2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

“Calling 2020 a black swan takes away from the fact that COVID-19 and the misinformation surrounding it were utterly predictable.”

Some of the early rumblings of change in the global journalism field came in February, when the International Journalism Festival — a favorite on the circuit as much for its quality panels as for its prime location in Perugia, Italy — announced its cancellation. On March 10, NICAR, the preeminent annual gathering of data and computational journalists, announced that an attendee had tested positive. The next day, March 11, the WHO declared that Covid-19 was a pandemic, and our sense of normalcy turned upside down, forever marking a Before Times and a Groundhog Day present.

We often need metaphors to help us grasp such an unusual world event. So far, it’s become common to call 2020 a black swan event, a term popular in economic circles thanks to the work of options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s helpful to read how he defines a black swan:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

But calling 2020 a black swan takes away from the fact that Covid-19 and the misinformation surrounding it were utterly predictable. Indeed, nearly two years ago, Atlantic writer Ed Yong pointed out that the U.S. — and, as we’ve learned, the world — was not ready for a pandemic. As early as 2017, the Pentagon was aware of the risks. The film Contagion — shot in 2011 and depicting a global pandemic and its effects on common people and institutions alike — feels eerily prescient, but is only predictive because it’s based on solid science about pandemic risk.

This time last year in Nieman Lab, just days before Dr. Li Wenliang began suspecting a novel coronavirus had begun circulating, I warned that the internet is a powerful vector of disease, referencing my co-writing on misinfodemics a year prior with public health scientist Nat Gyenes.

Look around and we see that the devastation we’ve seen this year wasn’t a black swan at all. This year is what policy analyst Michele Wucker called a gray rhino event: “obvious, visible, coming right at you, with large potential impact and highly probable consequences.”

I could stop there, but the moral outrage of 2020 deserves more, even though no amount of words can capture the suffering of this year. I’ve consoled too many friends and family over video chat, unable to hug them or even sit with them in person, to let this be a simple prediction with straightforward ideas and answers.

In the time it will take you to read this article — about 6 minutes, by my count — at least 24 people will have died from COVID-19. They will join some 1.5 million people around the world who have died agonizing deaths, unable to see their loved ones or even say final words.

The skies are red, the Amazon is on fire, the oceans are flooding, 270 million people face famine and 26 million Americans alone are going hungry. We’re still unable to casually spend time with other people, and we walk out the door with masks. An American coup attempt is getting less attention than it deserves, as are the ongoing genocide of the Armenian people, the further isolation of the Rohingya, the erasure of Uighurs, and the forced sterilizations of people in the United States.

All this in the context of a historic market rally, with the Dow Jones soaring past 30,000 as our attention economy makes kings of the already wealthy technological class, while those at the bottom of society are cast down to even lower rungs.

These inequities and atrocities aren’t separate from Covid-19; they’re deeply intertwined with the disease. Consider the words of health journalist Sonia Shah in a cover story for The Nation:

It’s time for a new story, one that more accurately captures the reality of how contagions unfold and why. In this story, pandemics would be cast as both a biological reality and a social phenomenon shaped by human agency. And the coronavirus, if cast as any kind of monster at all, would be a Frankenstein’s monster: a creature of our own making.

We, after all, created the world in which SARS-Cov-2 evolved, one in which our industry has swallowed up so much of the planet that microbes from wild animals easily slip into livestock and humans. We created the society of overcrowded prisons and nursing homes staffed by underpaid employees who must work in multiple facilities to make ends meet; in which employers force their workers to labor on meatpacking lines even if they’re sick; in which asylum seekers are crammed into detention centers; and in which people living in hard-hit cities like Detroit lack access to clean water with which to wash their hands.

2020 is not our swan, not our rhino. It’s our canary.

The phrase “canary in a coal mine” comes from the fact that canaries — which are more susceptible to methane than human beings — were brought to mines as an early warning system. If the canary died, it meant methane was leaking, and that the miners needed to evacuate immediately. The canary was an indicator that something was structurally wrong, a sign of greater danger.

Canaries come in many colors, but I like yellow and orange ones the most. A yellow canary event is like a flashing warning sign for more danger ahead. It is a signal that is itself disturbing, but to an expert is doubly so because of the conditions it reveals. It hurts vulnerable populations and systems first, in a highly visible way. And all the while, it exposes a structural weakness that will cause tremendous harm to everyone if allowed to continue.

COVID-19 is the yellow canary for the societal methane we’ve allowed to fester around us. It is a biological entity with sociological roots and geopolitical effects. And as it harms Black, Indigenous, and people of color and global south communities more than others, as it strikes the elderly and the infirm and the underpaid and refugees and migrants. And as the response becomes politicized, we are reaping the visible consequences of decades of neglect.

Even then, there’s hope, because we can no longer ignore reality. Pandemics are times of societal change and upheaval, a time of forced reflection for those fortunate enough to survive. Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. It has been going strong since at least 2013, when the hashtag was coined by Patrisse Cullors in response to a social media post made by Alicia Garza, who lamented the trial outcome in the Trayvon Martin case.

So why the unprecedented global attention in 2020, seven years later? There was the egregious violence of George Floyd’s death, yes, but it’s not a coincidence that the outrage reached a new level, this year of all years, shortly after shelter-in-place orders loosened around the country.

As Opal Tometti, one of the movement’s co-founders, noted in The New Yorker, the entire country had been sitting in our homes, contemplating death and inequality:

And so my belief and my view of these protests is that they are different because they are marked by a period that has been deeply personal to millions of Americans and residents of the United States, and that has them more tender or sensitive to what is going on.

People who would normally have been at work now have time to go to a protest or a rally, and have time to think about why they have been struggling so much, and they are thinking, This actually isn’t right and I want to make time, and I have the ability to make time now and make my concerns heard. So I think it is markedly differently in terms of the volume of demands we are hearing.

Without our usual distractions and jet-set life, the international journalism community has a unique and rare opportunity to re-evaluate what allowed suffering at this scale to happen in the first place — and why our attention economy is ill-equipped to cast a spotlight on systemic problems until they are undeniably present.

We have a rare opportunity to start making structural changes in our newsrooms, our business models and funding incentives, our ways of operating.

We can start by abandoning the elitism that guides so much of journalism today and put money behind the calls for racial justice, making room to center the most marginalized by hiring journalists of color, journalists from the global south, journalists who are queer, trans, and disabled, and giving them leadership roles.

We can diversify funding streams so we are less dependent on attention economics and advertising as the guiding force behind so much of our storytelling platforms and technologies.

We can trust our audiences to understand complexity, rather than shy away from it, and tell the deeper stories of the interconnected systems that shape our daily lives.

We can reimagine an internet where we scale up human rights and civics, not just data, profit, and infrastructure.

When miners see a dead canary, they know it’s time to evacuate. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nowhere else to run. There is nowhere on earth unaffected by Covid-19, racial and gender injustice, economic inequality, and climate change. Those of us still alive and healthy must honor those who have passed by facing this reality, articulating the underlying causes, and doing our best to change them. These times demand that we engage with the heartbreak of our current world bravely and compassionately. These times demand that we say that even while the end of the pandemic is in sight, going back to normal is not, because “normal” is what got us here.

It’s so hard to make predictions these days, but one thing I can confidently predict is this: If by this time in 2021, we’re celebrating a return to normal, we will have failed at our jobs.

An Xiao Mina is chief operating officer of Meedan and author of Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power. This essay contains excerpts from a blog post she wrote in July.

Some of the early rumblings of change in the global journalism field came in February, when the International Journalism Festival — a favorite on the circuit as much for its quality panels as for its prime location in Perugia, Italy — announced its cancellation. On March 10, NICAR, the preeminent annual gathering of data and computational journalists, announced that an attendee had tested positive. The next day, March 11, the WHO declared that Covid-19 was a pandemic, and our sense of normalcy turned upside down, forever marking a Before Times and a Groundhog Day present.

We often need metaphors to help us grasp such an unusual world event. So far, it’s become common to call 2020 a black swan event, a term popular in economic circles thanks to the work of options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s helpful to read how he defines a black swan:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

But calling 2020 a black swan takes away from the fact that Covid-19 and the misinformation surrounding it were utterly predictable. Indeed, nearly two years ago, Atlantic writer Ed Yong pointed out that the U.S. — and, as we’ve learned, the world — was not ready for a pandemic. As early as 2017, the Pentagon was aware of the risks. The film Contagion — shot in 2011 and depicting a global pandemic and its effects on common people and institutions alike — feels eerily prescient, but is only predictive because it’s based on solid science about pandemic risk.

This time last year in Nieman Lab, just days before Dr. Li Wenliang began suspecting a novel coronavirus had begun circulating, I warned that the internet is a powerful vector of disease, referencing my co-writing on misinfodemics a year prior with public health scientist Nat Gyenes.

Look around and we see that the devastation we’ve seen this year wasn’t a black swan at all. This year is what policy analyst Michele Wucker called a gray rhino event: “obvious, visible, coming right at you, with large potential impact and highly probable consequences.”

I could stop there, but the moral outrage of 2020 deserves more, even though no amount of words can capture the suffering of this year. I’ve consoled too many friends and family over video chat, unable to hug them or even sit with them in person, to let this be a simple prediction with straightforward ideas and answers.

In the time it will take you to read this article — about 6 minutes, by my count — at least 24 people will have died from COVID-19. They will join some 1.5 million people around the world who have died agonizing deaths, unable to see their loved ones or even say final words.

The skies are red, the Amazon is on fire, the oceans are flooding, 270 million people face famine and 26 million Americans alone are going hungry. We’re still unable to casually spend time with other people, and we walk out the door with masks. An American coup attempt is getting less attention than it deserves, as are the ongoing genocide of the Armenian people, the further isolation of the Rohingya, the erasure of Uighurs, and the forced sterilizations of people in the United States.

All this in the context of a historic market rally, with the Dow Jones soaring past 30,000 as our attention economy makes kings of the already wealthy technological class, while those at the bottom of society are cast down to even lower rungs.

These inequities and atrocities aren’t separate from Covid-19; they’re deeply intertwined with the disease. Consider the words of health journalist Sonia Shah in a cover story for The Nation:

It’s time for a new story, one that more accurately captures the reality of how contagions unfold and why. In this story, pandemics would be cast as both a biological reality and a social phenomenon shaped by human agency. And the coronavirus, if cast as any kind of monster at all, would be a Frankenstein’s monster: a creature of our own making.

We, after all, created the world in which SARS-Cov-2 evolved, one in which our industry has swallowed up so much of the planet that microbes from wild animals easily slip into livestock and humans. We created the society of overcrowded prisons and nursing homes staffed by underpaid employees who must work in multiple facilities to make ends meet; in which employers force their workers to labor on meatpacking lines even if they’re sick; in which asylum seekers are crammed into detention centers; and in which people living in hard-hit cities like Detroit lack access to clean water with which to wash their hands.

2020 is not our swan, not our rhino. It’s our canary.

The phrase “canary in a coal mine” comes from the fact that canaries — which are more susceptible to methane than human beings — were brought to mines as an early warning system. If the canary died, it meant methane was leaking, and that the miners needed to evacuate immediately. The canary was an indicator that something was structurally wrong, a sign of greater danger.

Canaries come in many colors, but I like yellow and orange ones the most. A yellow canary event is like a flashing warning sign for more danger ahead. It is a signal that is itself disturbing, but to an expert is doubly so because of the conditions it reveals. It hurts vulnerable populations and systems first, in a highly visible way. And all the while, it exposes a structural weakness that will cause tremendous harm to everyone if allowed to continue.

COVID-19 is the yellow canary for the societal methane we’ve allowed to fester around us. It is a biological entity with sociological roots and geopolitical effects. And as it harms Black, Indigenous, and people of color and global south communities more than others, as it strikes the elderly and the infirm and the underpaid and refugees and migrants. And as the response becomes politicized, we are reaping the visible consequences of decades of neglect.

Even then, there’s hope, because we can no longer ignore reality. Pandemics are times of societal change and upheaval, a time of forced reflection for those fortunate enough to survive. Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement. It has been going strong since at least 2013, when the hashtag was coined by Patrisse Cullors in response to a social media post made by Alicia Garza, who lamented the trial outcome in the Trayvon Martin case.

So why the unprecedented global attention in 2020, seven years later? There was the egregious violence of George Floyd’s death, yes, but it’s not a coincidence that the outrage reached a new level, this year of all years, shortly after shelter-in-place orders loosened around the country.

As Opal Tometti, one of the movement’s co-founders, noted in The New Yorker, the entire country had been sitting in our homes, contemplating death and inequality:

And so my belief and my view of these protests is that they are different because they are marked by a period that has been deeply personal to millions of Americans and residents of the United States, and that has them more tender or sensitive to what is going on.

People who would normally have been at work now have time to go to a protest or a rally, and have time to think about why they have been struggling so much, and they are thinking, This actually isn’t right and I want to make time, and I have the ability to make time now and make my concerns heard. So I think it is markedly differently in terms of the volume of demands we are hearing.

Without our usual distractions and jet-set life, the international journalism community has a unique and rare opportunity to re-evaluate what allowed suffering at this scale to happen in the first place — and why our attention economy is ill-equipped to cast a spotlight on systemic problems until they are undeniably present.

We have a rare opportunity to start making structural changes in our newsrooms, our business models and funding incentives, our ways of operating.

We can start by abandoning the elitism that guides so much of journalism today and put money behind the calls for racial justice, making room to center the most marginalized by hiring journalists of color, journalists from the global south, journalists who are queer, trans, and disabled, and giving them leadership roles.

We can diversify funding streams so we are less dependent on attention economics and advertising as the guiding force behind so much of our storytelling platforms and technologies.

We can trust our audiences to understand complexity, rather than shy away from it, and tell the deeper stories of the interconnected systems that shape our daily lives.

We can reimagine an internet where we scale up human rights and civics, not just data, profit, and infrastructure.

When miners see a dead canary, they know it’s time to evacuate. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nowhere else to run. There is nowhere on earth unaffected by Covid-19, racial and gender injustice, economic inequality, and climate change. Those of us still alive and healthy must honor those who have passed by facing this reality, articulating the underlying causes, and doing our best to change them. These times demand that we engage with the heartbreak of our current world bravely and compassionately. These times demand that we say that even while the end of the pandemic is in sight, going back to normal is not, because “normal” is what got us here.

It’s so hard to make predictions these days, but one thing I can confidently predict is this: If by this time in 2021, we’re celebrating a return to normal, we will have failed at our jobs.

An Xiao Mina is chief operating officer of Meedan and author of Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power. This essay contains excerpts from a blog post she wrote in July.

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