Information Literacy, Politics and Public Knowledge in the Time of Covid-19
In my previous post, I began to point to some of the broader issues that are at stake in the mediation of the coronavirus pandemic, and the role that education might play. I argued that it was quite reductive to see this merely in terms of ‘spotting fake news’. What we think we know about the pandemic, and how we understand and respond to it, are to do with public knowledge much more broadly: they are not simply about ‘bad media’, but about the nature of public debate, the roles and responsibilities of governments and experts, as well as public trust and accountability. These are issues that media and information literacy educators cannot avoid.
Especially in a crisis situation, it’s far from easy to differentiate between government information and the way it is presented in the media. Journalists are bound to rely primarily upon government sources, not least because few others may be available. In the UK, we’ve had a heavily stage-managed daily briefing, broadcast direct from the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street and led by government ministers with their attendant scientific advisers. The choreography of these events, and the rhetoric of ministers, would certainly merit some close analysis in their own right. The Guardian’s Catherine Bennett has aptly described them as ‘an object lesson in buck-passing and evasion’. Journalists are permitted to ask questions (from their laptops at home), although there are strict limits to this, and to their opportunity to follow up. More critical media outlets – most notably Open Democracy – have been barred from participating.
As in the 2019 election campaign and the run-up to Brexit, the British government has regularly refused to send speakers to appear on flagship news and current affairs programmes, such as the BBC’s Today. During the election, unlike all the other party leaders, Johnson famously declined to be interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Neil; and in the course of the pandemic, he has hardly ever appeared outside official briefings or brief photo-opportunities. There are obvious similarities here with Trump, who now rarely subjects himself to journalistic questioning. As I argued in my previous post, relations between government and the established media – especially the BBC – are proving increasingly sensitive.
Beyond this, there are broader questions about public health messaging. It’s hard to think of any aspect of the British government’s management of the crisis that has been handled well: the delayed start and the premature release of the lockdown, the shambles of the track-and-trace system, the lack of adequate protective equipment in hospitals, the failure to protect care homes… the list goes on. Yet one of the most problematic dimensions has been the incoherence and inconsistency of its public health messaging.
There’s obviously an extensive literature on health communication (this report from Imperial College London is particularly useful, and contains some telling examples); but one thing that comes through very strongly is the need for absolute clarity about your message. Thinking back to the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s – an obvious precursor – it quickly became clear that vague, evasive messaging wasn’t going to work. The message had to define the behaviour that was needed, and put it across in stark and simple language.
In the case of Covid-19, the initial messaging was fairly straightforward; but once there was talk of the lockdown being relaxed, it became progressively more muddled and unclear. In mid-May, ‘stay at home’ was replaced by the much vaguer ‘stay alert’. People were urged to ‘control’ the virus, with no indication of what ‘control’ actually meant. Red stripes were replaced with green, implying a ‘go’ signal – although this wasn’t in line with other aspects of the guidance. The new messaging was duly ridiculed by experts on the government’s own SAGE committee (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and by those in public relations. As I write, lockdown restrictions are being eased further, although the rate of new infections and deaths has now hit a plateau: the latest guidelines are exceptionally hard to understand, and growing numbers of people are heading to beaches and public parks en masse.
To some extent, the messaging strategy might be seen as a form of ‘responsibilization’ – in effect, a way of passing the buck from government agencies to individuals. If we are all individually responsible for ‘staying alert’, then any consequences are down to us. Yet at this stage, it’s clear that decisions are being made primarily for political and economic reasons, and not on the basis of evidence – least of all, evidence about effective health communication.
However clear and forceful they may be, health messages are not going to work if those who promote them are seen to be ignoring them, or doing the opposite. In this case, we have seen numerous examples of political leaders making light of the risks, and deliberately ignoring advice; and even in some instances, circulating misinformation. Trump and Bolsonaro are perhaps the most egregious examples; and it’s surely no coincidence that the US and Brazil lead the global table of Covid-related deaths. However, Johnson also laughingly boasted about how he was going around shaking hands; and while he personally paid the price for this by contracting the virus, his behaviour would undoubtedly have influenced others who were not so fortunate.
Perhaps the most outrageous instance of this inconsistency in the UK was that of Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings. (Cummings is a right-wing libertarian who is widely considered to be a major influence on government policy. In an earlier role, he was Michael Gove’s special adviser, and played a significant part in the ongoing attacks on the education system; and he was also a leading architect of the pro-Brexit campaign, several of whose tactics were almost certainly illegal.)
The full story of Cummings’ behaviour is, needless to say, disputed (there’s a pretty full account here). However, it’s clear that he did break the government’s lockdown rules on several occasions, and that he went on to invent some implausible and ridiculous excuses for doing so. Called to account, he took the extremely unusual step of staging a press conference in the symbolic setting of the Downing Street rose garden. Again, it would be interesting to undertake a detailed analysis of his verbal language, and his body language, on this occasion. Even the right-wing press were bound to accept that he was ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘nervous’. But to put matters more bluntly, he was lying: he knew he was lying, and he knew that we knew he was lying. Yet he wasn’t going to apologise for anything, let alone resign. And of course, he was strongly supported in all this by Johnson.
The handling of this case reflects a wider situation in which politicians (and in this case, senior civil servants) are increasingly able to lie with impunity. There have been countless examples of this on the international stage. Utter hypocrisy has become normalised: it’s possible to say anything at all and get away with it. While Trump is probably in a league of his own in this respect, Johnson has a long track record of similar behaviour, which pre-dates his involvement in politics (as his biography repeatedly demonstrates).
The implications of this for health messaging are especially damaging. ‘Do what I say, not what I do’ is not an effective strategy, especially in a context of general distrust. There is little doubt that Cummings’ shameless flouting of the regulations – and Johnson’s support for him – gave the green light to countless others. In the context of a health pandemic, ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ are not postmodernist conceits: they make for dangerous realities.
There have been countless other examples of government ministers being ‘economical with the truth’, especially when it comes to statistical data. In the UK, official figures on Covid-related deaths have not included those dying in care homes or in their own homes, yet they have been used to produce inaccurate comparisons with other countries. The Health Minister Matt Hancock notably claimed that the government had ‘smashed’ its target of 100,000 tests per day – a figure that in fact referred to tests that had been hurriedly sent out in the mail, rather than actually returned or conducted. Ludicrously, the government likes to claim that its management of the pandemic has been ‘world-beating’, and will enthusiastically spin the statistics to support this when the opportunity arises; yet when the numbers tell a different story, the silence can be deafening.
Following the science?
In the early stages of the pandemic, Johnson and his ministers repeatedly claimed that their strategy was one of simply ‘following the science’. On one level, this represented a striking shift from the populist stance adopted by Michael Gove – whose famous rejection of ‘experts’ (in this case, economists who disagreed with his support for Brexit) has continued to haunt him. Of course, it is absolutely vital that public policy should be informed by the full range of scientific knowledge; yet the appeal to science can also provide a convenient way of deflecting blame.
Ministers (including Gove) appeared at the daily briefings duly flanked by their appointed experts; yet it became increasingly clear that the experts chosen were carefully selected, and only allowed to speak in particular ways on particular topics. As its management of the pandemic unravelled, it emerged that government advisers (notably Cummings himself) were attending the supposedly ‘independent’ SAGE advisory committee.
As many scientists have argued, there is really no such thing as ‘following the science’: scientists routinely disagree, and in many instances, they are unable to provide straightforward answers to complex issues. Perhaps more significantly, as we have learned from the experience of so-called ‘evidence-based policy’, political considerations frequently override scientific evidence. In the wake of the Cummings debacle, Richard Horton of the Lancet accused scientific advisers of ‘shielding the government’s collapsing reputation’ and rhetorically asked ‘how can any scientists stand by this government now?’ Numerous members of SAGE and other key committees have spoken out about political manipulation and complained that the government was ignoring their advice. As if accepting the reality, at a certain point ‘following the science’ became ‘informed by the science’ – which is clearly a very different matter.
In many cases, it may be difficult to separate ‘the science’ from the ways it is presented in the media; yet media coverage of such issues is often confusing as well. Just one example: at the beginning of June, the Daily Mail reported a new World Health Organisation study that apparently showed that social distancing of two metres was only ‘slightly better’ than one metre, and that one metre would ‘slash the risk’. The study, it argued, would ‘add to the clamour for Britain’s two-metre [rule] to be relaxed’ – clamour in which the Mail itself was one of the most vocal participants. On the same day, the Guardian reported the same study as showing that the risk of infection would double if the two-metre rule was reduced. These different emphases reflect these newspapers’ different editorial lines; but they also point to the difficulty that journalists seem to face in reporting scientific and medical research. Data, it would seem, can often be ‘doctored’ to suit a range of pre-existing arguments, and issues of risk in particular are often reported in very misleading ways – including by some medical professionals themselves.
Cultivating confusion and distrust
In this context, ordinary people might well be forgiven for being profoundly confused. Valuable research by Stephen Cushion and his colleagues at Cardiff University has provided some ongoing information about the changing public mood on these issues. They have repeatedly found that people are confused both by government statements and by media reports, for instance about things like lockdown rules and death rates. These studies find that people are sceptical about what they see as disinformation: they can generally dismiss ‘fake news’, but they also criticise government sources for being confusing and misleading.
If this is the case with the pandemic itself, it’s also likely to apply to people’s understanding of the longer-term consequences. Research on media coverage of the last financial crisis suggests that the media did little to dispel public confusion about the issues; and this is likely to be the case again when it comes to the economic fallout of Covid-19.
These difficulties are bound to result in a decline in trust. Despite some contrary findings, it seems that trust in media is declining; but trust in politicians – which has rarely been high – has fallen even more sharply during the pandemic, at least in the UK and the US. Of course, scepticism is a valuable quality; and distrust is sometimes richly deserved. But as I’ve argued before, a lack of trust can also be dysfunctional, especially at time when we are reliant on accurate information – and indeed on effective leadership. It can leave us feeling bewildered and powerless to make change; it can lead to an unhealthy paranoia, and to reckless behaviour. As people lose faith in established media and in politicians, they are bound to look to alternative sources – and in this situation, there is likely to be growing appeal in the conspiracist narrative of the ‘cover up’.
Taking steps to enhance media and information literacy (however we define it) might help to prevent such a situation – but if it is not done well, it can easily reinforce a kind of superficial cynicism. Ultimately, media literacy may do little to reduce the likelihood of people actually encountering misinformation: to achieve that, we need media regulation. It may reduce their propensity to believe such material when they do come across it; but it will only do this if it moves beyond lists of top tips and techniques, and addresses the full complexity of the issues at stake. In situations like this, we need to develop a critical analysis, not just of media, but also of the official sources on which they depend.