Social cohesion at a time of social distancing?

– OPINION –

Kristiann Allen

Associate Director, Policy and International Engagement, Koi Tū: the Centre for Informed Futures

 

We are living in an extraordinary time.  The pandemic now gripping the planet – massive and urgent in itself – is also the latest and most significant challenge among those already taking hold in many societies. An unmistakable sense of 21st Century anomie stands in stark contrast to the naïve optimism of the last few decades.

Social inequalities, climate chaos, alienated and psychologically vulnerable young people are among the issues that now seem eclipsed by a more urgent existential threat. However, like COVID-19, they are all driven by complex human systems of interaction, with feedbacks and amplifying or attenuating variables at micro, meso and macro scales.  These complexities are what make the collective action required to tackle such challenges so difficult.

In this, the concept of social cohesion has emerged as a promising lens to help unpack the issues and – one hopes – to offer some insights on how they might be addressed. This lens is used in ongoing research undertaken by Koi Tū. It understands social cohesion as ‘the willingness of members of a society to help one another as a basic shared value’ In this way, social cohesion is at the heart of the kind of societal resilience that is required now more than ever.

Research from the arts, humanities and social sciences has long shown that, across all human cultures, a common denominator in social cohesion is a sense of group belonging. It is by now self-evident that this is a fundamental human attribute. We have seen this human attribute harnessed in both positive and negative ways over recorded human history so we know its significance.

Yet, now faced with COVID-19, the only available solution seems anathema to social cohesion: social distancing. For most of us, this means living our lives even more intensively online. If the unintended consequences of the online digital revolution were already under scrutiny as contributing factors that challenge human wellbeing and social cohesion, the current pandemic will most certainly help to shine an even more intense light on them.

To be sure, COVID-19 also will shine light on weaknesses in social safety nets more generally. If we are clever, we will use the crisis and its aftermath for some serious public policy soul-searching on many fronts. However, the implications for the complex and collective space of the Internet (and social media in particular) are worth special consideration.

For at least the past few years, the early promise of social media and its various platforms has been undermined by demonstrable wariness and mistrust. Reputable businesses, reliable information sources and essential services have come to share a blighted landscape with scammers, predators and polemicists.

What will our new normal of social distancing now bring to the mix?  Is this the moment the Internet doubles down on Dark, or is it an opportunity for a major reset? Will social distancing be the unlikely trigger we need to reclaim the hope and promise?

Already, we are seeing some positive signs. For one thing, anti-vax polemics seem strangely silent (grin). More seriously, community groups are using Facebook to organize check-ins and services for vulnerable people. Twitter helps to track the news, while Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube, Zoom and other platforms are helping people connect and continue to work and learn as they ‘shelter in place.’  Online (and newly online) businesses are filling orders and making deliveries. Service providers are offering more free data packages. These are the new survival essentials and they are fulfilling the earliest promise of social media and our networked lives.

One wants to capture all that mutual support, to examine it, valuate it, codify it and publish the recipe for policy and business leaders to use in perpetuity. This is proof we can (re)build a socially-minded, fair, thoughtful, and evidence-informed Internet

And yet, it is difficult to shake the feeling of a spectre lurking – where opportunities for exploitation and misinformation, created by crisis, win the day.  Could those who already felt alienated before imposed social distancing now find themselves even more vulnerable? How can they be protected from online predation that may find a new outlet under cover of COVID-19?

Will our current crisis be an opportunity for an Internet reset?  Will new online innovations that respond to social distancing help more broadly, to lead us to social cohesion?  If this is to happen, then in addition to urgent vaccine and antiviral research, essential medical care and logistics, we must not underestimate our urgent need for:

  • State-of-the art technologies to fact-check and correct misinformation, and to spot and stop deep fakes;
  • Internet access and usability for everyone, especially the most vulnerable; and
  • the means to hold the Internet’s titans to account as we entrust them, more than ever, with our information, our data and our stories to help us stay connected and productive when we need it the most.

These are among the issues that Koi Tū and the International Network for Government Science Advice, whose secretariat it hosts here in Auckland, will be analyzing in the weeks and months to come. The long-term impacts of acute crises can be managed and even harnessed for public good if we are alert to both their pitfalls and potential.