral dissertations had gone on without pause in Leningrad, all through the terrible winter [of 1941-2], in air-raid shelters, in cellars. There had been 847 defences of dissertations in the first months of the war. In December [1941] the Leningrad Party Committee warned the academic community “not to permit any liberalization in evaluating the work of students” just because of the war and its hardships. So the intellectual life of Leningrad went on….’ [1].

Estimates of the people who died during the 900 days vary but at well over a million dwarf those for the current pandemic. Moreover, the conditions in which those who survived had to exist – not only starvation but also shelling and bombing, intense cold, and the risk of falling victim to cannibals – in no sense provide a direct comparison to our current travails. But such episodes can still reveal much about human behaviour and resilience from which we can learn, as well as about the appropriateness or otherwise of likening the fight against the coronavirus to a war.

And one comparison can lead to another. Within a decade of the siege of Leningrad being lifted the Soviet leader Stalin was dead, and the search for a new normal for the country was being sought. His eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev, wanted to ease the restrictiveness of the Stalinist regime but feared the consequences of relaxing restrictions too quickly and too much. As he put it, he was ‘afraid the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which could drown us’ [2]. Once again, the land of Stalin’s secret police and Gulag camps and our own more limited restrictions on movement and association are not directly comparable, but there may nevertheless be some food for thought in considering the challenges faced not only in maintaining restrictions but also in managing their relaxation. Khrushchev was indeed ousted from power in 1964, but survived long enough to write his memoirs. He is also remembered for his unconventional means of gaining people’s attention [3]. But that is another story.


Footnotes

  1. Harrison E. Salisbury, The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, London: Pan Books, 2000, p.496.
  2. Quoted in Stephen Cohen, Rethinking the Soviet Experience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p.111
  3. Roy Underhill, Khrushchev’s Shoe and other ways to captivate audiences from one to one thousand, Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2000.

Plagues, monuments and folds in the land

Angus Bancroft

In pandemic times social time seems to give way to virus time. The time the infection takes to replicate, transmit and reinfect is now the basic unit of time which supersedes other rhythms of social and economic life. There is a much longer historical virus time. To be human is to carry the imprint of virus responses in our immune systems and DNA. Viruses have their own biological historical record. Edinburgh is scattered with monuments to the medical history of the place. There are statues to medical pioneers, far too many plaques to read and grasp, each marking the struggle between humanity and mortality. On Princes Street sits a statue to James Young Simpson, one of the pioneers who developed chloroform as an anaesthetic. Another imprint of disease and public medicine is less pronounced but more chatty, the folds in the land . There are the plague mounds, cemeteries, and the plague barriers, remnants of barriers between folk designed to ensure social and contagion distance, and the draughty working class housing that was an attempt to get a grip on miasma and contagion. 

The collision between theories of humanity and theories of disease contagion is worth attention. It is written stone and earth. In creates new ways of governing humans, tagging and sorting them and shifting some to the edge of the expanding city, to new sites like Niddrie. Improvement moral, economic, social and sanitary reshaped the city and resorted its inhabitants. Planners theorised how bodies would mix. The vertical social segregation of the Old Town gave way to the horizontal separation of the new suburbs. Internal and external architecture was informed by ideas about hygiene and sanitation alongside privacy, ownership, divisions of domestic labour and time.  

The evidence of past social innovations and public health crises is visible in the physical form of the city and also its social dynamics and the cultural and imaginary distance between places. The current pandemic will produce its own legacy in the physical and organisational infrastructure while as a society we move onto the next worry. Looking at past pandemics is going to be crucial to understanding the challenges involved.