Buskers in DuPont Circle, Washington, DC -- Photo by Michelle L. Conklin
COVID-19 Deaths Don't Account for All of the Casualties
Sept. 22, 2021

My Mom got COVID-19.
Yes, it happened two days before Christmas in 2020, but even though the acute symptoms disappeared after two hospitalizations over roughly six weeks, it changed her permanently. My Mom has both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, both of which have been made far worse by the ravages of this particular strain of coronavirus. Before the virus, Mom was getting better at walking, but now, the physical therapist tells me that even though she possesses the physical ability to move, COVID-19 increased her anxiety levels to the point she doesn’t trust her ability to walk or even stand. 
She’s also reaching the legal limit on how strong the prescriptions can be for the anti-anxiety meds. 
Back in December 2019 (when I thought foolishly I would need a car in the foreseeable future for my commute), I had chosen my used 2011 Subaru Outback because she was able to get in and out of it easily. Now it’s just a car that my boyfriend and I can pack for our too-infrequent road and camping trips -- thanks again, COVID-19!
I keep saying COVID-19 for two reasons: first, I like being as precise as possible, but second -- and most importantly -- I don’t believe this is the last COVID-type virus we’ll experience in the near future. Because the disinformation campaign waged by the Trump administration about the dangers, treatments, and cures for COVID-19 is central to my dissertation research, I’ve been reading a lot of medical studies. The vast majority of studies I’ve read by doctors and medical researchers argue we should expect and prepare for more frequent (and potentially more deadly) pandemics in the near future. Not a single academic journal article I’ve found has declared the worst is over or that no pathogen will be more lethal than what we’re dealing with now.
While it’s understandable people focus on both infection and death counts, what is missing from this sea of statistics is the number of people with Long COVID, a.k.a., long-haulers. Besides my Mom, I know three other people who have continued to experience health problems as a result of contracting the virus. In addition, the people charged with caring for these COVID-19 survivors and the people closest to those who have died have been seriously affected by the disease. Caregivers and the next of kin have different problems to solve, but they are life-altering and profound.
I was separated from my mother for nearly a year while her eight-resident group home’s managers tried to shield these disabled seniors from the ravages of COVID-19. No family members nor friends were allowed to hug or visit their loved ones in order to reduce the risk of infection. They were only a month away from being vaccinated. Unfortunately, all eight residents and the two live-in certified nursing assistants were all stricken.
I’m not an infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist, virologist, or any other type of medical professional. However, I am responsible for my Mom’s well-being as her legal guardian and I’m a college instructor teaching students not only how to write, but to be excellent fact-checkers. The guardian part of me has run the numbers and has realized the money from selling my Mom’s house would be better applied to a downpayment on a home so my boyfriend and I can take care of her with help from visiting healthcare workers and home assistants than to risk having the money run out while she’s in a group home. After all, the staff members at her group home tell me her anxiety decreases whenever I visit, so perhaps the solution lies in arranging for her to be with me -- permanently. Like many seniors, in spite of saving her whole life, the cost of care threatens to completely wipe out her savings. 
I keep reminding myself it could be far worse: at least she had savings.
So I’m in the throes of applying for a mortgage for the first time, looking for so-called affordable, handicapped-accessible homes within an hour’s drive of my campus. (Shout out to the Commonwealth of Virginia: you get an F for not having this combination in the Greater DC area. It looks like we’ll be buying in Maryland.)
The teaching and research parts of me tell me I need to do a lot more to help people become their own b.s. detectors. I’m experimenting with different methods to accomplish that objective. This blog is one of them.
I will strive to balance my research and teaching responsibilities with my roles as girlfriend and caregiving daughter. I’m determined to perform all of them well, but time will be the ultimate judge. Given the congressional gridlock, the promise of funds for caregivers of the elderly will likely become another pipe dream.
As a former reporter, I become frustrated when the news media don’t explain the tangible effects of public officials’ actions -- or inactions -- on everyday people. The Trump administration’s combination of incompetence, indifference, misdirection, disinformation, denial, and spin not only cost hundreds of thousands of lives, but permanently and substantially altered the life trajectories (many for the worse) of millions more. Accountability will be slow in coming, if it comes at all.
In the months that follow, I will chronicle how I’m managing to keep these plates spinning. I’ll explain more about what I’m learning, what I’m researching, and how those phenomena are affecting my life and yours.
Yeah, I did it -- I used second person. But at this inflection point, when so many norms haven’t just been ignored, but obliterated, are we going to let something as small in the grand scheme of things as a writing convention be an impediment to understanding?
God, I hope not.
Facebook is Not the Public Sphere You’re Looking For
June 29, 2020
In the early days of the Internet, many users were optimistic that the accessibility to a worldwide means of communication would be as revolutionary -- or even more so -- as the printing press because of its power to disseminate ideas to anyone with a personal computer, a modem, and the ability to read the language in which the missive is written. The potential for the World Wide Web to transmit ideas has grown at what feels like an exponential rate in the roughly three decades since, but the hope that the Internet would become the public sphere that philosophers and other intellectuals have dreamt of for centuries (dating back as far as the Ancient Greeks), it has not. Instead of resembling an assembly of thoughtful individuals gathered in a cafe, salon, or public park while debating ideas about how government should operate, who it serves, and how it should serve them, it is closer to a massive, multiple-storied building with rooms of all sizes. Some of the doors are open while others are closed. Some of the debates in some of the rooms are free, open, and promote respect for all of the participants, while others are as nonsensical and disorderly as a bar brawl in a B-grade western.
One of the major reasons for this is too many of those in the fray are using distorted or completely manufactured information, too often disseminated via social media. Unlike legacy media (newspapers, magazines, television broadcast outlets, and the like), social media platforms are not subject to libel and slander laws. This is because of Section 230 of  U.S. Code, Title 47 that regulates telecommunications in the United States classifies social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as “information content providers,” which the code defines as “any person or entity that is responsible, in whole or in part, for the creation or development of information provided through the Internet or any other interactive computer service.” This law distinguishes information content providers from news media and publishers from libel laws and holds information content providers harmless for any “material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected” in an effort “to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation” (Section 230).
The trouble is, Facebook is acting a lot more like a publisher than a mere information content provider. Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer for Facebook and currently the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained to Vox’s Peter Kafka that the social network provides political advertisers curated audiences through microtargeting and hypertargeting: 
“When I think of microtargeting, I’m mostly thinking of what are called custom audiences by 
Facebook and a variety of other names by Google and Twitter. But the same product is available from a number of companies, which is an advertising product where you upload data to the advertising companies, and then they match up that data with their customer base . . . . From my perspective, the most dangerous component is the data upload, for two reasons. One, it motivates political actors to build humongous databases on users . . . . But the second is it allows political actors — that’s campaigns, PACs, parties — to have messages that are extremely finely targeted to a very small number of people. Therefore they can be somebody different to everybody. So to 100 people in northern Michigan, they can look different to 200 women in Manhattan, and look different to 100 African American voters in Atlanta. We don’t want our politicians to be different people to everybody. It also makes it much harder to call them out on lies. If you allow people to show an ad to just 100 folks, and then you run tens of thousands of ads, then it makes it extremely difficult for your political opponent and the print media to call you out” (Stamos quoted by Kafka).
Mark Zuckerburg, the CEO and one of the two co-founders of Facebook, has often tried to compare the social media outlet to the newsprint or printing press of a newspaper rather than its publisher. However, the rolls of newsprint and the printing presses don’t go out and solicit potential advertisers, nor do they make any suggestions about ad content. Facebook’s microtargeting and hypertargeting look more like what advertising sales representatives do for their clients under the close supervision of a publisher. By involving themselves so deeply in this content development, Facebook can no longer pretend to be a mere platform for the exchange of ideas.

In essence, the content of an item, in large part, determines its viral potential. Gatekeepers in a position to share with multiple networks will not pass on pieces that are ordinary or in any other way not remarkable. That is not to say that some will not pass on pieces that are sensational but potentially fictitious. However, a piece that can be verified will carry far more weight than one with dubious provenance. Gatekeepers are always in the process of constructing their own ethos among those in their network to maintain their position of power, but many may lack the knowledge about how to judge the veracity of the information. This is why, in this era of anyone-can-be-a-publisher, people must make themselves aware of libel and slander law. In a May 12, 2016 post by Roelf Swart on the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association blog, a judge in British Columbia ruled that Katharine Anne Van Nes, who accused in a series of Facebook posts her neighbor, Douglas James Pritchard, of being a pedophile, was guilty of libel. Pritchard filmed her backyard to prove to local officials that Van Nes’s water feature in her backyard was a nuisance due to their noise it created. Because the backyard is where Van Nes’s children played, Van Nes used Pritchard’s video recording as the basis for her accusation that Pritchard, a music teacher, was a pedophile. This rumor spread via social media caused Pritchard severe emotional distress and caused many parents to stop sending their children to him for piano lessons. It also made him afraid to touch children’s hands to teach them how to strike the keys for fear of being accused of molesting them. The judge ruled Van Nes was not only responsible for her original posts, but because she made her posts public (as opposed to restricting them to friends), she was responsible for every instance in which her friends shared her posts: "The judge found the defendant liable for her post and comments that were potentially published to the defendant’s almost 2,060-person friend list, and like a multiplier effect, to those friends’ friends. Even more aggravating is that the defendant’s privacy settings were set to public and therefore potentially viewable by all members of the Facebook community."
The court also found that the defendant was liable for the words and actions of her friends. Usually, a person isn’t responsible for other people that repeat or republish the original statement unless the natural and probable repetition is a result of the original defaming statement. Essentially, if it is probable that people will repeat the defaming statement, the statement maker may be liable (Swart).
Court rulings in Canada do not have legal standing in the United States, but considering that both Canadian and American legal systems are largely based on British Common Law, it is highly likely a judge here could make a similar ruling.
Anyone who watched the testimony of tech company executives before congressional committees a couple of years ago that showed legislators who were so digitally illiterate that they did not understand while they posed their questions what features on their smartphones were controlled by apps, carriers, or hardware recognizes that asking these same people to impose more stringent regulation of Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Apple is akin to asking a newly-licensed 16-year-old to drive a semi-truck on an icy road during a blizzard: they are ill-equipped for the task at hand. Given the Internet Research Agency’s interference in the 2016 presidential election via Facebook, promotion of a conspiracy theory through the film “Plandemic” that COVID-19 was engineered by scientists and politicians to earn money and exert greater social control over Americans, and providing a means for hate groups such as the Boogaloo Boys to organize and plan attacks, at what point will Zuckerburg realize that even if the law does not hold him responsible for these activities, Facebook users will? Joe Scarborough eviscerated the world’s youngest billionaire in this Washington Post opinion column about these and similar issues.
As of this morning, two dozen companies have joined in boycotting Facebook until the company determines how it will handle hate speech on its platform. Perhaps if the advertisers pull their dollars and the users stop providing their data to the platform to market by walking away for the foreseeable future, maybe the combined silence, rather than the cacophony of disapproval, will get Zuckerburg’s attention.
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