Coronavirus Infodemic, Trump, Marx, and Global Social Witnessing

selfie with a slide in a seminar of the Marx & Philosophy Society at University College London, 8-Feb-2020

More contagious than the virus itself…

A reality show in which hundreds of people are dying in remote countries due to an unabated viral infection is no fun. Much less so when the virus has reached the town where I live.

Mesmerized, during the day, I am watching moving images of the quarantined people telling their stories from their luxury cabins which have been turned into prison cells on board of the cruise ships. During the night, in a vivid dream, a weird-looking friend tells me that the coronavirus has attacked his facial nerve.

On waking up, I read in The Guardian, “Misinformation on the coronavirus might be the most contagious thing about it. And the best way to tackle these online rumors? Treat them like a real-life virus.” I became curious about what are those online rumors. I found, for example, that Russian propaganda outlets associated with the Kremlin claim to quote unnamed Chinese military personnel stating that the virus was artificially produced in U.S. laboratories with the goal of breaking China from within. “One of the wilder ideas aired by Vremya, a national TV network, is that the presence of the word ‘corona’, which means crown in both Latin and Russian, in the word coronavirus hints that Donald Trump is somehow involved,” says the BBC.

Another, equally improbable story, which comes this time from Indian sources, states that Chinese agents working secretly for the Chinese Biological Warfare Program at a Canadian lab stole a virus and smuggled it into Wuhan Institute of Virology, where it has accidentally leaked.

The right-wing insurgency is marching on

I’m intrigued by the idea of treating fake news as a real-life virus, and not only for containing the damage that the internet trolls profiteering from the epidemic can cause. An even more damaging infodemic is captured by the following title of an article in The Atlantic: “The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Re-elect the President. How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election.”

The man with the most money, party and state resources, and the biggest megaphone to guide his disinformation apparatus is, no doubt, the impostor in the White House. Imagine this: “On Election Day, anonymous text messages direct voters to the wrong polling locations, or maybe even circulate rumors of security threats. Deepfakes of the Democratic nominee using racial slurs crop up faster than social-media platforms can remove them. As news outlets scramble to correct the inaccuracies, hordes of Twitter bots respond by smearing and threatening reporters. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has spent the final days of the race pumping out Facebook ads at such a high rate that no one can keep track of what they’re injecting into the bloodstream.”

It’s a very plausible scenario and it would mean not only 4 more years of the USA sliding deeper into a soft-fascist dictatorship but also, 4 more years of Trump’s climate denial, thus 4 more years of his continuing crime against humanity and the future of my grandchildren… Yet seeing his popularity in the US rising after his impeachment, as a sign of his narrative of falsehoods gaining currency, I have little hope that anybody will be able to effectively counter his massive disinformation campaign. At least not with traditional means…

The Doomsday Machine

Answering a question about his view of the Internet, in a recent interview Neal Stephenson, one of my fave science-fiction writers said, “I ended up having a pretty dark view of it, as you can kind of tell from the book. I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off… The situation we see today [is] where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint…”

Are decency and democracy doomed? Every sign shows that the authoritarian insurgency is winning. For how long? It can be years; it can be decades. The political strategies of corrective solutions are unlikely to make a difference. Then what? How can I breathe freely in the miasma of the present political conditions? I’m not sure but feel driven to discover it. The rest of this essay is a personal account of my findings so far.

First of all, I use the “facemask” of meditation to protect myself from contamination by the news bombarding me. That gives me the inner space, where I find myself cherishing the fact that never in my lifetime were there that many people caring for our common home and discovering that they’re not only particular individuals but also, universal species-beings even if they don’t use that term.

A voice from the past… Or from the future?

Revisiting Marx helps me understand our nature as a species-being. That’s what happened to me yesterday when I participated in a seminar of the Marx & Philosophy Society at the University College London. (That’s where the top image comes from.)

Let’s decipher this message-in-the-bottle floating on the ocean of philosophical oblivion since one and half century ago.

> Only when the actual individual human takes the abstract citizen into himself…”

Only when we embody the abstract concept of citizen…

> and as an individual human being has become a species-being in his empirical life, his individual work and his individual relationships,

and have become a species-being [not only in our ideas but] in our actual life, in how we work and relate,

> only when man has recognized and organized his forces propres as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force,

only when we have recognized and organized our own powers as social powers so that social power is no longer separated from us in the form of political power,

> only then will human emancipation be completed.

only then shall we be free.

I realize, even after this translation, the quote leaves it to our imagination and interpretation to fully grasp its relevance to developing a fruitful attitude towards our planetary conundrum. Nevertheless, it triggered the question in me, how can we access that species-being in ourselves and respond to our world from it?

Global social witnessing

If I would have forgotten that I’m not alone, a perfect reminder has just appeared, as I was writing these lines, on my second computer screen that I use as my communication portal. A member of our Rebel Wisdom community wrote in her “Addressing Planetary Crisis” message:

“Recently my own inquiry has shifted towards fully facing the planetary crisis. It feels very akin to death & dying work — to move out of the denial stage and into acceptance, with all the accompanying responses: grief, helplessness, anger, rage….and deeper love for life…”

I can’t say that I went through those emotions because it’s not past tense for me; they are all still very alive and boiling in me. In a way, writing this story has a therapeutic effect giving me a sense that I’m not totally helpless; at least, I can connect with you and how you feel about what on Earth is happening.

Together, we may have a better chance to stay alert during the long night of the global soul and ignite sparklers of our collective consciousness. But how? It seems that this can only start by growing our competence in global social witnessing. (I learned that there’s even a conference for the practitioners and those curious of global social witnessing.)

Strengthening our witnessing muscles is vital for the emergence of millions of us who can perceive ourselves as one with our planetary body. When that body is suffering anywhere, we will let that suffering in as deeply as we’re capable of. That will be the beginning of the awakening to our collective sentience.

Once the collective pain becomes collectively intolerable, we will discover what to do next.