Thursday, February 20, 2020

#51 / Going Viral

Pictured above is a new and novel coronavirus. This new virus first appeared in Wuhan, China, and is now being found in other locations around the world. The illness caused by the virus can be life threatening. A couple of the first United States cases of the illness caused by the virus were located in San Jose, California.

It is fair to say that there is great concern about the deadly nature of this new virus. The photo below, showing the streets of Wuhan, China on February 3, 2020, indicates just how much those at the epicenter of this new viral outbreak have been trying to avoid exposure. The picture is from The Atlantic, and if you click this link you can see even more photographs that demonstrate just how afraid of human contact people in Wuhan, China have become.

On February 8, 2020, The New York Times ran a story that discussed how this new coronavirus might spread, and outlined six different factors that will be important with respect to our ability to prevent a worldwide epidemic. The upshot is that human contact, one on one, can lead to the very rapid dissemination of new pathogens, like this new coronavirus. The process is commonly described by the phrase "going viral," but that phrase is now also used in non-medical contexts, for instance, to talk about how fast a "meme," like one showing our president having a bad hair day, will sweep through the Internet.

I teach a class at the University of California, Santa Cruz called "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom," and we definitely discuss the "going viral" phenomenon in the non-medical context. Class discussion focuses often how social media can make various kinds of information (and misinformation) "go viral," and what the social, economic, and political conseequences of that phenomenon can be. Any reader of this blog who is not familiar with the phenomenon, or with Zeynep Tufekci, might enjoy watching Tufekci's TED Talk called, "How the internet has made social change easy to organize, hard to win."

Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, and is a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University; she is a monthly contributor to The New York Times op-ed page on topics related to technology's social impact. She was present at a number of the demonstrations that initiated the "Arab Spring," in 2011, and she identifies these demonstrations as prime examples of how the Internet has made it possible for political protests to "go viral" very quickly. 

While Tufekci celebrates how the Internet and social media have made it possible quickly to organize demonstrations and protests - by making it easy for news to "go viral" and create almost immediate responses - she also observes that this "going viral" process, when based on the Internet, may not lead to any enduring social, political, or economic change. Listening to her talk about this is very much recommended for anyone who hopes to be part of a movement for social and political change in the United States. In fact, says Tufekci, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, kicking off one of the great battles of the Civil Rights Movement, is a pre-internet model of how more durable and effective protests can lead to change. The Internet, as she puts it, makes it "easy to organize" social protest, but makes it hard actually to accomplish substantive change.

As I have been reading about the coronavirus, and how it is spreading, I have also been remembering Tufekci's admonitions not to rely too heavily on the Internet and social media to make enduring social, political, or economic change. We do need to make it possible for protests and demonstrations to "go viral," but as the person-to-person nature of the current health crisis demonstrates, it is not necessary to rely solely on the Internet and social media to achieve that objective. 

Person-to-person contacts are what causes diseases, like the coronavirus, to "go viral." 

Same thing is true for making political change. Person-to-person contacts are what will do it!

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