By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
At a neighborhood meeting with our Mayor last week there were questions about finding lost pets, zoning ordinances and people having too many lights on the outside of their houses.
And then there was the question of the night, one that has since turned out to be oddly prescient. The president of a large neighborhood association asked the Mayor of Dearborn, “What is the City of Dearborn doing about the coronavirus?”
The room went silent.
Sixty days ago Dearborn’s mayor could not have known the threat that coronavirus has since become. So, back then, for just a moment, the mayor flashed a quarter of a smile across the right side of his face. He glanced down at the table top in front of him, recalibrating his response I suspect, in the way that politicians at every level must offer a substantive response to all inquiries. Then he began, “Our emergency services have been drilling on response practices in preparation for any unlikely… ”
As it turns out, the question about coronavirus from back on February 12, 2020 was a very good one. Coronavirus has since emerged to become a very real public health threat.
However, if you do a Google search on, “Things most likely to kill a person living in America”, you find that heart disease is our most prevalent lethal threat. This is followed by cancers. Not far down the list, the number 8 killer of Americans, is a broad category called “accidents”. Drill down into “accidents” and you learn that using a smartphone while driving is creating a great national cull of our highly mobile, highly connected population. While the most prolific killer of Americans is still not a highly contagious and deadly disease like COVID-19, It has now emerged that the question to our mayor about the disease was remarkably insightful. COVID-19 has grown into a serious threat that is killing Americans at an alarming rate and spreading at an even more alarming rate. This being true, it still isn’t as lethal as cancers, diabetes, obesity and accidents.
But the fact remains that almost seventy days after the meeting where a neighborhood association leader asked what was being done about an obscure Asian disease, that disease is now a very real threat not only from a medical perspective but from an economic and security perspective as well. And both mainstream and contributory media has latched onto that, almost entirely to the exclusion of the other things that are killing us at an even faster rate.
While the COVID-19 crisis has become very real, there are still 1.5 million people hospitalized every year from accidents related to smartphone use. Last year the common flu killed 10,000 Americans. So far, this year the Centers for Disease Control say that, “At least 19 million people in the U.S. have experienced flu illnesses this season”.
But still, coronavirus remains our most conspicuous, if not most prolific and lethal, threat. Why is that?
On June 1, 1980, Ted Turner launched the Cable News Network, or CNN, the first 24-hour news network. In the four decades since then, the way Americans consume news, and what is actually called “news”, has changed more than at any time in history.
Prior to 1980, the U.S. relied on predominantly 3 news networks that broadcast six hours of content each per day. Today there are at least 25 major network news media outlets in the U.S., all broadcasting across multiple outlets 24-hours, around the clock. That is a staggering 2300% increase in the amount of network news media we’re served every 24 hours in only four decades.
But it gets even more interesting. And dangerous.
In less than half the time it took for network news media to completely reinvent itself, only 16 short years ago, Mark Zuckerberg invented “participatory media”. Most people call it social media. When Zuckerberg started what was then called “The Face Book”, he did what most innovators do; he put something out there that would change the world before he invented the rules about how to use it. From edged tools to fire to printed words to nuclear weapons and instant communications, humans invent culture-changing technologies before they figure out the rules for how to best use them. We throw the new, culture-changing technologies out there and worry about figuring out how to best use them later. In the process, there is always calamity.
In the 16 years since Facebook began, the number of outlets with access to your 600 X 800 news screen went from 25 news outlets to… 1.69 billion individual users, each one vying for attention and relevance. Even more than the four-decade, 2300% proliferation of available news every 24 hours, the explosion of 1.69 billion individual broadcasters on Facebook (not to mention other social media outlets, like Twitter’s 330 million) has influenced the way we consume information, and confuse it with what is credible news.
While coronavirus is absolutely a serious health threat, the single deadliest thing about the coronavirus for those fortunate enough to not be infected with it is the media frenzy that surrounds it. Coronavirus is a serious health threat that has grown more serious as the pandemic has spread. But in the five years since it was first identified, and before this most recent outbreak, its impact on public health does still remain smaller than other health risks like cancer and distracted driving. Cancer and distracted driving just haven’t dominated social media and news media for the last seven days.
This revolution in how we consume media, and confuse it with news, is at least a part of the reason why a neighborhood association president in Dearborn, Michigan, 7,273 miles and 13 time zones away from Wuhan, China was asking about coronavirus when the things that will likely kill her go basically ignored- even 60 days into the COVID-19 crisis. And this statistically skewed perception of risk is at least as large a threat to us as the very real COVID-19 pandemic is.
Tom Demerly in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia with delegates from North Korea.
Tom Demerly reports on Defense and Technology stories from around the world to TheAviationist.com, BusinessInsider.com and numerous other international news outlets.