It's difficult to imagine what life would be like right now without social media. And sure enough, although coronavirus means social isolation for all – barring our essential working-class heroes – isolation has resulted in a huge increase in online social engagement. We are spending even more time on social media platforms. Understandably, addiction is now rife, because staying connected during the lockdown is more important than ever and social media is a powerful tool in doing so.
My last Notebook was in January from London. Twelve weeks later, even the recent past is a foreign country. I was embarking on a new career as a grandma, but it wasn't to be. Leaving my daughter and granddaughter in London, for how long we don't know, was a painful wrench from which I haven't recovered. But without WhatsApp and Facetime, it would be intolerable. Each day, I talk to my granddaughter in Pebbles Flintstone language. She smiles when she hears my voice and I desperately want to believe she still recognises me. Undoubtedly, this sad little vignette is replicated the world over.
Their togetherness won't falter
Glasgow's music scene was brought to a juddering halt three weeks ago. Young musicians, whose lives are fiercely social, usually congregated in venues, pubs, clubs and rehearsal studios, suddenly found themselves isolated and alone, their gigs cancelled, their meagre earnings wiped out. But they are also prolific social media users. My daughter, herself a musician, can be heard for hours each day, with her friends, using the extra time creatively to write and keep playing and sharing music online.
As one of Glasgow's older musicians pointed out: 'Glasgow has always been a place where musicians and creatives stick together and help each other out. No matter what the impact of this lockdown will be for them, their sense of togetherness won't falter'. That togetherness would not be possible without social media and, of course, Apple's Garage Band, a music creation studio they can use in their bedrooms.
In saying that, I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia for pre-online days. My daughter came running, in great excitement, waving a letter: 'Mum, I have a letter! A hand-written letter… in the post!'. Writing back to her friend on the other side of Glasgow, she asked me where she should put the stamp and whether she had written the address properly. In her 20s, this was the first time my daughter had ever engaged in this primitive mode of communication. Bored by hashtags, has slow, reflective, communication made a comeback? A rather lovely thought.
I keep in touch with a couple of friends from the Tuscan city, Prato. Knowing Prato well – the third largest city in Central Italy after Rome and Florence – I've been watching how the Pratese have been coping with the relentless march of COVID-19 from the north. At first, the situation there was worrying. Prato had an Italian Communist Party mayor since the Second World War, now the Democratic Party of the left. But its radical credentials have been under strain.
The city has the third largest Chinese immigration population in Europe. For years, the integration of Italians and Chinese seemed well-nigh impossible. Racism was rife, but excellent progress has been made in recent years. That progress was threatened a few weeks ago, as thousands of the diaspora returned to Prato from New Year celebrations in China, at the height of that country's infection rates. Italian Twitter (not all of it) was appalling. 'The virus is brought by Wenzhouers to Prato', 'Those Chinese who run the textile business in Prato spread the coronavirus to Milan', and so forth – and much worse.
Amnesty International described the targeting of Italy's Chinese residents as shameful discrimination, 'the butt of insults and violent attack by people who believed they had spread the deadly disease through the country'. It was the fakest of fake news. In fact, the opposite was true: not one of Prato's 50,000 ethnic Chinese has been sickened by the virus. Why? The Chinese community self-quarantined three weeks before Italy was consumed. 'From zero to hero' claimed Reuters. Italy's Chinese community helped their Italian neighbours beat the virus. 'When I came back to Prato, no Italian authority told me anything. We did it all by ourselves. If we had not done it, we would all be infected, Chinese and Italians.' The Chinese inhabitants of Prato disappeared from the streets, cafes and shops – three weeks before Italy's first recorded infection. A top health official for the area said: 'We Italians feared that the Chinese of Prato were to be the problem. Instead, they did much better than us'.
I hope that when this is over, people who have perpetrated the most repugnant statements about the Chinese hear about Prato's story. My guess is they won't, or if they do, won't care.
Conspiracies here, conspiracies there…
Social media can bring out the best in us, but also the worst. Yes, it's a powerful tool, but often too powerful. God only knows the damage twittering Trump has done. A blithering idiot, his tweets have reshaped the presidency. Combined with his daily conspiracy-theory-laden press conferences, you really do fear the worst for the US.
Conspiracy theories and theorists have always been with us. Usually regarded as harmless flakes, their implausible, elaborate theories – that if true, would involve thousands of silent participants – were a form of entertainment. I have a friend who is in no doubt that the 'herd immunity' strategy was developed by an evil Tory Government to kill off old people for economic reasons. Another old journalist friend of mine tells me that the lockdown is a plot to keep him out of his beloved pub. 'It's prohibition, by dastardly means.' He's only half-joking!
In all seriousness, social media has amplified fevered imaginations beyond the usual cranks. On Monday morning, all over social media, was the disconcerting sight of the normally sensible anchor of This Morning
, Eamonn Holmes, suggesting that 5G wireless technology is to blame for the spread of coronavirus, saying: 'Very easy to say it's not true because it suits the state's narrative'. Eh? You'd laugh if it were David Icke or Craig Murray, but Eamonn Holmes? It's astonishing that a mainstream broadcast journalist would utter something so outlandish.
But even British academics are at it. Sharing on social media, academics from Edinburgh and Bristol have been sharing conspiracy theories including that Bill Gates and the world Economic Forum via Davos may be involved in plots to exploit the virus, and speculation that it was a biological weapon. Whit? Where's Occam and his mighty razor when you need them, to remind us that the simplest explanation is usually the right explanation? If it looks like a bat, it's probably because it is a bat...