A week ago, on 6 January, supporters of US President Donald Trump marched on Capitol Hill to stop the formalization of Joe Biden’s election as the next president of the United States. The incident has left five people dead and resulted in a social media firestorm.
Also on January 6, website Worldometers showed daily new COVID-19 cases breaching 800,000 for the first time. This second wave which started in October of 2020 has shown no signs of peaking, with total cases at over 91 million and total deaths at over 1.9 million worldwide.
In the Philippines, Philippine vaccine czar, Carlito Galvez announced at a Senate hearing that vaccine rollout may begin as early as February but the bulk of vaccinations will occur in the second half of 2021. Health Secretary Francisco Duque also announced that the government plans to purchase 148 million doses of vaccine in 2021, enough to inoculate about half of the Philippine population. The expectation is that the entire population will be fully inoculated by 2023.
As we monitor the reactions of social media giants to the Capitol Hill riot and wait for the rollout of the vaccine, we continue in our cocoons.
The second wave of COVID-19 is believed to have been caused by a new strain that first came to light in Europe.
The USA, the worst performing country by far in terms of COVID-19 control, has logged over 23 million total cases (about 7 percent of the population) and over 385,000 deaths. Most recent daily cases for the US stood at 385,000 with California alone logging over 30,000 new cases in one day.
In the Philippines, daily new COVID-19 cases peaked in August of 2020 following a gradual reopening of the economy. Since November of 2020, daily new cases have fluctuated from a little below 1,000 to a little above 2,000. The Worldometers site shows total cumulative Philippine cases at about 489,000 (about 0.44 percent of the population) and total deaths at 9,416.
Current estimates place total cumulative COVID-19 cases worldwide at about 1.2 percent of the global population (without accounting for reinfections). Clearly the US’ 7 percent number is far worse than global experience. Many critics point to ineffective government response and especially confusing messages from the White House as a significant contributor to the problem.
But the US has also had a year of unrest and this recent riot is only one among the many that the country has had to deal with since the pandemic began.
In most of the Philippines, we have been in some form of quarantine since the middle of March. While we itch to go out into the world, it seems clear that the greater good is achieved by continuing to exist in our personal bubbles, contributing to control of the disease and reaching out to the world primarily through virtual channels.
It is this bubble of virtuality, though, that analysts feel contributed to the schism in the United States. It has been called an echo chamber, that bubble we unintentionally end up building around ourselves as we interact with the algorithms that select the content that seem to engage us the most and deselect material we don’t seem interested in. The ability of social media to both amplify specific messages and dampen others means that developing a balanced view of the world requires an explicit search for facts and a much more mature and nuanced use of social media, something that unfortunately very few people tend to be worrying about when they click through their mobile phones.
In fact, it is this bubble of virtuality that results in widespread disinformation and avoidable harm. From groups that celebrate anorexia to those that preach against vaccination, there is a lot of harmful content on the internet.
Of course, none of this is new. There has been disinformation and harmful content available even before the internet. And the algorithms that social media giants use to increase consumer engagement is nothing but wildly successful marketing, with, of course, much more sophisticated tools such as machine learning and big data.
What has changed is the efficiency of the tools that are used and the vast power and reach of the giants that own and control these social media platforms. The power of the platforms come not just from their size but also from their reach, which is partly a function of the sheer accessibility of these platforms. Your mobile phone is literally always an arms-length away. In many countries, you can access mobile data in many public places such as town plazas, coffee shops or museums. In the Philippines, you get Facebook for free even if you don’t have a data plan.
What seems to be clear is that while being in our physical bubbles protects as from the virus, our virtual bubbles can end up trapping us in a reality that we construct from our own biases.
What happened last week in the United States reminded us how badly people can behave when incited. It was certainly far from the first time social media has been used to incite people to riot but it is probably the first time so many social media platforms have unilaterally acted against a sitting president of one of the most powerful countries on the planet.
On 7 January, Facebook announced a block on all of President trump’s accounts on all of its platforms, including Facebook and Instagram at least to the end of his term. On 8 January, after having lifted a temporary ban, Twitter posted a notice permanently suspending the account @realDonaldTrump. Many other platforms followed with either outright bans or some other restrictions.
Amid these reactions, a few analysts pointed out that much of this comes as too little, too late and point out that the situation that allowed this to happen continues to exist.
In fact, this is a matter that I have had discussions both around the dinner table and in MBA classrooms. Corporate management need to balance their social responsibility with the profit imperative which is necessary if they are to stay afloat and preserve jobs. Likewise, these same platforms have also made it possible for many oppressed people and their advocates to find a voice and to make their stories heard outside of their nations. The global reach and accessibility of these social media giants have also created much good. Government regulators have a responsibility to protect the public but there is not yet consensus on how.
In the meantime, it falls to us to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Education continues to be our most powerful tool.
As we huddle in the protection of our homes, let us try to continue to reach out, not simply for entertainment, but for facts and news. And let us continue to build bridges not walls.
Happy Wednesday, everyone.
For a list of the platforms that have banned or restricted US president Trump, please check https://www.axios.com/platforms-social-media-ban-restrict-trump-d9e44f3c-8366-4ba9-a8a1-7f3114f920f1.html
Readers can email Maya at [email protected] Or visit her site at http://integrations.tumblr.com.