Facts, Filter Bubbles, and Public Health

Judging by my Facebook feed last week, Elizabeth Warren was the front runner in the presidential election and perhaps a metaphysical certainty to win the Democratic nomination. With the exception of a few outlying Sanders supporters, almost everybody I know supported her. My news feed was filled with proud “I Voted for Elizabeth” selfies and stickers. For weeks, all the news stories shared on my feed touted Warren’s strengths as a candidate, and anybody who criticized her was rapidly shouted down by a chorus of her true believers.

I am still amazed that she did not win most or all of the states on Super Tuesday. How could almost everybody I know, and everybody who knows everybody I know, be so wrong?

Could it be, perhaps, that I am an upper-middle-class liberal white professional with a Humanities Ph.D. and a 20-year career on college campuses? That most of my friends are professors, writers, or left-leaning attorneys? That almost everybody I know looks like Elizabeth Warren or a member of her immediate family while most of the country doesn’t?

Yeah, that would do it.

I dramatically overestimated Warren’s appeal because I get a lot of my news through what media-observers call a “filter bubble,” or a news feed that has been carefully tailored and refined to reflect the moral, cultural, and aesthetic values of people exactly like me.

I never set the filters. And I can remember a time when my social-media interactions varied widely in their political content. But social media sites work from algorithms that virtually guarantee that everybody on them eventually ends up in a filter bubble. When we interact with a person, we see more of what that person shares. When we don’t interact with a person, their news feeds eventually drop off from ours. When we click on news or opinion articles, we start getting more of the same kind of content. And pretty soon, without even trying to, we end up surrounded by reflections of ourselves.

I never understood how dangerous filter bubbles could be until I started — in my capacity as an academic administrator — to create and announce policies regarding a major public health concern: the coronavirus. The team at my university has been monitoring the spread of COVID-19 since the beginning of the year. We have a lot at stake: cooperative programs with three Chinese universities, a European study abroad center, multiple scheduled trips to Italy and South Korea. It was not something that we could ignore.

What I have discovered in the past week or so is that, no matter what we do, two groups of our stakeholders — students, parents, community partners, and the like — are upset. One group asks, “why aren’t you doing more; this is a major crisis?” The second asks, “why are you blowing everything out of proportion; this is just not a big deal?”

This discrepancy, like my unwarranted optimism about Elizabeth Warren, is a filter-bubble issue. After poking around for a few hours on various news sites, it became stunningly clear that there are two completely different, largely self-contained, self-perpetuating narratives about the outbreak in our nation, and both of them are so comprehensive that they can easily pass for the truth. Here is a very small taste:

Narrative #1 — the Red Narrative — goes something like this: the coronavirus is a legitimate concern that is being blown way out of proportion to score political points. Most of the cases are in other countries, and they are not that serious, but world health organizations, and the liberal US mainstream media see this crisis as an opportunity to hurt Donald Trump, so they are blowing it completely out of proportion and making hysterical, irresponsible claims about both the seriousness of the outbreak and the unpreparedness of the Trump Administration. The President has acted properly and proportionately according to the actual threat, and both Democrats and the News Media are whipping the public into a frenzy for purely political reasons.

Narrative #2 — the Blue Narrative — is very different: the coronavirus is a major, global emergency that the United States was not prepared for because of the Trump Administration’s deep cuts to the CDC and other public health agencies. Trump does not understand the threat posed by the virus to the United States or the rest of the world, and he is squandering the opportunity to contain it by trying to downplay the effects for purely political reasons. His meeting with pharmaceutical companies to try to get a vaccine shows that he does not understand how public health works, and his comments underplaying the seriousness of the threat are placing lives at risk. By turning communications over to Vice President Pence, he has muzzled the experts who we need to hear from the most.

It would be difficult to imagine two more different narratives attempting to address the same set of facts. But it pales in comparison to how each side of the spectrum describes the other side’s narrative to their own side. When this happens, we get narratives like this:

Narrative #3 — The Red Narrative about the Blue Narrative: The only thing that liberals care about is embarrassing and defeating Donald Trump. They would welcome massive deaths and another Great Depression, which would allow them to place a socialist in office to destroy our freedoms.

Narrative #4 — The Blue Narrative about the Red Narrative: Trump supporters have found themselves in a crisis that cannot be handled by lies and bullying, so they have to attack science, calling the whole coronavirus a hoax, and threatening any real scientist who comes forward to tell the truth. They will let half the country die before they acknowledge the basic scientific facts of this case.

And at this point, we have become two fully self-contained nations living within a single set of borders. There is no way for people holding these narratives to have a conversation with each other, much less actually argue a point. And that is good for the coronavirus.

We can point to some actual facts about the current virus — facts that don’t entirely support any of the narratives above, but that don’t entirely refute them either. In an update yesterday, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom laid these facts out clearly, along with their most important implications:

We don’t even talk about containment for seasonal flu — it’s just not possible. But it is possible for COVID-19. We don’t do contact tracing for seasonal flu — but countries should do it for COVID-19, because it will prevent infections and save lives. Containment is possible.

To summarize, COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu, transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick, it causes more severe illness than flu, there are not yet any vaccines or therapeutics, and it can be contained — which is why we must do everything we can to contain it.

Now is the time for containment. The coronavirus is not the black plague. It is not going to wipe out entire populations and decimate the world. But if it becomes widespread, it will place some of the most vulnerable people in our society at risk. At this stage of its development, though, the outbreak can be contained by standard public health precautions that will necessarily involve a lot of people washing their hands and avoiding unnecessary travel and otherwise inconveniencing themselves for the greater good.

This is not the same thing as panicking. It does not require paranoia. And a lot of people who have not been exposed to the virus, are going to end up with cleaner hands than they absolutely need. This is the only way we can catch the 1 in 10,000 who really need to do it.

But filter bubbles make even these basic public health measures impossible because they deprive us of the two things that we need the most right now: reliable information and consistent leadership.

More than any time in recent memory, all Americans need to hear the same things. They need to understand that the coronavirus is a containable threat, not an impending disaster, and that they can show profound compassion and concern for their fellow Americans, not by whipping themselves into a frenzy, but by paying attention to the news and taking some simple, albeit inconvenient, preventative measures.

The greatest threat to our nation’s health right now is an environment in which “what do you think about the coronavirus?” has become a purity test for any political position. If there was ever a time to come together as Americans, this is the time. And if there was ever a day for politicians to get on the same page and provide complete, reliable, and consistent information to the American public, it is today.

Michael Austin is a former English professor and current academic administrator. He is the author of We Must Not Be Enemies: Restoring America’s Civic Tradition

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