Why facemasks became a political fault line in the crucible of social media

Nick Barron

At the start of lockdown, people dared to dream: could national trauma encourage us to put aside our petty differences and unite us against COVID-19?

Initially, the signs were encouraging. The public consented to confinement and were unanimously grateful to NHS workers.

Left and right agreed that we should ‘follow the science’ and that, even if they made mistakes, officials were acting in good faith.

Today, it’s a different picture.

Anti-maskers are increasingly vocal, while Conservative commentators are breaking ranks to complain of intolerable assaults on our liberty.

From the left, anyone questioning the wisdom of further restrictions is accused of being a heartless monster.

How did unity become disunity?

This is a classic example of polarisation produced by groups of like-minded people debating a topic.

Studies of polarisation have found that when discussions take place within echo chambers, people’s views eventually coalesce at the more hardline ends of the spectrum, as nuance is drowned out by passion.

This is the Networked Age, and we have surrounded ourselves with digital echo chambers.

During lockdown, we spent more time than ever inside social-media bubbles and less interacting IRL.

Once we got bored of Joe Wicks, COVID-19 was all we had to talk about.

The debate moved from the practical (“Do masks reduce risk of transmission?”) to the ideological (“What kind of society do we want?”), with conservative values like “liberty” and progressive values like “protection” dominating.

Moreover, the pandemic produced an explosion of data for us to pore over in our echo chambers, like amateur epidemiologists.

Data visualisation became the new rock ‘n’ roll and the daily charts produced by The FT’s John Burn-Murdoch were greeted on Twitter with the sort of anticipation normally reserved for World Cup draws.

This orgy of statistics fuelled another human bias – motivated reasoning.

When presented with data, we don’t ask: “What can I learn from this?”, but rather: “How does this prove me right?”

That’s why someone who supports tough lockdowns can look at the Swedish example and rule it a disaster, while a lockdown critic can declare Sweden’s approach a triumph.

Science be damned, there is an argument to be won.

Lockdown thus provided the perfect breeding ground for polarisation. But did the divisions have to grow so deep?

Effective communication can reduce polarisation.

First, be willing to listen to all sides and acknowledge legitimate concerns early, before they metastasise.

Even if you disagree with people’s conclusions, don’t dismiss their arguments.

And second, appeal to people’s better instincts.

Most will do their best to adhere to the Rule of Six if asked, but suggesting neighbours should snitch on rule-breakers makes people more rebellious.

We all want to be in control of our lives, and if we’re asked to do the right thing, most of the time we will.

Masks are now another front in the Culture War.

It’s too late to change that, but we can stop the next front from opening.

This was originally posted on PR Week.