Facebook, Public Health, and the Weaponization of US Fear

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Form absolving the Trump campaign of any responsibility should attendees at his June 20, 2020 MAGA rally fall ill with the COVID virus

In June, the Trump administration announced plans ending health care protections for Americans during a raging pandemic. US leaders snubbed masks and distancing at rallies that required waivers from attendees accepting personal responsibility should they contract COVID-19, encouraging dismissal of public health experts’ advice. As virus rates spiked, Missouri Governor Mike Parson joined states lifting coronavirus regulations, directing residents to return to normalcy. “We all know how to do this now,” Parson stated. “It is up to us to take responsibility for our own actions.”

This echoes what I observe in what I call “panopticonning” Facebook posts. Panopticonning posts normalize unaccountably unjust systems, protecting the powerful by locating risk and responsibility in individuals.

Philosopher Michel Foucault argued social control is most successfully enforced when oppressed people distrust themselves. In this, he referenced Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” prison, where inmates occupy cells circling a tower with obscured guards who might (or might not) be watching. Rather than being surveilled by one source that could be collectively organized against, in the Panopticon, people’s constant visibility makes them self-monitor and fear punishment, ensuring docility.

Building upon Foucault, “panopticonning” involves socially-affirmed self-policing that channels accountability away from oppressors. It is one act ensuring social maintenance of injustice through division.

Forced Risk, Denied Responsibility  

The US has the most confirmed COVID-19 deaths worldwide. When COVID is considered per capita, the US is among the ten most dangerous countries.

As the virus spreads, the Trump administration refuses to issue federal lockdown orders, ignoring the only effective national safety measure, as evidenced by other nations. It misleads  the public about the virus, stoking racism, delaying and withholding testing, and scoffing at practices protective of vulnerable populations. US leaders deny frontline professionals personal protective equipment while shielding institutional administrators from lawsuits over negligent care. They disparage experts, firing those reporting negligence. As legislators passed bailout bills siphoning funds away from common people to wealthy friends, the president tweeted to disloyal states threatening further abandonment and bankruptcy: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed … ?”

Vice President Mike Pence, head of US coronavirus task force, tweeted this photo of non-distanced, unmasked Trump/Pence campaign staffers, June 10, 2020

While devastation grows, our leaders protect themselves. In May, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised legal immunity to corporations pushing profiteering science-denial through economic “reopening,” knowing unnecessary death would result. The administration publicly congratulated itself for its “great successhandling the crisis. And panopticonning posts filled my Facebook feed.

Social Media Blame Game

Panopticonning posts ignore structural decisions, using dehumanizing disgust, fear, and anger to identify fellow Americans—predominantly poor, young, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), working class, LGBTQ+, and female—as America’s main safety threat in the context of the pandemic.

In panopticonning, people direct fears at neighbors while trying to stay safe. 51-year-old Mike Murphy of Champaign explained that understanding safety requires vigilance: “You have to look around and find your own information.”

He, like others, trusted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s public health advice. In the spring, CDC’s website recommended maintaining six feet between people, and “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies)” to limit coronavirus’s spread. But these official measures were not updated between April 3 and June 28. They also lacked institutional backing: GOP leaders refused basic compliance, including masking. CDC Director Redfield publicly advocated stricter protections than guidelines outlined.

Amid mismanagement and ambiguity, Americans were forced to self-determine best practices for survival within a pandemic. Some overprotected. Numerous panopticonning posts chastised people who in fact were adequately distancing. Others called for constant outdoor masking in the spring, finding even those following CDC guidelines menacing. Confusion was warranted. But, like posts spotlighting legitimate transgressions, these blamed people rather than policy, furthering diversionary division.

Lacking federal leadership, state coronavirus regulations varied. Posts shamed Americans expecting safety within officially-established boundaries. Governor Parson ended Missouri’s shelter-in-place order prior to Memorial Day, urging support of businesses. But panopticonning posts spotlighted Facebook-shared videos of Missouri swimming pool bars, lambasting attendees’ bacchanalian decadence as causing risk. The state’s abdication of responsibility, both in terms of regulation and by means of the governor’s blaming of citizens’ “poor choices,” was ignored.

Panopticonning posts condemning neighbors’ irresponsibility proved popular. Throughout traumatic weeks, as divisions caused by capitalism’s structural inequities stood out in stark relief, Americans came together around panopticonning with something to believe in: the people are the problem.

Punish People to Protect Private Profit

Community is essential, but panopticonning harms community. Individuals identified in panopticonning have little power. Their rights are regularly threatened. The same corporations pushing prematurereopening” in Missouri and beyond advance “right to work” laws that treat workers disposably, anti-choice laws, “stand your ground” laws protecting guns and killing innocent Black Americans, and other protections for themselves, not you. As relief bills move through Congress, exhausted Americans bond around Facebook posts lambasting allegedly “stupid,” “dangerous,” “amoral” Americans rather than around demands for justice and care deserved by people helping communities live through, among other things, a global pandemic.

More than 80 percent of influential Twitter accounts championing “reopening” are run by bots. Astroturfed rallies feign populism. There is strong pressure to see reopening in a pandemic as normal, and to blame one another for its consequences. Much of this is fabricated by efforts valuing profits over people, but it becomes less so with panopticonning. People can be reckless. However, even gun-toters at pool parties are not driving COVID spread or reopening.

Profit-driven leaders refusing to respect science and follow experts by letting the virus subside before ending unemployment payments, removing protections for housing and livelihoods, and opening businesses have recklessly led reopening. They deny Americans the means to stay quarantined without facing economic disaster. They are responsible for dangerous conditions. Our nation’s leaders helped banks, developers, and other friends navigate safely through the pandemic. They have the ability and responsibility to give similar support to common people. They refuse, knowing we will blame one another for neoliberal cruelty. But the people are not the problem.

Similar to its revived focus on abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education approaches, the US’s handling of this public health crisis has stoked fear, distrust, misinformation, and shame. Leaders deny Americans basic protections needed to avoid, source, and negotiate risk forced upon them. This endangers people, adding to a history of cons dividing and weakening us.

Americans are being tricked through loss, cultivated confusion, and mediated affirmation to assuage anxieties by condemning individuals for public health decisions made by unjust leaders heading systems we should be challenging, but are not. Through panopticonning, our fears, neglect, and frustration are being weaponized against us to maintain repressive order.

Divide and Pillage

My university’s sports teams were named the “Warriors.” When this was changed to “Golden Eagles,” some were surprised, but we quickly moved on as the decision had been made. Later, I relocated to Urbana, where activists had worked for years to retire “Chief Illiniwek.” Illinois refused, citing “tradition.” Rather than make an ethical decision to respect Indigenous people and align with institutional promises, university leaders chose to absolve themselves of responsibility. They forced the community to choose sides, absurdly fighting over the morality of continuing institutional discrimination against oppressed people. 17 years later, the mascot was retired without a replacement. 30 years have passed. The community remains deeply divided against itself due to administrators’ cowardice, racism, and lack of ethical leadership. Thimblerigger politicians use this divide to dog-whistle white supremacy through “pro-Chief” allegiance, advancing austerity measures cloaked within popularity.

Violent systems create unsafe environments, then blame those harmed within them. Their leaders claim exceptionalism, denying responsibility for scapegoating they profit from in thrusting risk upon the less powerful. We are being conned to ignore entitled abusers and to criminalize ourselves, dividing as we accept exploitation we should never face from those entrusted with our well-being.

Rights are political, hinging upon systemic protections. (In)actions matter. Together, we either demand justice or we normalize continued violence and subjugation. This is where our collective vigilance belongs.

Aimee Rickman is an educator, activist, organizer, ethnographer of youth and social technologies, and author of Adolescence, Girlhood, and Media Migration (Lexington, 2018). She has a related piece in the Monthly Review.

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