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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Social and The Distancing: Internet Ethics in a Time of Crisis

boy playing video games on laptop computer

boy playing video games on laptop computer

Irina Raicu

( Piacquadio)

Irina Raicu is the director of Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Amid the current pandemic and infodemic, more than ever, it is both joyfully and painfully clear that the internet is not a dual-use but a multitudinous-use technology. 

It’s almost too obvious to mention, but just so we don’t take this great capacity for granted, we should note: In a time of social distancing, the internet helps us stay in touch. Those of us who can, use email, social media, and messaging to stay connected with friends and family. Many of us are working from home, in touch (via email, videoconferencing, etc.) with our co-workers. Doctors are staying in touch with patients. Critical relationships are supported.

At the same time, the internet helps with the distancing, too. As family members and others are stuck at home together for prolonged periods, joking (and less joking) complaints have popped up (all over social media!), about this forced closeness. Most families are grateful to be together, but we also need time apart—and, sometimes, we find that in our separate devices. Of course, we can and do achieve that by other means, too (say, by reading different books—each of us, in our imagination, traveling in different worlds, perhaps even in different people’s shoes), but the internet has a particular power to suck us in … It is a power that can be deeply problematic in normal times, but that may prove a temporary blessing in time of quarantine.

Another blessing, for many who are quarantined, is the internet services that allow them to shop from home. People who would otherwise be much more exposed and vulnerable are now able to protect themselves better. Some people, that is; as many commentators have pointed out, the people who do the actual delivery for delivery platforms are in a very different position. For them, the internet is part of their jobs; they may well be spending less time than usual with their own families; they are more vulnerable than before, and are providing a key public service.

Using the big, popular internet platforms, artists are also sharing their work with the quarantined public. On March 14, for example, pianist Igor Levit tweeted, “You're the audience. Starting today, 7pm EST, I'll play something for you from my home, here on twitter. Which repertoire? I've got no idea yet. We'll see. It's an experiment. Social Media House Concert until we meet again to do this in real life. So: tonight, 7pm.”  He has been giving live concerts via Twitter ever since. YoYo Ma has been uploading performances with the hashtag #songsofcomfort, and encouraging others to use the hashtag to do the same.

The internet is also allowing community members to come together to help their fellow citizens. As L. M. Sacasas put it in a recent essay titled “Every End a Beginning,”

I’ve been heartened by numerous examples of communities and neighborhoods deploying modest digital tools not to cast a net of mutual surveillance and suspicion over themselves and their neighbors, but to meet each other’s needs and render aid to the vulnerable. Consider, for example, this simple website designed to help communities cooperatively coordinate childcare. I’ve seen other examples of simple online groups being created to help coordinate assistance to the elderly or to facilitate cooperative schooling.

What strikes me about most of these examples I’ve encountered is the simplicity and scale of these efforts. They are, it seems to me, precisely what Illich described as convivial tools. They serve the interest of those who deploy them, not some other detached party indifferent to the well-being of the people and communities who use their products. They are the sorts of tools we use rather than those which ultimately tend to use us for purposes that have nothing to do with what we would have them do for us. These convivial tools, too, have served to strengthen rather than weaken social ties. They have amplified rather than diminished a newly found reserve of social trust.

Sacasas’ praise of such efforts is also a critique of much of the status quo of the pre-crisis internet. (It is well worth reading his whole essay, which goes into that much more deeply.)

One of the key ethical issues related to the internet status quo has been cybersecurity. At this time of increased dependence, we are all—including government workers in sensitive positions, some now working from unsecured locations—even more vulnerable to cyber attacks (from a variety of actors). Recently, for example, researchers have uncovered “off-the-shelf surveillanceware” embedded in apps that promise information about the pandemic; as they explained,

[t]his surveillance campaign highlights how in times of crisis, our innate need to seek out information can be used against us for malicious ends…. Furthermore, the commercialization of ‘off-the-shelf’ spyware kits makes it fairly easy for these malicious actors to spin up these bespoke campaigns almost as quickly as a crisis like COVID-19 takes hold.

As the internet has become the main portal for that “innate need to seek out information,” it allows people and organizations to share information—and disinformation. Separating trustworthy information from lies is more important than ever, but extremely difficult. A recent article in Wired magazine details the efforts of the World Health Organization to partner with WhatsApp, for example, to provide key accurate information—but also WhatsApp’s efforts to contain the rapid spread of harmful inaccuracies on the platform. As a society (as multiple societies, around the world), we are not prepared for this—just as we were not prepared for the pandemic itself. Maybe we will now spend some of our social distancing time in learning what we can do, as responsible users of the internet, to “inoculate ourselves” (as writer Will Oremus puts it in an essay titled, “The Simplest Way to Spot Coronavirus Misinformation on Social Media”) and keep from infecting others with misinformation.

Tragically, not for the first time, but potentially more than in the past, the internet is also used to say goodbye. In a recently published interview in Slate, an Italian resident described the current situation in her area:

I read this story about an old woman who felt like she was dying. She had a helmet on and she wanted to say goodbye to her granddaughter. [A] doctor FaceTimed the granddaughter and the old lady got to say goodbye. And a few hours later she died. There are too many stories like that. Doctors are the link between families and patients. If you are lucky enough to have a good one who is very sensitive, they’ll use FaceTime or Skype or whatever to help you say goodbye…

The internet is a conduit for the heart wrenching and the heartening; the meaningful and the trivial, the inspirational and the infuriating; culture and hack attacks; research and hype; collaborations and abuse; lifesaving information and lies. 

It is important to remember, too, that there are parts of the world, and particular groups of people within certain parts of the world, who don’t have access to the internet. The pandemic, unfortunately, reaches them, too. We need social distancing in our immediate surroundings, but need more social awareness and solidarity overall—regardless of the medium used to achieve it.


Mar 23, 2020