[written by ISA staff member Erica Garcia]
For years I have been quietly informing those around me on my certainty of the inevitability of a new global pandemic. Many pandemic authorities (scientists and the like) have been saying we are overdue for one—especially in our now hyper-connected world. So, naturally, I’ve been loosely following the coronavirus narrative in the news–torn between the need to know and the deep-seated fear of an invisible and contagious foe.
In my casual reading I’m always careful to take numbers and statistics of those infected and what countries its spread to and the death counts with a few grains of salt. When dealing with reporting on a fast-changing subject across national borders whose symptoms are difficult to immediately distinguish, it is no wonder the numbers seem to change hour to hour and from news report to news report. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in this article from BBC, which details how an old map not even connected to the virus began popping up as a “new map” proving that “no country was safe” from the spread of coronavirus.
In actuality, this map shows regular old flight paths that just happen to reach most corners of the world. However, once one person had made a faulty assumption in response to a research tweet, the map took on a new narrative. Suddenly, these intersecting red lines were a doomsday sentence; they were a prediction of our worst fears surrounding the coronavirus. And then, these red lines became the “tentacles” of the coronavirus, evoking unsettling images of squid and octopi, gripping and twisting and pulling and feeding on their helpless prey (aka us). The narrative became so convincing that even other news sources picked it up, using the same language of tentacles and hopelessness.
What is scary about this is not the false threat of an unstoppable disease. What is scary is how far this map managed to get before it was debunked and removed. Narratives are powerful, especially ones that feed on the fears of their audiences. We have a responsibility as people who deal in communication to protect and create narratives that reflect truth, and narratives whose intentions are to spread truth.
At the end of the article, the authors (those on BBC’s Reality Check Team), quote a man, who appeared as a guest last week on Glenn Beck’s radio show, who not only incorrectly cited a statistic but also used a travel map to support his stat, commenting “The chart is frightening.” And indeed, it is. How many other narratives have I, and the world, been unknowingly swept up in? How many narratives feed on my, and our collective, fears? And how many coronavirus statistics are actually under represented? Maybe this is the pandemic I’ve been predicting for years after all.
And these are the reasons why we need more people in the field who believe in creating truth-spreading narratives, and, of course, in regular hand washing.