A Deadly Virus and the Distorted Narratives of Right-wing Media: Here’s What We Learned in 2020

4 lessons we can take away from 2020

Christina Cole

It’s been a rough year.

With that being said, let’s have a run down of what happened in what some have termed ‘the worst year in all of humanity’.

When drafting this article, I was considering categorising this article into ‘the good’, ‘the bad’ and ‘the ugly’, but I decided against it for fear that ‘the good’ section would be two lines long while ‘the ugly’ ran on longer than a Ted Cruz senate speech. Instead, let’s go through in happened chronologically, bearing in mind that as I couldn’t possibly deconstruct everything that has happened globally, I’ve chosen to centre this piece on America.

First of all, despite the claims of cataclysm and catastrophe, this has not been the worst year in all of humanity. Far from it. Humans have existed for 200,000 years and only had electricity for 250 years. For much of that time, life for sentient beings like us was filled with incomprehensible suffering. We lived in caves lit only by the dim light of a blazing fire, cobbling together sticks and leaves to make graves for our ancestors when they died of diseases under the age of thirty. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously said, life was “nasty, brutish and short”.

In the past century, we’ve advanced technology to the point where instead of relying on fires and mud huts to keep us warm, we can unleash the full benefits of the Industrial Revolution at the flick of the switch. 71% of people on Earth now have access to clean water; 1.7 billion households even have cable TV for their own recreational enjoyment; and despite a certain deadly virus, life expectancy has far outshone the measly thirty-three of the Middle Ages and jumped to seventy-nine. Of all the humans who have ever been alive on Earth, we are comparably the luckiest.

And yet all of this doesn’t mean that we don’t have a long way to go, or to downplay the effect that the virus had across the globe. This year, over 1,800,000 people have died worldwide and millions more felt the impact of loss, hardship, and economic deprivation. With all of this pain, there are bound to be some lessons to be learned. Having said this, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of everything 2020 taught us.

Starting off in January, the first known cases of coronavirus were reported on by the press in Wuhan, China. This was the first sign of something much bigger to come. As cases climbed in China, infections began to crop up internationally in what became more than blips on governmental radars: first Japan and South Korea, then Italy, and many more to come.

Amongst the growing panic that the virus would become a full-blown pandemic, the CDC advised people against wearing masks. This was based on the information they had at the time, and they would go on to reverse this recommendation in April. This is the first lesson that we learnt in 2020: that scientific knowledge shifts. One of the inevitable features of new and unknown phenomena is that data points change, and conclusions follow with them. This doesn’t remove the basis for the legitimacy of science; it just means that the scientific method is designed to make humanity get closer to the truth over time, instead instantly revealing immutable answers. Populations and governments that coped well with the pandemic were, incidentally, those who could be flexible and adjust their behaviour to the growing body of scientific knowledge about the virus.

We’ve arrived at March, when millions went into lockdown. Despite incentives to downplay the pandemic, European governments eventually broke rank and gave in to the growing threat of the virus. The U.S., however, bolstered its business and b. In a strategy that has been criticised for facilitating 300,000 deaths, President Trump chose not to implement nationwide restrictions on nonessential businesses. This is in contrast to the response of most European countries, who implemented strict lockdowns in an attempt to decrease the all-important factor ‘R0’, the rate of transmission of the virus.

This highlights another blind spot in federal handlings of the crisis, as European and American politicians paid acute attention to R0, but failed to account for k. K is a factor that measures the dispersion of infections, taking into account anomalies such as super-spreaders of the virus. When it comes to coronavirus, our best scientific data suggests that it spreads easily in mega-clusters, and that this accounts for more infections than individual transmissions. Multiple studies show that between 10-20% of cases drive 80-90% of new infections; this fact could help explain why South Korea and Japan were comparably more effective in handling the spread of the virus, as they focused on cluster-busting methods that tracked where new cases had contracted the virus, instead of who they had infected since then. The idea behind this method was that, chances were, the new case would have gotten infected via a large gathering, and governments could track down who else had attended this ‘cluster’ to get a better idea of who had the virus. If k is as significant a factor as epidemiologists think, that would make this is lesson #2; and something that Western governments could learn a lot from in 2021.

I would be remiss to do a run-down of 2020 without mentioning Black Lives Matter, although it could be an article in itself. To summarise what happened, in June 2020, protests broke out in the largest decentralised intervention against police brutality and racial injustice in America. Netflix’s documentary “13th” soared in viewership by 4665% while Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist jumped to the Amazon bestseller list, as this was the first time many Americans were properly becoming aware of systemic racism.

In this time of racial reckoning, political opportunists used this as a foothold to sow division and maintain the status quo by portraying Black Lives Matter as a violent or extremist movement. In a study by Morning Consult, 42% of respondents said that protestors were trying to incite violence and damage property. But looking at hard data gives a very different story: 93% of BLM protest were peaceful. Why the disparity? Scientists concluded that it was because of political messaging. Fox News, amongst other sources, ran hours of screen time that hyper-focused on a minority that involved rioting and looting. This is part of a repeating pattern in cable news of churning out distorted information to discredit certain ideas. This phenomenon is not unique to 2020, but the costs of it were felt disproportionately this year.

Fast forward to November, and political tensions were reaching a breaking point in time for the Presidential election. In what became the third time in U.S. history that a presidential incumbent was not re-elected into office, Joe Biden landed himself the presidency, surpassing Donald Trump.

This is where the fourth lesson we learned from 2020 comes in—a scientific principle known as the Illusionary Truth Effect. Simply put, the more something is repeated to you, the harder it is to maintain disagreement with it. This phenomenon has been demonstrated by countless studies, including one in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Joe Biden winning the election was bad optics for the Trump team, who filed 50+ lawsuits in an attempt to prove widespread voter fraud. And 50+ lawsuits were thrown out or withdrawn, but that didn’t stop right-wing pundits from repeatedly arguing that the election was rigged. Given the hugely complex nature of elections and the hundreds of political influencers scrambling to find evidence of voter fraud, it was inevitable that they would find something, no matter how weak. Once you realise this, all that needs to be acknowledged is that the general public is not scientifically literate enough to understand the metrics by which the strength of this evidence should be judged.

Now combine all of these factors, and consider the result. We know that masses of Trump supporters hear these claims of election fraud—claims that they have no possibility of understanding—again and again and again—and suddenly, a picture emerges that it was inevitable that millions of them became convinced that the election was rigged. Amateur mathematicians can marshal all the weak evidence they want, but that won’t stop the fact that Joe Biden will be inaugurated this month, paving the way for 2021 to be very different from 2020.

There’s a hope that these lessons can actually teach us something, concluding the tome on what has been one of the hardest years in modern human history. All we can wish for is that we can be receptive enough to learn, turning the page to a new chapter of America—and the world—that’s just a little bit brighter.

Here’s to 2021.

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