26 May 2020

Coronavirus narratives—origins, meaning and lessons

Chair: Mr Emerson Csorba

Ditchley is now in its sixth week of a virtual programme designed in response to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives.  

At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenges and questions the pandemic raises for democratic societies. The focus of this session was on narratives about the pandemic, the crisis overall and our responses. Stories about the pandemic, how it came about and was managed, who it has affected and how, inform our understanding, our memories and have material political consequences. The narratives that eventually come to dominate the reporting of the pandemic will configure its telling in history.   

We are in a blur of fast-moving stories: some are sticky, others are quickly forgotten. Noise levels are high, and we agreed this is only the start. It is 26 May and while there is much agreement over broad narratives, political fault lines are beginning to emerge. The narratives about this crisis that take hold will affect what happens next.  


A series of framing questions  

The discussion began with participants outlining a series of framing questions that are being played out in public debates. Several of these questions pertain to the effectiveness of liberal democracies: Have liberal democracies been as effective in managing the crisis as illiberal democracies or authoritarian states? How central are ‘trust’ and ‘competency’ in government to effective crisis management? Much of the discussion dealt with questions of government competency, some believing that governments have demonstrated accountability and resolve in the crisis; others critiquing panic responses to inaccurate epidemiological models.    

Some questions were about democratic stability and the role of technology in the crisis. What will a ‘self-induced’ economic recession do to democratic stability? How will we come to balance ‘good tech’ and ‘bad tech’: the benefits of the internet, Zoom and track and trace are countered by worries over state surveillance and that technology companies might steal advantage? There was an underlying sense in the discussion that technology companies will play an ever-greater role in the shaping of the ‘public square’ and that the whole notion of the public square needs to be rethought.  

There was agreement that local responses have been powerful and impressive in the crisis but that global, multilateral cooperation has been weak at best. Will the response to the crisis hold up or accelerate the devolving of power and local democracy? The crisis has been managed at the state level: how do we explain the apparent failure of multilateral cooperation, and in the context of the tension between the US and China? 

The intergenerational element of the pandemic emerged in the early parts of this session. What are the longer-term consequences of the intergenerational trade-offs that have already been made? Will these continue?  


Where are narratives leading?  

In periods of crisis and moments of destabilisation, participants noted that we tend to overestimate the degree of change that will follow. But now, at the end of May, the mood is clear—participants emphasised this isn’t over yet. The early steps to relax lockdown rules are met with significant worries about second waves. There is also still much confusion: the narrative over blame is still up in the air. A transparent account from China has not, it was claimed, emerged, but the discussion on the whole was not one focused on blame.  

The narrative balancing economic consequences versus the pandemic itself is highly contested: some argue that the second order impacts are little understood: the unintended consequences will be felt for decades to come.  

For some, a speeding-up of second order effects brings closer risks of intensified conflict. Concern over increasing tensions, risks of miscalculations and mistakes and world powers stumbling into ever more conflict, were aired. Failing to see that the telescoping of time is accelerating a geopolitical crisis is a narrative that has yet to be sufficiently developed. 


Flaws in democracies are increasingly shared 

That the crisis has shone a great spotlight on the existing flaws in western democratic countries is now a common reflection. Participants largely concurred that it is not so easy to look away from glaring and long-standing inequalities and we cannot avoid significant technocratic errors: the debt in our societies was too high. France, Italy, Spain as well as Belgium were not expected to meet EU public debt reduction targets before the crisis hit. Will we see political battles over the economic case to restart the ‘brown’ carbon-based economy versus the opportunities to build the ‘green’ and digital economies?  

We asked how long will governments hold the support of citizens if a perception of competent governance is frayed by mistakes, selfishness and a breakdown of the line that decision-making simply tracked scientific advice? The apparent under-preparedness of health bureaucracies and slow decision-making will have political implications down the road.  


The generation and circulation of disinformation and conspiracy theories 

A trend that pre-existed the crisis and one that reveals deeper flaws in democratic information systems has, it was suggested, been significantly boosted by this crisis. An online gordian knot, a ‘family of narratives,’ the scale of which is hard to measure, is now present and could be the largest formation of conspiracy narratives yet seen. These narratives are serving networks of people and the communities using and sharing them to make meaning, find common feeling and shared motivation.  

These effects are spilling out into the physical world, expressed as anger and fear. The classic liberal responses to conspiracy theories—to increase transparency and to provide more and better information, simply may not work in online environments. Information itself has become a theatre of war.

An example given was research by the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon that points to the use of orchestrated bots driving the discussion of the re-opening of the US economy.  

In an election year, the US was considered particularly vulnerable to politically driven misinformation campaigns. Liberal democracies have to find ways to contest these narratives and control their effects; otherwise information itself could become a battle in more and more areas of life. There was much grappling with how to do this but little consensus 

For some participants, basic government communications must be ‘clear, credible and consistent’ (the ‘three Cs’). Failures in communication open the door to competition in particular and allow conspiracy theories to go unchallenged. Effective leadership in pandemic response was said to include straight-talking and a good degree of empathy and authenticity. The success of certain leaders, many of them women, has been noticed.  

The narrative from the UK government that political decisions shadowed scientific analysis has unravelled to reveal weaknesses in the preparedness of biodefence and in policy uses of science. The deployment of scientific advice was said to have been hampered by failures to traverse the separate and discrete disciplines, specialisms and methodologies, said to be too siloed. It was argued that silos between scientific and other academic domains is a clear weakness in crisis responses and that we are now seeing this play out publicly. This crisis may lead to a constructive questioning of academia, journalism and public health and the connections, or lack thereof, between them and other fields.  


Common humanity 

More positively, the benefits of social media have also been on show in supporting new levels of communication between people—described as ‘humanising’. There was much discussion about the pandemic revealing our common humanity. Impressive community-based initiatives have drawn on social media. Certain responses have shown that government can work well; public services can work well, and competent administration has been demonstrated. There are important areas of success that democracies can build upon.  

Solidarity has been a recurring idea in our stories about pandemic response.  It was, for some, valid and meaningful. The virus has been a common fate; a pandemic such as this has been a long-standing risk and there is no obvious moral hazard (other than lack of preparedness). Participants asked whether the more humanising impulses continue, such as the tradition begun in WW1 to memorialise ordinary soldiers and offer posthumous recognition of the individual after the trauma of mass death. Solidarity is expressed in the memorialising of those who have died. The New York Times (May 24, 2020) ran a cover memorialising the 100,000 who have lost their lives with the names of 1,000 dead (1%) and some details on each person.   


How to defend an open society?  

The threat to a marketplace of ideas and to open discussion were strongly felt and this threat dominated much of the discussion. Classic liberal responses (designed on antiquated and elitist principles) look inadequate in the face of a superabundance of (dis)information. The model of traditional journalism is dying and even new online entrants have struggled to find a business model that works. The influence of ‘high quality’ journalism is, it seems, under threat.  

Much more aggressive and assertive state intervention by a new informational defence arm of NATO to control misinformation was proposed. Existing institutions have not been able to operate effectively to stem misinformation—a renewed legal architecture and regulation would help.  Alternatively, a revision of the clause under 2030 of the Communications Decency Act (1996) was suggested, so that providers of ‘interactive computer services’ could be treated as publishers. Such a change, (politically contested), would, it was claimed, make quasi-monopolies such as Facebook answerable for content.

For others, the lesson for democracies was to understand the importance of trust. In countries with high levels of trust, the impact of misinformation was said to be reduced. Polarisation is more easily exacerbated in divided societies. Reducing division, increasing trust—these aims, values and narratives come first.  

Participants: Emerson Csorba, Chief of Staff, The Ditchley Foundation; Kenn Cukier, Senior Editor, The Economist; Steve Erlanger, Chief Diplomatic Correspondent, The New York Times; Professor Niall Ferguson, Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; Liz Greenhalgh, Impact Lead, The Ditchley Foundation; Arjun Gupta, Director, The Advisory Corporation in Canada and member of the Canadian Ditchley Programme Committee; Carl Miller, Founding Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos; Marie-Lucie Morin, Executive Director for Canada, Ireland, and the Carribbean at the World Bank from 2010 – 2013 and previous to this, National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister; Professor Katy Shaw, who leads research into twenty-first century writings at Northumbria University. 

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.