A Pandemic Year, Coronavirus and Information, Zeynep Tufekci Cuts Through

Good morning,

Barring any big breaking news, there will not be a Daily Update on Monday, March 15. However, this is very much not a day off — I plan on making up for it later in the week. Today, though, is a look back at an incredible year.

On to the update:

A Pandemic Year

Four stories from the March 11, 2020 archive of the Wall Street Journal:

The National Basketball Association season was suspended indefinitely on Wednesday night after a dramatic incident in which two teams were pulled off the court seconds before a game began and a player for the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. link

Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Oscar-winning actor tweeted on Wednesday. link

President Trump announced a 30-day ban on some travel from Europe into the U.S. and said he would act to offer financial assistance to those affected by the coronavirus pandemic rapidly spreading across the country and around the world. link

The spread of the new coronavirus has reached a pandemic, spanning 112 countries and regions, the World Health Organization declared, as disruptions to daily life ricocheted around the world. link

That day was one year ago today, and while far too much has happened for a comprehensive overview, I do think it is worth looking back on the four articles Stratechery wrote that momentous month.

Coronavirus and Information

The first article I wrote was on March 11 — the morning of that surreal night — and it was called Zero Trust Information.

A drawing of The Implication of More Information

  • While it was easy to become fixated on misinformation, the reality of the Internet making publishing free is that there was more information of all types, which by definition meant more misinformation; moreover, the fact that text is easily searchable meant that it would always be easy to find examples of misinformation.
  • This, though, was only half of the story; the absolute increase in information meant that it was far more likely that high quality information would emerge as well, and that the coronavirus was a perfect example: if you knew where to look you would have been far more informed about the emerging threat than would have ever been possible before the Internet.
  • This increase in information — both good and bad — was unstoppable in a free society, which meant that gatekeepers would no longer function, and people would have to learn to navigate this new environment (but fortunately it appeared that younger people were already figuring it out).

I think this article holds up extremely well; the part about how writing about misinformation takes only a search is particularly relevant and worth keeping in mind: it means that stories about misinformation are both easy and self-flattering, which is to say critical readers should be very wary of explanations that ascribe all manner of bad outcomes solely to misinformation.

The second article was Defining Information; my primary goal was to refine the ideas in Zero Trust Information, particularly the graph above that suggested that the volume of misinformation and valuable information was equivalent. This obviously is incorrect: while the distribution of information is free, the cost to produce misinformation approaches zero as well; good information, on the other hand, is by definition relatively scarcer.

At the same time, as the coronavirus had demonstrated, timing matters: in January and February most people were ignoring it, which meant that most of the information — if you could find it — was extremely valuable.

A drawing of The Information Landscape for the Coronavirus in Late February

March 11, however, flipped things on their head: as soon as the coronavirus became the dominant story, the flood of misinformation was overwhelming, and it became ever more difficult to find the valuable information.

A drawing of The Information Landscape for the Coronavirus Last Week

Thus this graph:

A drawing of Utility Versus Interest on Social Media

This graph was my biggest mistake: I should not have specified “social” media, but simply media; for me, one of the biggest lessons from the coronavirus was the shocking degree to which widespread coverage was inversely correlated to accuracy. I explained why later in the article:

I think an understanding of the the different types of information and how it is distributed gives some helpful heuristics…

A drawing of Four Types of Information


As for narratives, at their best they appeal to the innate human desire for stories and our desire to make sense of the world; at their worst they appeal to people’s confirmation bias and tribal instincts. Either way, they tend to be polarizing, which is bad news in a world of fixed up-front costs, but exactly what you want when production is cheap and attention is scarce.

Again, neither emergent information nor narratives are inherently bad. Both, though, can lead to bad outcomes: emergent information can be easily overwhelmed by misinformation, particularly when the incentives are wrong, and narratives can themselves corrupt facts.

This wasn’t quite a prediction, because frankly, I wasn’t prepared for the speed with which narratives took over the story, from all sides. It does mean, though, that this Article aged far better than I ever expected.

My third article was Compaq and Coronavirus; this was probably my most pessimistic moment, as I despaired at how poorly the West was handling the crisis. I wrote about how Compaq had been a poster-child for exporting first manufacturing and then design to Asia, leaving nothing of a storied company but a hollow brand, and suggested that the failure to contain the coronavirus was evidence of the same sort of malaise societally speaking. Above all, I could see the narratives taking over, and the censorship kicking in, which meant we couldn’t even accurately diagnose our own problems.

One year on, and I feel a lot better; in fact, I think that this Article, while accurate about a lot of things in isolation, completely missed the mark about the United States in particular, and I couldn’t be happier about that. To be clear, the United States utterly and completely flubbed the containment of the coronavirus, and while it is tempting to focus on Trump (who was terrible), the truth is that the failure was nearly total: every level of government was found wanting, while the population bifurcated between those that refused reasonable cooperation and those that refused reasonable accommodation, both armed with the information they needed to fuel their chosen narrative.

This crisis, though, has both a beginning and an end, and the United States is absolutely crushing it when it comes to bringing about the latter; from the Bloomberg vaccine tracker:

Moreover, the pace is accelerating (the dip was the cold snap, and yes, to be fair, this also started under Trump):

If one were to have presented you with a hypothetical in which the U.S. population was impossible to coordinate during a crisis, yet it was the U.S. that the led the way technologically and logistically in ending the crisis, that would make total sense, right? Moreover, it seems clear that the failure in the beginning is related to the triumph in the end: the U.S. remains a dynamic place with more variance than anywhere in the West, which is why you should expect both the highest highs (when there is a clear goal with an uncertain route to success) and the lowest lows (when there is an unclear goal with top down control).

This is not to say that everything is fine, and that it isn’t time to build; it is, though, correct to give the U.S. more credit than I did in Compaq and Coronavirus (Europe, on the other hand…).

The final article in March was Unmasking Twitter. I questioned how on earth Twitter or YouTube or any other tech platform could pledge to take down misinformation as defined by authorities like the W.H.O. when the authorities had gotten the coronavirus so terribly wrong? Surely it was better to tolerate misinformation for the sake of letting the truth emerge, instead of relying on discredited authorities!

I do still believe this as a matter of principle; just a few weeks ago I wrote about how over-emphasizing the threat of misinformation could quickly lead to dangerous levels of credulousness. At the same time I am cognizant of the lessons I learned from Defining Information: not only was the media unreliable, but despite the fact I explained that there would be more misinformation than information, I also underestimated just the overwhelming amount of garbage everywhere. The truth is that social media in particular was mostly worthless from March 11 on, not just in terms of being informed, but also in its potential to hold authorities accountable.

In other words, Twitter and Facebook and YouTube’s inevitable overreach in terms of policing misinformation probably doesn’t matter that much. Sure, valuable information is getting squashed, but the real harm to the signal is the effectively infinite amount of noise overwhelming it. If anything this brings me back to Zero Trust Information: arguing about gatekeepers, whether they be the media or social media companies, misses the point when it comes to navigating the Internet; the only way forward is figuring it out on our own, and while that seems daunting, I continue to think the kids will be ok.

Zeynep Tufekci Cuts Through

That is not to say that the Internet is a bad thing: last year also gave a phenomenal example of how the free distribution of information empowers individual voices to cut through the noise and change hearts and minds far more quickly than ever before. I am referring to the work of Zeynep Tufekci.

Tufekci’s most impactful piece last year upended conventional wisdom about masks, both leading to their endorsement by authorities, even as it explained how the authorities had lost their legitimacy. Tufekci told me in an interview a few weeks after that article:

I wanted somebody else from the medical fields to write this. I wanted an epidemiologist, I wanted a virologist to come out and say, look, all these health authorities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, in South Korea, in Japan where it’s kind of customary, there are all these places with lower spread, and places with SARS experience are clearly either mandating or recommending masks. That’s what mainland China is doing and we should reexamine this, especially after papers started coming out showing asymptomatic transmission. You don’t even know if you’re sick, so the recommendation of wear this if you’re sick made no sense.

So here’s how I came to write it, even though it wasn’t my place to write this, and I really kind of dragged my foot a little bit, because I thought this is not my place to write this, this might be my interest, but I’m not an epidemiologist. I don’t have a degree in virology, I’m not the person: I wrote it because none of the doctors could write it.

I realized this after I wrote the piece…I wrote the piece pretty much making the case against what was then the CDC and the World Health Organization guidelines, and I braced for the biggest backlash of my life…But instead of the backlash that I braced for, I got lots of doctors, medical people, epidemiologists, people from our government, other governments, just writing me, thanking me, telling me that they just didn’t dare say this, they couldn’t go against the CDC. The people in hospitals couldn’t even talk about the lack of masks in their hospitals and it was just against the idea of what they do. It’s their field, it’s their authority and they couldn’t just go out and contradict that without having the conversation change first.

Tufekci, empowered by the Internet (and, it should be noted, her access to the New York Times), single-handedly changed the conversation.

That wasn’t her only important piece: Tufekci explained why the media got the coronavirus wrong in March, made the case for outdoor activities in April, and explained that the real issue was ventilation in July. By August Ben Smith was explaining How Zeynep Tufekci Keeps Getting the Big Things Right, and that was before Tufekci explained the role of super-spreaders in September.

There was lots of other great journalism over the last year — Helen Branswell at Stat has been a particular standout, along with former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb — but no one has cut through the noise and made a difference like Tufekci.

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