Terrorism Got COVID: Or, The Constant-Threat News-Culture We Live In

The Coronavirus pandemic has had the effect of exposing the news culture that permeates first world life in a variety of ways, argues Ian Almond.  Looking back at the development of the idea of ‘threat’, and the media’s role in supporting political narratives, he suggests the break from non-stop coverage of ‘terrorism’ stories the pandemic has cause, may be a turning point in the way we understand and consume newsmedia in the West.

We haven’t heard from the terrorists for a while. The subject which was a daily staple of our newsday until 30th March, 2020– not a day passed by without some reference of a possible threat, a planned threat, an arrest or an actual attack – disappeared from our screens over a year ago for reasons which are, in one sense, quite obvious. Up to a year ago, for most of us, the biological fact of our good health was a comfortable given in our lives –  at least, in our developed, salaried, First-world lives. The virus whose name we did not even know in 2019 has come to dominate our news schedule – no item of daily news appears to be free of its influence.

Just to be clear from the outset: Coronavirus is real, our attempt to respond to it is real, and this is no anti-lockdown, conspiracy-theorist attempt to diminish the deathly reality of a viral disease.

What I am suggesting however, quite soberly, is that the easy way COVID has knocked terrorism off its number one media spot exposes something quite profound about the news world we live in: news – and the extent to which the artifice of crisis-capitalism, thriving on a breaking-news, five story news day, has been revealed by actually having to deal with a real crisis for once.

The idea that our media keeps our attention by constantly alerting us to threats is hardly new – the most visceral example I remember feeling was back in the summer of 2006, when the World Cup came to Germany, and a German media flooded our screens for months leading up to it with horror scenarios about the bird flu – Die Vogelgrippe! – and how society was on the brink of collapse. Then the World Cup arrived, Klose and Zidane started scoring their goals, and the bird flu literally disappeared from one week to the next. I never heard of it again.

It is a mechanism we are forever dimly half-aware of: most of us have some sense that the stream of images and warnings we are seeing across our screens (be it in our living rooms, in our laps or on top of our hands) have some element of artifice about them. And yet, even our cynicism cannot remove their frequency, their intensity, their ubiquity. Most of us know that our media is managed, that it is owned by incredibly powerful companies, and that its corporate visions have our personal well-being and education quite low on their agenda. But this knowledge, even in the most politically conscious of us, is a knowledge of the mind – and our bodies, their nerves and their stomachs and their skins – have a different knowledge. They respond pre-reflectively to images – whether it is a man sneezing on a plane, a tattoo on a forearm or a woman in a hijab – and these responses are not always rational.

There are some well-known studies of the disparity, in Western media coverage, between the statistical likelihood of actual threats and the percentage they share of the average media day. Cancer and heart disease, in the US, are responsible for nearly two thirds of all deaths, and yet they take up fifteen percent of news media coverage. Terrorism and homicide, which make up barely one percent of all deaths, constitute easily half of the news Americans consume. In other words, the phenomenon we are constantly warned about, whose developments fill our screens and whose sinister aims legitimize a whole range of security measures, actually has little to do with the very real threats to the well-being of ourselves and our children – heart disease, cancer, road accidents. Up until a year ago, we lived this social truth as a daily contradiction – being constantly warned and updated on a possible threat which, statistically, was as likely to happen as breaking our neck in the bathroom or being electrocuted by a kitchen appliance.

When did this threat culture start? A lazy google of the word ‘threat’ on the Google Books Ngram viewer – certainly no scientific truth in itself – shows a constant upward trend, with an exponential rise starting in the 1930s, and jumping again in the mid 90s to its present dizzy peak, which it has maintained for fifteen years. 9/11 is too easy an answer – in the early 80s, novels like Don Delillo’s White Noise were already satirizing the way a constant sense of threat moulded Western societies. In the 1950s, the widespread hysteria about McCarthyism and “Reds under the Beds” was used to give American society a sense of social cohesion. One might argue that some kind of bogeyman has always been used to remind a society what We Are All Supposed To Believe In – and that the manipulation of this fear is as old as fear itself.

But with the invasive ubiquity of our 24-hour breaking-news day, subsequently enhanced by the immediacy of the smart phone, the threat to our society – increasingly, the masked/bearded terrorist who will bomb our schools and spike our yoghurt and derail our train – was no longer something we were reminded of once a day on the six o’clock news or in the newspaper headlines over our breakfast. Our phones and laptops now deliver us a constant sense of imminence, so that our connectedness to the world of instant media has amplified our sense of whatever threat we are being warned about.

The different thing about COVID, of course, has been its reality. Unlike terrorism, we are infinitely more likely to encounter it as a phenomenon – if not by actually contracting it, then by knowing someone who has. Whatever our frustrations may be with the lockdown, most of us know the seriousness of the disease – and its ability to kill. Perhaps it is this which has most effectively removed the terrorist from its no.1 media spot – what we have, in other words, is the irony of a cry-wolf, constant-threat news culture which now actually has a genuinely global threat to deal with and report on.

The arguments that terrorism has receded because of the pandemic, or because there is not enough news-oxygen to publicize their attacks, are unconvincing. That terrorist networks everywhere have put their plans on hold because there is no regular bus service, or no pop concerts, seems to be a little difficult to believe (it doesn’t seem to have stopped criminality in any significant way), as is the assumption that terrorist attacks are so easily disabled by the possibility of a busy newsday. The truth is rather that there was never a comprehensive, global, constant threat to begin with – only a series of inflated fears, fed by a much smaller number of actual situations and understandable concerns, but to hysterical dimensions which never really connected with statistical reality, because they were never meant to in the first place.

Even if most tabloid journalism here in the UK is grateful for COVID, as it is for most crises, the billionaire-owned press will be sad that they have to report on a factual set of developments that can only be marginally skewed to reflect their own political interests. So-called “Islamic terrorism” was a win-win for the Daily Mail and the Telegraph – it fulfilled all functions of the usual threat-story (distraction from corruption/internal scandal, social cohesion, legitimation of prejudice, reinforcement of popular authoritarian tendencies), but with the added bonus of making people suspicious/resentful towards Muslims, foreigners and lefties thrown in. There was something supremely useful about choosing one community and relentlessly circulating stories which connected every social evil one could imagine right back to one source.

The disappearance of terrorism for a year, however, affords us a valuable moment in our development as a society. Rarely do we have the chance to see, so crudely and explicitly, how artificial and constructed our news-world is. Rarely does the opportunity arise to see the truth-taps of the media turned on and off so abruptly. Once the terrorists recover from their case of COVID – and they will, as soon as the virus is under control, you can be sure we will suddenly start to hear about suspected networks and sleeper cells all over again – we will see them on the news once more, leading the four or five stories of the day the media has decided to tell us about. I write these words, I admit, with a certain kind of naïve optimism – based on the idea that people notice processes, once they see them in action. When they understand why that process happens, what makes it happen and with what results, they never quite view it in the same way again. If anything ‘good’ can come from something as awful as the Coronavirus, it will be the nugget of cynical wisdom our year-long holiday from ‘terrorism’ has brought us.

Ian Almond is Professor of World Literature at Georgetown University in Qatar