Online in the time of coronavirus

As the weeks under lockdown have blurred into months, a new normal that even vaguely resembles the old normal only seems further away. Not to say that the old normal was ideal, or even good: The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly created a shock of new problems, but in many ways it is merely exposing issues that already existed, and exacerbating them.   

Whatever hardship people are already bearing now is only layered more thickly with the uncertainty of it all. There is so little that we know about what is happening now, much less what will come. There’s no shortage of preliminary data, experts doing their best to make sense of it, non-experts extrapolating for other non-experts, ever-changing guidance, so many threads and hot takes lighting up Twitter, but we’re still early even in the scientific process of understanding the virus itself, much less all the cascading economic, sociological, and geopolitical effects of the pandemic. 

Putting aside the bewildering enormity of the changes the world has seen in 2020, perhaps we can home in on one specific artifact of lockdown, the shift from living “irl” to being excessively online. A quick survey of the news shows that as in the macrocosm, so is true in this microcosm: In lockdown, many of the problems that already plagued online life have only become more exaggerated. We see racism and xenophobia directed even more intensely at those of Asian or Chinese descent, often via coordinated trolling and harassment, interlacing racial tension into political arguments. This is true not only in the West but also within Asia where the attacks become more pointedly nationalistic. Platforms that previously didn’t prioritize safety and anti-harassment mechanisms, notably Zoom, quickly came under attack by opportunistic trolls exploiting security holes. Online child sexual exploitation has spiked, complaints and tips rising to double their normal levels. The task of human moderation for platforms like Facebook, recently well-documented for being under-resourced and traumatizing to the underpaid workers taking it on, became even more of a problem as moderation centers had to close. They’re only now starting to re-open

At the same time, we aren’t anywhere close to knowing the true impact of coronavirus on online health. We’re still muddling through the limited data and anecdotal observations, trying to understand. The short of it, though, is that things still don’t look good.