The Pandemic Paper: The SOC7 Class on Media, Culture and Society

Darren Wong 29 May 2020
Image Credits: Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge

As the world stays indoors, the media has become our eyes and ears to the outside world. A sizeable bulk of the information we receive about the Covid-19 pandemic is filtered through the coloured lens of the television, the Internet and social media. Sentiment analysis of Twitter data unsurprisingly reveals how our emotions towards national lockdown fluctuate over time, often in line with media reports and events. Normalising our reliance on technology, the shift to the virtual world has also altered the nature of our interactions through media, with video-conferencing platform Zoom now boasting 300 million daily meeting participants, up from 10 million in December 2019.

In what ways has the media and our use of the media framed our understandings of the pandemic? What are its implications on human behaviour and society? I had the privilege to sit in on a Sociology revision session (Part IIB, SOC7: Media, Culture and Society) led by Dr Ella McPherson and a group of about fifteen students taking the paper. Instead of chasing questions like I normally would in interviews, I quickly found the answers I was seeking for, and more, from the breakout discussions and group reflections — ironically enough, behind the cloak of a disabled webcam and muted microphone. All names have been redacted from this article to respect the students’ privacy.

The Mediation of Information

What do crises do in terms of the distribution of power and the opportunities for power over the media? “Before the crisis, everybody was a producer. Now, it has reverted back to a one-to-many model.” There is a retreat to government-endorsed narratives, with political leaders, journalists, reporters and experts wielding more power to disseminate dominant narratives into the mainstream. The current pandemic was compared to the 9/11 attacks and the discourse on the War on Terror — today, it is a barrage of updates about social distancing, economic support and not to forget, the slogan “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.”

As individuals stay cooped up at home, unable to witness or experience the outside world for themselves, the role of journalists as the primary mediator of information between governments and netizens rises to the fore. As the Fourth Estate, the press has not escaped unscathed under the public eye — there is a growing online community expressing concerns that news outlets like the BBC and The Guardian have not been critical enough of the government’s sluggish initial response and proposed measures. Does their alignment with mainstream narratives reflect shifting power dynamics during the pandemic that have undermined journalistic practices? At the same time, a student referred to a recent BBC article that classified seven types of people who start and spread viral misinformation, suggesting how these outlets “consolidate their position in the hierarchy” by presenting themselves as the bastions of truth and objectivity.

The idea of “learned powerlessness” was brought up, where our inability to fully question the sheer volume of information we receive “numbs our critical engagement with the world”.

Although the global nature of the pandemic means that it is easier for individuals to access information about crisis responses in different parts of the world, it is arguably harder to be discerning about the information received. At a time when only mediated forms of information are communicated to us, students expressed worry about the implications of rising information fatigue from the exhausting, repetitive inundation of news stories about the pandemic. The idea of “learned powerlessness” was brought up, where our inability to fully question the sheer volume of information we receive “numbs our critical engagement with the world”. There is already an observable shift towards more light-hearted, entertaining content, such as on short-form video platform TikTok.

The Increasing Digitalisation of Life

A group of students first raised concerns over how our heightened use of digital technology reinforces existing inequalities as access remains contingent on factors like the financial ability to afford digital devices and digital literacy. For most people, the pressure on being surrounded by technology 24-7 can be a deeply uncomfortable one. Previously delineated as a personal space, working from home has “merged both personal life and work”, with a student pointing out “the lingering feeling of [digital technology] always being there” — the pressure to participate is almost like a form of surveillance to maintain relationships which have moved into the online world.

What is more concerning, however, is that “there is no other choice but to let these technologies come into our lives, like a Trojan Horse.”

Moreover, online interactions, such as video conferences, can feel more tiring as the virtual divide during online interactions “requires more interpretive or emotional work” to be bridged as we lose the more overt social cues in physical interactions. The additional visual stimuli of seeing ourselves on the screen also drains us as we knowingly or unknowingly monitor and observe our behaviours. What is more concerning, however, is that “there is no other choice but to let these technologies come into our lives, like a Trojan Horse.” Now that the routines of everyday life have normalised these technologies, it could pave an easier path for corporations to tap into our increasing reliance on these platforms to introduce more technology.

Unresolved Concerns on Media

The world’s most followed TikTok user is a 16-year-old dancer. As it becomes easier to share content online, people turn to social media platforms for entertainment, spawning an increase in “teenage girls dancing provocatively” amidst other problematic content. Several pertinent questions were brought up: Who is engaging with this content? Why are they producing and reproducing it? How do they understand their participation? The insidious effects of opaque algorithms on social media were explored. For example, TikTok was lambasted for marketing their platform by curating the appearances of their own users through moderation and algorithms. At the end of 2019, TikTok admitted to suppressing the reach of content created by users assumed to be vulnerable to cyberbullying — disabled, queer and plus-sized individuals. This creates a homogenous landscape online, worsening “visual inequality”. Simultaneously, it is a form of “class inequality” as the overwhelming presence of “white people, females, people living in large houses” reinforces mainstream perceptions of “what looks desirable even in a virtual space”. Herein lies a paradox — although audiences enjoy near unbridled freedom to create user-generated content, there is a “closing of space”, where “you are allowed to be active, but if you want to be seen, you have to align with the algorithm and prescribed norms”.

Herein lies a paradox — although audiences enjoy near unbridled freedom to create user-generated content, there is a “closing of space”, where “you are allowed to be active, but if you want to be seen, you have to align with the algorithm and prescribed norms”

“Notions of privacy get troubled” during the pandemic as well. The discussion ventured into “how privacy interacts with the ’stay-home, protect NHS’ mantra’”. Referring to the rise in domestic violence, with calls to helplines jumping by half, a group highlighted the “selective transformation of the private sphere into the public sphere” by reinforcing the message that “staying at home is a public duty”, without recognising the burden of this on different social groups. “The state casts staying within the private sphere as being a responsible citizen, but that exposes marginalised groups of people to more dangers than they might be subjected to and the government isn’t supporting these people as much.” On the other hand, there appears to be a growing chasm between state discourse surrounding the vital role played by Big Data in tackling viral transmission, such as through contact tracing applications, and public concern over the lack of transparency over how personal data is protected and utilised. “There is a tendency of Big Data to be used not for its original purpose” and this could be alarming as our digital footprint increases during the pandemic.

“Sociologists say this is not truly new. Everything happens with a context.”

At the start of the session, Ella mentioned that “sociologists say this is not truly new. Everything happens with a context.” What has the pandemic changed about the intersections between media, society and culture? The shift towards digitalisation and the use of virtual spaces exposes the increasing reality of the virtual – it is still embedded in the political, material and historical conditions of media production, distribution and consumption. In today’s heterogeneous media landscape, power is exercised through a network of decentralised and interconnected social actors; the tough question to address as we forge ahead is understanding how best to utilise media in constructive ways to bring people together, especially during times of crises.