“If you’re not going to give me information,” one of my students said during class, “I’m going to take what I have and run with it. Even if something is just a possibility, I’m still going to share it. I want people to know.”The class was discussing Covid-19, specifically how little we know about who’s been exposed and what might happen next. Of particular concern was whether Syracuse University’s campus would close. This student wasn’t directing her frustration at me, exactly, though it was true that I couldn’t tell her very much. Instead, she was referring to leadership within the Trump administration and at Syracuse. She also wasn’t making a first-person argument. Rather, she was channeling what she’s been seeing in her networks: the instinct to pool information resources when official answers are in short supply. Maybe those answers are missing (or limited, or contradictory) because of wild institutional dissembling. Maybe they’re missing because the answers simply aren’t available. In any case, this student’s point was that, for many people, sharing something is better than sharing nothing at all.
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Whether or not that’s true depends entirely on what’s being shared. It’s helpful to share information from the CDC, federal travel advisories, and official reports of confirmed cases—all these are critical to remaining informed. That’s not the only kind of sharing there is, however, and it’s not what my student was describing. She meant the breakneck community spread of Covid-19 rumors and conspiracy theories. This kind of sharing—which has been wreaking havoc around the globe—tends to be more intimate. People may still post public messages not directed at anyone in particular (“To whom it may concern on the internet”), but the most problematic information about the crisis is often locally-focused, spreading through group chat or texting or email between friends, colleagues, and neighbors.Drawing from the sociology of disaster, Kate Starbird describes this as “collective sensemaking”; in this crisis and others, sharing what we’ve heard is how we process traumatic events. It’s also a way to help those around us—at least, it’s a way to feel like we’re helping. Problems arise when what we’re sharing is unconfirmed. It may be that some of the information turns out to be true. Some, however, may turn out to be false. Not knowing which is which, yet sharing anyway, risks sending people into panic mode or shut-down mode or some combination of the two. It has the additional unfortunate effect of undermining—or simply drowning out—official information, increasing the likelihood, as Starbird explains, that people will make decisions that endanger themselves or others.
That prompted a group at Princeton University, led by the biophysicists Thomas Gregor and William Bialek, to suspect something else: that the cells could instead get all the information they needed to define the positions of pair-rule stripes from the expression levels of the gap genes alone, even though those are not periodic and therefore not an obvious source for such precise instructions.
In the coming days and weeks, how we respond to the Covid-19 outbreak will be critical. To navigate the crisis, whatever form it takes, we need to approach information about the virus in the same way we approach the virus itself: with a communitarian focus.
As an ethical framework, communitarianism foregrounds reciprocity, interdependence, and shared responsibility, and seeks to secure equal freedoms for everyone within a collective. (An excellent articulation of the theory can be found here.) Communitarianism contrasts with the individualistic focus of liberalism, which enshrines personal freedoms and autonomy, as well as freedoms from outside encroachment. Communitarianism still values the individuals that make up a society. But it recognizes that the whole must be nurtured so that its individual parts can thrive equally.In her reflections on the natural world, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer emphasizes how collective and individual benefits overlap. Plants and animals share. They share resources, they share nutrients, they share sources of energy. (Kimmerer explains the sharing between corn, beans, and squash here.) It might seem odd that nature would share so much, as evolution favors the most robust individuals. But as Kimmerer explains, “we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.”