The truth about Covid

20 August 2020

By Mark Easton, BBC’s Home Editor

The virus can neither be bullied nor sweet-talked. It is above and beneath politics, deaf to entreaty and blind to justice. Hope does not lie in ideology or propaganda but in evidence and facts, however inconvenient.

We must apply the laws of science, both natural and social, to understand the behaviour of the parasite and the behaviour of those upon which it preys.

On the first night of lockdown, I met a group of young men who had decided to deny the virus existed.  ‘Where’s the proof?’ they demanded of me before running off into the darkness, hand in hand with their conspiracy theory.

A little later, beneath Eros in Piccadilly Circus, I encountered a preacher shouting into a megaphone to a small crowd.  ‘God will protect you.  Faith will keep you safe,’ he chanted.

However, these views and attitudes are outliers.  What I have seen from inside the BBC over the last few months is a country thirsty for clear and accurate information.

A story entitled ‘Coronavirus in the UK: How many confirmed cases are there in your area?’ has had more clicks than any page ever on the BBC domestic website, viewed tens of millions of times.

Items offering factual advice on social distancing and the symptoms of the virus continue to perform remarkably well, months after they were first posted.

The pandemic means that separating fact from fiction can be a matter of life and death.  This is not the time for gossip and rumour, spin and lies.  Our ‘post-truth society’ has been furloughed by a deadly virus.

That is why trusted sources of news performed so well at the height of the pandemic.  The BBC’s global news website, BBC.com, had 1.5 billion views in March.  The main TV bulletins on BBC1 saw audiences up around a quarter on where they were a year earlier.  The average number of viewers tuning into the BBC News Channel was 70% higher, a sign that people were searching out information and needing to feel they were in touch.

“I don’t want to weary you with these occasions,” the Prime Minister told reporters at one of the early Downing Street Coronavirus press conferences.  “Do you feel they are useful?”  Yes, the fourth estate did think they were useful and, no, they were not weary.

They knew that these daily updates were being lapped up by readers, listeners and viewers in locked down homes across the land.  Podium statements from politicians and scientific advisors became a surprise hit in the BBC1 schedule, ousting daytime favourite quiz show ‘Pointless’.  The Prime Minister’s announcement of lockdown on March 23rd saw half the country tuning in to afternoon telly.

People who got their news from less trusted news sources, such as Facebook and YouTube, were more likely to believe conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and to have broken key lockdown rules.  That was the central finding from a peer-reviewed study by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI.

It is worrying that some people would rather cocoon themselves from cold facts in a warm blanket of evidence-free fluff.  Social media allows people to exclude those whose contributions challenge personal prejudice and there has been much talk of the dangers of Twitter and Facebook bubbles.

But it is no coincidence that the health emergency has also forced the big technology companies which control social media platforms to intervene more strongly when misinformation goes viral.

With much of the world in lockdown, Facebook took down 7 million posts telling lies about coronavirus and sent out 98 million warning notes labelling posts misleading.  Among those to be penalised was the President of the United States.

Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube were among other social media platforms to take action.  The demand for trustworthy information is moving the tectonic plates of Silicon Valley.

This is about more than the misguided outpourings of conspiracy theorists, of course.  Misinformation is a strategic weapon being deployed by a number of states who see advantage in using it to destabilise democracies.   It may be that one of the positives from the virus is that it requires national governments and global companies to do more to protect that priceless commodity – truth.

Travelling back from Dover on the train to London recently, I noticed a sticker beneath the window.  “Don’t trust the MSM” it read.  No doubt the individual who carefully gummed the message onto the carriage would have a litany of examples of the ‘mainstream media’ covering the wrong stories, failing to cover the right ones and misrepresenting the truth.

This kind of challenge is necessary in a democracy.  Lockdown has opened up the space for people to consider their priorities and help imagine a better ‘new normal’.

The Black Lives Matter campaign is a case in point, requiring news organisations to think harder about how we reflect the truth about being from an ethnic minority in 21st century Britain.  Or being a low-paid key worker or being a woman or being transgender.

Saliency is part of the journalistic algorithm that decides what gets on the bulletin and social identity politics, rising up the agenda before the arrival of Covid-19, has been catapulted to the top of the running order during the pandemic.

Here, then, is the post-Covid challenge for journalists and for social scientists.  Our neighbourhoods and our communities have been altered by lockdown and mutual anxiety.  It is vital we understand what is happening to us.  At the end of the day, in our fight against the virus, the search for truth is all we have.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19.

Mark Easton is a journalist, broadcaster and author. As Home Editor for BBC News, he heads the UK Specialists Unit based at Broadcasting House. Mark’s book ‘Britain etc.’ was published in 2012, he has also written and presented numerous series such as BBC2’s ‘The Happiness Formula’, the BBC Radio 4 series ‘the Crime of our Lives’ and ‘What Are the Police For?’.  Mark has spent more than 30 years chronicling Britain’s story for newspapers, radio and television and has twice won Royal Statistical Society awards for statistical excellence. Mark is a former winner at the Mental Health Media Awards, and his insightful work has been recognised in entries awarded two BAFTAs, one EMMY and a Sony Radio Gold Award.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.