Focusing on Facts about COVID-19

Focusing on Facts about COVID-19

This week, we’re figuring out how we can have responsible, informed conversations about COVID-19.

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COVID-19 conversations that matter
We hope this newsletter finds you staying as safe and healthy as possible during these extraordinary times. This week, we’re pondering how each of us can have productive, informed, and rational conversations about the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll explore several underlying issues — including algorithm-driven echo chambers and news-tertainment — through a few news stories. We’ll then recommend ways to elevate and include credible sources and information in our conversations.

We’re also thinking about the legal concept of “force majeure,” which we’ll increasingly hear about in the coming months with respect to the global pandemic’s impact on business relationships. We’ll then consider the implications of the Internet Archive’s plan to make 1.4 million books available to the public without limitation for free; and conclude with two competing visions of deep learning’s role in the future of AI.

We hope you’ve been enjoying this newsletter and would love any feedback (erica@nycmedialab.org). We wish you and your community safety, calm and solidarity as we support each other. Thank you again for reading.

All best,
Erica Matsumoto

As the world grapples with the ever-expanding impact of COVID-19, having clear, rational discussions about the global health pandemic is increasingly difficult. Amidst the politicized language surrounding the virus and the spread of false facts, we’re returning to a fundamental question: How can we discern what information to trust?

In a very real sense, the news reflects our very real global discord and lack of baseline on the basic facts of the COVID-19 pandemic. As algorithms determine what we see, we’ve become acclimated to a digital world where our views are custom-fitted and personalized based on a system that not only reflects, but also influences our perspectives.

Who we follow on Twitter and Facebook, what videos we watch on YouTube, which Google search results we click on — all these behavioral data points determine which content cuts through the noise. If what we see influences what we believe, then it also defines our truths and how we understand the world around us.

How did we get here, and why is this such a problem?

ISSUE ONE: ECHO CHAMBERS SHAPED BY ALGORITHMS AND PRECONCEPTIONS

To understand how we got here, it’s important to start by dissecting individuals’ access to news. Thanks to Twitter, blogging, and digital media, media is more democratized than ever. Additionally, for both good and bad, the media landscape is now even more diverse thanks to the rise of synthetic media, follower bots, GANS, and more. On the one hand, this means that more people are able to get their perspectives out into the world and that there are more diverse viewpoints available to those who look for them.

However — and this is a very big however — the sheer volume of information that’s now available to literally anyone with an internet connection has a massive downside: echo chamberization. Faced with a constant onslaught of news, many people rely on their friends and a small number of opinion leaders — through both direct communications and social media — to parse information out for them.

The natural echo chamber effect of social media is amplified by the platforms themselves. Because Twitter, Facebook, and Medium all employ algorithms that reward content that receives more clicks by putting it at the top of users’ feeds (thereby allowing high-performing content to reach more eyeballs), social media tends to put messages that users (and their probably like-minded friends and those that they follow) are already disposed to agree with in people’s feeds. Simultaneously, social media algorithms will tend not to put content that won’t appeal to users in their feeds, as that content won’t have been shared by their friends of those they follow.

In the context of a public health emergency, this has real — and potentially devastating — consequences. Consider the viral Medium post “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now,” written by Tomas Pueyo. After its publication on March 10, this article was viewed over 40 million times in just over a week. It picked up shares and endorsements by public health experts including former WHO Director Anthony Costello, private sector leaders such as Stripe CEO Patrick Collison, and political figures such as Andrew Yang.

Based on this massive response, you’d probably expect that the article in question was written by a public health expert. You’d be very, very wrong. Tomas Pueyo is… the vice president of growth at Course Hero, an education content sharing platform that lets students collaborate on study notes. He doesn’t have any public health background to speak of.

Despite these facts, Pueyo’s article has been translated into over 30 languages. While the article’s contents are largely accurate — and it’s certainly true that largely accurate information about COVID-19 is better than none at all — there are inaccuracies in parts of the article and reason to believe that the models he developed without the benefit of virology training aren’t as attuned to viral transmission dynamics as would be models developed by trained scientists. By his own admission, Pueyo — whose bias, as someone who works in startup culture, where the mantra “move fast and break things” rules the day,” is toward action, even if imperfect — says he thinks, “You want to get the message out as fast as possible and correct it if it’s wrong. You make decisions first and then you correct later.”

Perhaps most troubling, however, is the likelihood that Pueyo’s article ate up valuable attention that would have been better-directed to resources developed by scientists themselves. As an example, flattenthecurve.com, which was initially compiled by Oregon State University College of Public Health assistant professor Julie McMurray, went live around the same time as Pueyo’s article but, after an initial burst of coverage, didn’t achieve the same level of top-of-mind virality outside the scientific community. Based on the number of translations — flattenthecurve.com has only been translated into six languages — Pueyo’s article certainly has achieved more global traction.

ISSUE TWO: THE REALITY TELEVISION-IFICTION OF NEWS

Another side effect of the constant, ever-evolving news cycle around both COVID-19 and news more broadly is the reality tv-ifiction of it all. Nowadays, it feels increasingly like current events are filtered through the lens of reality television; with 75% of the U.S. currently under shelter in place orders, it’s hard to ignore the parallels between our day-to-day lives and “Survivor.”

Similarly, when reading breathless insider-y coverage of the wheeling, dealing, and scheming going on inside the White House and Congress as they scramble to deal with COVID-19, it’s hard not to call up comparisons to “The West Wing,” Deal or No Deal” or “The Apprentice.”

When #whereisfauci and #faucifraud compete on Twitter as signifiers of political tribalism, the story of COVID-19 in the U.S. seems like a political drama playing out as a personal conflict between the president and an outside antagonist a la “House of Cards” or “Big Brother.”

The difference, however, between tv shows and reality is that people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake in the real world. A NEW ROUTE TO PROMINENCE AND FEDERAL ATTENTION

Together, the issues articulated thus far have wrought deep, world-altering changes to how ideas both filter into the public consciousness and catch the attention of the holder of the highest office in the land. In particular, Jared Kushner’s high regard for Silicon Valley COVID-19 theorists’ views on the virus has filtered up to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.

According to a Republican briefed on conversations between Kushner and Trump, the former has told the latter about experimental treatments he’s heard about from Silicon Valley executives. In late March, Vanity Fair writer Gabriel Sherman reported that Kushner’s Silicon Valley-influenced thinking on the novel coronavirus factored into Trump’s belief that he could afford to ignore Dr. Anthony Fauci’s opinion with regard to attempting to reopen the economy far earlier than Fauci said would be safe.

THE NEW TRIBALISM Although one would expect there to be an objective truth with regard to certain facts about COVID-19, the reality — thanks in part to people splitting on issues such as social distancing and mask-wearing along political lines — is a worrying number of people continue to believe that the virus and the response to it are partisan issues, rather than health issues.

In some sense, the blue-red divide on the COVID-19 pandemic reads as merely an extension of the tribalism that has come to define debates over immigration, taxes, and health care. However, there is a key difference: COVID-19 doesn’t care about a patient’s party affiliation, location, or belief in its reality.

The level of disunity between disparate political groups’ responses to COVID-19 could have deadly results. Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, says that a uniform response to the virus across the country, in the form of strict social distancing and other aggressive measures to control the virus’ spread now, could lower potential deaths to “in the range of 100,000 to 200,000.”

On the flip side, Birx warns that the lack of a nationwide response to COVID-19 could push the potential death toll up significantly. “Cities that don’t social distance, that don’t stay at home, that believe you can have social interactions, that believe you can have gatherings at homes of 20 and 10 people even, that is going to spread the virus even if everyone looks well.” COMMUNICATING THE RIGHT INFORMATION IN THE RIGHT WAY

In the face of these massive stakes and monumental challenges, what’s a person who wants to have responsible, informed conversations about COVID-19 to do?

Regardless of your personal level of scientific understanding, there are a few things you can do to empower yourself to better understand COVID-19 coverage and have effective conversations about the virus.

  • Communicate to your network: harness the relationships you already have with family, friends, and acquaintances to share high-quality information with these people who already trust you.
  • Pick your battles: be selective about the debates — particularly partisan ones — that you engage in, especially if they’re likely to be read as politically-motivated and unrelated to the substance of the scientific facts that you’re trying to convey.
  • Don’t repeat misinformation: although many people’s first instinct is to condemn false rumors or false information, repeating misinformation — even to question its veracity — inadvertently reinforces it.
  • Approach conversations openly: approach and open conversations with the goal of starting a dialogue and wanting to understand your audience’s needs.

Be honest, transparent, and realistic about your own limitations: given the immense volume of information being produced on COVID-19 on an literally hourly basis, it’s humanly impossible for anyone to read everything about the virus or perform their own analyses on every new piece of information. Acknowledge this reality and don’t pretend to know more than you do. Additionally, given the constant stream of new information about COVID-19 that is coming to light, remain open to revising your positions as new information becomes available.

SEEK INFORMATION FROM TRUSTED SOURCES Of course, good communication practices alone aren’t enough. Reliable, trusted information is the single most important resource for those seeking to have informed COVID-19 conversations. With this said, it isn’t always clear where to find the latest and most reliable information. To get you started on the right path, here are some of the publications and people someone in pharma trusts to keep her up to date and informed.

Scientific and medical publications and research:

Pharma industry news:

COVID-19 tracking and general information:

For those on Twitter, this list of trusted public health officials, epidemiologists, virologists, family doctors and others is a good starting point to build a Twitter feed that will provide solid takes on COVID-19 news as it comes in. What is ‘force majeure’? The legal term you’ll be hearing a lot during the coronavirus crisis. As businesses struggle to meet their obligations due to the weight of COVID-19, a legal concept known as “force majeure” (a term that literally means “superior strength” and is used to refer to unforeseen calamities such as natural disasters, man-made emergencies, and wars) may become very important. This has implications for industries as diverse as sports, real estate, and the law itself. In one indication of this eventuality’s increasing likelihood, Subway has already declared the COVID-19 pandemic a force majeure. An Online Library is Venturing Into Uncharted Waters With public libraries closed across the U.S., the Internet Archive has announced an initiative to offer 1.4 million books for free online. While giving people access to literature is a noble goal, not everyone is cheering. There are copyright implications and some serious risks for writers who rely on revenue from book sales; writer and Dartmouth College professor Alexander Chee, for one, has called the Internet Archive’s plans a copyrights grab that “endangers many [authors, booksellers, and publishers] already in terrible danger.” A debate between AI experts shows a battle over the technology’s future

One of the key debates that will shape AI’s future centers on the advisability of deep learning. In a March 26 debate at MIT Technology Review’s annual EmTech Digital event, Gary Marcus (founder of CEO of Robust.AI and a well-known critic of deep learning) and Danny Lange (vice president of AI and machine learning at Unity and a proponent of deep learning) offered competing visions of deep learning’s centrality — or lack thereof — to AI’s future.

This Week in Business History

April 1, 1778: The dollar sign ($) is created by Oliver Pollock.

Pollock — an Irish merchant based in Spanish-controlled New Orleans — helped the American government fund its efforts in the Revolutionary War to the tune of 300,000 Spanish pesos (about a billion dollars in 2015 currency), earning him the moniker “Financier of the Revolution in the West.” As an Irishman, Pollock believed that fighting Britain was his duty. Additionally, as a businessman, he believed that a sizable investment in the Revolution would pay long-term dividends and afford him access to some of the most famous names in the soon-to-be-established United States.

After funding a massively successful campaign to capture British forts in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, Pollock found himself unable to continue funneling money into the war effort. Instead, he drew up bills of exchange — war bonds — to sell to supporters of the colonies. These bonds were supported by the Founding Fathers, and plenty of investors bought them because of then-Virginia governor Thomas Jefferson’s public support of Pollock.

However, ultimately, Pollock went broke due to the combination of the sheer cost of raising supplies and armies and favorable re-negotiating on the bills of exchange he had issued, which had made him (instead of the merchant companies and state congresses that originally backed them) liable for the bills.

Without his own money to pay the creditors back, Pollock wrote to Congress for help. It was at this point that Pollock’s sloppy penmanship led to the invention of the $ sign. In the ledgers that he submitted to Congress seeking financial help, Pollock had entered the abbreviation “ps” by the figures for “peso.” However, because Pollock tended to run the two letters together, the resulting symbol looked like a “$.”

Inspired by the “$” sign, Robert Morris chose to adopt the symbol. By 1797, it had been cast in type in Philadelphia as the official symbol for the United States’ own currency.

Pollock himself didn’t share the same luck as his $ sign. Although the Commercial Committee resolved that the U.S. Treasury should pay Pollock over $20,000, neither Congress nor the state of Virginia had that much money on hand to make the payment. All of the money in the new United States’ coffers at the time was earmarked for nation-building, and the debt Pollock had accrued had been used to support the American cause in the West and South, which had been given to France and Spain in payment for their support in the Revolutionary War.

Without any other options, Pollock declared bankruptcy in early 1782 and liquidated his assets and personal possessions. The lands near Baton Rouge and Point Coupée that Louisiana State University would eventually be built upon were part of the assets he liquidated.

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