While Read was already relatively confident using online tools to work and communicate, his wife Sarah Eckstein, a speech pathologist, says she had to learn on the go.
“I didn’t even know how to screenshare. So that felt a little bit awkward. The other thing was just modifying session structures and finding online games and stuff to keep kids entertained,” she says.
But the main issue was, again, social rather than technological. “I have some neurotypical and high-functioning kids [as clients], but then quite a lot of lower-functioning kids who really need hands-on guidance as well,” Eckstein says.
“Obviously they’ve already got communication disabilities, so when you remove the person-to- person contact it makes it a whole lot more wooden, and some of them had to drop off entirely for that time.”
While 15 years ago there simply would not have been a safe way to gather for school or work or therapy during a pandemic, having to do it via the internet shone a light on some vital elements of the physical workplace we may have overlooked. Simple extemporaneous conversation fell by the wayside as talking was routed through themed chat channels or focused conference calls, and technology designed to supplement in-person work was exposed as not being particularly healthy for people to use all day, every day.
If Eckstein noticed her clients trying to meet an extra “metalinguistic challenge” in addition to the tasks they were already working to accomplish, it was similarly true that a lot of us felt beaten down and exhausted by screen-based communication. And so-called Zoom fatigue didn’t just affect our work. Virtual social gatherings – miraculous though it was to see and speak to our loved ones from respective homes – were marked by the lack of tactile and interpersonal interactions we may have previously taken for granted.
The free flow of information over the internet was not only important for work and socialising but also instrumental in keeping us informed of the state of the crisis and the latest restrictions, in real time via news outlets and social media. But the combination of physical isolation and exposure to the incessant barrage of information from sources, credible and otherwise, has also accelerated and amplified fear, panic and misinformation.
Facebook and Twitter, primary sources of information for many, have become engines of radicalisation, amplifying conspiracy theories on a massive scale. Ideas that would ordinarily be tagged implausible have now been afforded legitimacy and a gravity that health experts and policy makers are finding difficult to contend with.
“With a lot of the other sorts of events that we’ve had where social media played a role, they’re often quite localised and quite limited in their time frame,” says Professor Axel Bruns of the Queensland University of Technology’s Digital Media Research Centre.
“But this has been the biggest and most sustained ongoing [health] crisis since the Spanish flu. And it’s unique because it’s a genuinely global crisis.”
Bruns said that when a crisis like the 2011 tsunami in Japan occurs, social media is excellent at getting the word out immediately, even to people who don’t follow the news. But there’s also a phase of rumours and misinformation that can easily mislead people. With the pandemic being the most widely discussed topic on the planet for a whole year, and also changing to introduce new aspects and sub-stories daily, we never really left that rumour phase.
“There has always been something new, some new theory or idea, that people weren’t sure if there was any kind of fully verified information about. And that’s left the door open for poor information, for rumours, gossip and then misinformation and disinformation as well,” he says.
“It’s a generational challenge, where we need to train people better in media literacy. It probably starts in schools and moves all the way up.”
Even some of the processes of traditional media, which is often viewed in opposition to social media “fake news”, were exposed as antithetical to a healthy pandemic response over the past year. Whereas many authorities were urging the issue to be viewed as a health crisis, 24/7 online coverage increasingly tended to frame it as a business or political crisis, and even to indulge in conspiracies.
“Often when you have a major crisis event, political battles tend to be paused for a bit. The problem here is that really only lasts so long. Eventually there is that almost natural tendency to politicise and read things through party lines again, and that goes for political journalism as much as for the politicians themselves,” Bruns says.
“And in our research when we looked at conspiracy theories around COVID and 5G, we found that entertainment news, celebrity news, tabloid news had a really important role to play. It massively amplified the circulation of that kind of conspiracy content without any real attempts, journalistically, to check it or balance it.”
A magnet for malcontents
And while our efforts to keep a viral threat at bay fostered many lesser viral threats of a techno-social nature, it also attracted parasites that were harder to see. In every area where a technological solution was applied or pushed beyond its limits, cracks appeared at the systems’ weak points ready to be exploited by opportunistic criminals.
As soon as the pandemic hit, millions of new COVID-related web domains were created and filled with malicious traps to ensnare those on the hunt for new information. Scam links have been made to look like everything from video conference invites and government benefit notices to ads for cheap puppies to gladden the lonely.
And as contact-tracing efforts were extended to embrace technological means, they were immediately scuttled by disagreements between governments of all levels – who all built solutions that best suited their own purposes – and also with tech giants who have incredible access to everyone’s personal data via smartphones but were unwilling to hand it over categorically.
Perhaps most of all the pandemic highlighted the need for holistic cybersecurity solutions in areas we hadn’t thought of. Hospitals, riddled with legacy IT systems and a hodge-podge of connected devices, have been hit persistently by attackers threatening to delete or expose vital data if monetary ransoms are not met.
Sean Duca, vice-president of cybersecurity company Palo Alto Networks, said that as soon as QR codes began to be used by businesses for contact-tracing purposes, criminals were detected exchanging methods to hijack them for nefarious purposes.
“We’ve found everything from open-source tools to video tutorials that pretty much offer training on how to conduct attacks by using QR codes,” he says.
As with misinformation and fake Zoom invites, the main danger here is that many people found themselves relying on technology overnight that was quite new to them, without a decent degree of literacy. Similar attacks are beginning to roll out in the US as various vaccine programs expose people to online forms and booking systems for the first time.
Duca says the best way to deal with the QR code issue is the same as the ideal situation for something like vaccine rollouts.
“The way you solve it is by centralising. When everyone’s trying to maintain their own list of check-ins it becomes fundamentally harder,” he says, pointing to the recent rollout of approved Services NSW QR codes. Users can be taught that QR codes are supposed to take you to the app, not a random website, and contact tracers can work quicker because they don’t need to call up cafes and ask for their check-in list.
“The same approach needs to be applied when it comes to managing the logistical side of getting the vaccine out there. If we have multiple disparate systems, it’s always going to make for some sort of complexity.”
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Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.