In a year when murder hornets, and made headlines, the stood out to me as the most bizarre.
By the time the story came across my (virtual) desk in May, the coronavirus had infected almost every corner of the planet. Cases had just passed 5 million. Deaths were slowly climbing. The idea that NASA had discovered a parallel universe where we could go back to 2019? That seemed perfect.
My editor threw me a link to the story in Slack and counted down how long it would take for me to call “utter bullshit” on the story. It took 111 seconds. The headlines were wildly misleading, and the story bordered on complete fabrication. I quickly wrote up a piece, putting the kibosh on it. Sorry but NASA didn’t discover a parallel universe.
What I didn’t recognize at the time was how that story would come to symbolize 2020.
NASA didn’t need to discover a parallel universe because we created our own. A pandemic Upside Down that we can access any time of day. The portal can be found on every single mobile device, one of which is usually found resting in the palm of your hand.
It’s a place where the coronavirus doesn’t exist, where masks and social distancing don’t matter, where public health orders are ignored, where quack cures run rampant, where 5G towers cause viral disease, where vaccines don’t work and where science is shunned and shamed.
As our pandemic year continued, the tiny crack between that world and our own was wrenched open. Soon that fracture line became a gaping chasm. Misinformation, disinformation and pernicious lies all spread faster and farther than the truth.
“We know that every outbreak will be accompanied by a kind of tsunami of information,” Sylvie Briand, director of infectious hazards management at the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, told the Lancet in February. “The difference now with social media is that this phenomenon is amplified.”
The information ecosystem rapidly filled with numbers, data, articles and scientific reports. But conspiracy theories and coronavirus denial are what ran rampant online, at times drowning out helpful advice and guidance from experts. Even heads of state weren’t immune to the viral misinformation. Both US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said they were taking hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 preventative, despite no evidence of its effectiveness.
They ignored scientists and experts and holed up in the pandemic Upside Down. Both would later contract the virus.
On the very first day of 2020, Australia, where I live and work, woke to fire. Across its eastern flanks, bushfires roared through homes, descended on towns and forced residents to flee to the sea, clotting together along the shore or huddling in boats. I’ll never forget the image of 11-year-old Finn Marion holding onto the tiller of a motorboat, a curtain of orange smoke draped over the water behind him, his nose and mouth covered by a white face mask.
Thirty-four people were killed directly in the blazes, 445 more by smoke inhalation, and many more thousands were hospitalized, their lungs battered by a smog that settled over the country’s major cities. The nightly news reports were gut-wrenching: houses flattened, families broken.
The relationship between fires and climate change is complex, but the scientific consensus is that global warming intensified Australia’s 2019-2020 fire season due to record heat and an unprecedented drought.
During the fires, misinformation quickly spread through social media. Then, like now, a parallel universe materialized. One conspiracy theory suggested that left-wing environmentalists had prevented “hazard reduction burns” to clear fuel from forest floors. It was false. Another suggested arsonists were responsible for the blazes. False, again. The theories were amplified across mainstream media. And our political leaders, like Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, began quoting these misleading or counterfeit accounts of arson.
Confusion and doubt had been trickling in the background of the environmental crisis since September 2019. But when the fires really hit, at the end of 2019, some leaders grabbed the firehose of falsehoods and spun the valve all the way open. The trickle became a gush.
At the end of last year, I wrote that the response to the climate crisis was not fine. Living in Australia, breathing in the smoke, watching people’s entire lives carried away as ash on the wind, that description was probably a little generous.
“Science and technology is dying a slow death and faith is being eroded by politicians looking to score points over their opposition,” I wrote back then. And it felt like that.
But then with COVID-19 something unexpected happened. In Australia, our leaders listened to the scientists they’d ignored during the bushfire emergency. The response wasn’t perfect, but it was wholly different to what we’d experienced at the beginning of 2020. More importantly, the public listened and understood how deadly this disease could be. By the end of the year, Australia’s response to the pandemic stands as one of the best in the world. Clusters of new cases have appeared and — through stringent lockdowns — have been stamped out.
Science tried to guide the world through an agonizing year.
Not even 12 months after discovering a new infectious disease,that’s . Overcoming , these vaccines could bring about the pandemic’s end. A mammoth achievement.
And scientists and researchers have stepped up elsewhere as well. Some made the leap from lab dweller to online influencer, swatting down bullshit tweets like flies, squashing Facebook conspiracy theories underfoot. They’ve battled valiantly against misinformation. We turned to them when we knew very little, and they charted a course ahead. We knew what to do because we listened.
Despite this, as we work our way out of the pandemic, the climate emergency still looms. It’s a different type of crisis, one routinely disregarded by leaders across the world. Will they continue to ignore the science? Or will we learn from this moment?
Misinformation was never more rampant than in 2020. Even though many listened and even though our trust in science is strong, many other turned away entirely.
They hid in the pandemic Upside Down, wrapped in notions of conspiracy. Misinformation fractured us, divided us, pitted us against each other. We fought over toilet paper and brawled in shopping malls. It eroded our faith in science and needlessly complicated our response to the pandemic, driving cases and deaths higher and higher in many nations.
NASA may not have discovered a parallel universe this year, but we’ve built our own. If we’re going to tackle the biggest crises of our time, we’ll need to shut it down.