COVID Communication: Exploring Pandemic Discourse 3031276647, 9783031276644

This book focuses on how we understand COVID-19―medically, socially, and rhetorically. Given the expectation that other

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Table of contents :
Chapter 1: Introduction: The Rhetoric of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigating Health Literacy and Disease Knowledge
A Public Health Emergency
Pandemic Rhetoric
Health/Medical Humanities, Rhetorics of Science, Technology, Health, and Medicine
The Current Volume
Pandemic Constructions
Visual Discourse
Pandemic Communities
Discourses of Dissent
Part I: Political and Media Discourses: Pandemic Constructions
Chapter 2: The Rhetoric of Pandemics: Health, Politics, and the Public
The WHO and the Pandemic Definition Problem
Pandemics in Politics: President Trump’s Response
Social Media Engagements with #Pandemic
The Uncertainty of Pandemic
Chapter 3: Rhetorical Media Devices and COVID-19: Comparing U.S. News and Social Media Responses to National Events Since 9/11
Devices, 9/11, Cable News, and COVID-19
Journalistic Devices and Cognitive Bias
Rhetorical Exhaustion, Trolls, and Social Media Irony
Chapter 4: COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine
The Fight, the Grey Rhino, the Perfect Storm
Metaphor Makes the Unknown Known
Demonstrating Metaphorical Ills in the Body Politic
Nature Is Healing, We Are the Virus
The Virus of Racism
Associative Animals: Fighting or Playing Chess?
Chapter 5: Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians, and the Media Interact with the Public on Twitter
Literature Review
Research Methods
The Media and Politicians
Discussion and Conclusion
Chapter 6: Textual Analysis of Cartoons on Nigerian Politicians’ Reactions to COVID-19 Pandemic on Social Media
Social Media and Political Discourse in Nigeria
Cartoons as Communicative Media
Use of Cartoons as Political Tools
Theoretical Framework
Part II: Visual Discourse: Pandemic Information Distribution
Chapter 7: The Rhetoric of Visual Representations: Visualizing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Polish Media
Literature Review
Intercoder Reliability
Chapter 8: Countering the Infodemic through Comics: COVID-19 and Graphic Medicine
COVID-19: The Pandemic-Turned-Infodemic
Graphic Medicine and Healthcare
The Edifying Role of Graphic Medicine
The Sly Hues of the Infodemic: Choice of Colors in Health Educational Comics
Chapter 9: This Is What Pandemic Looks Like: Visual Framing of COVID-19 on Search Engines
Theoretical Background
Data Collection
Data Analysis
Chapter 10: Advertising in the Time of COVID-19: A Thematic and Social Engagement Analysis of Messages and Consumer Feedback
Uses and Gratifications in Consumption of Pandemic Advertisements
Social Media Influence on COVID-19 Advertisements
Thematic and Social Media Analysis of Pandemic Advertisements
Cognitive Needs and Safety, Security, and Sales Promotion Advertisements
Empathetic Needs and Emotionally Supportive Advertisements
Socially Integrative Needs and Community Connection Advertisements
Future Directions
Part III: Discourses of Inclusion/Exclusion: Pandemic Communities
Chapter 11: Self-Isolation and Consubstantiality: COVID-19 Terminology and Collective Identity
Identification, Persuasion, and Consubstantiality
Actions of Unity
Actions of Division
Chapter 12: Personifying Coronavirus Through Social Media
The (Most) Mediatized Pandemic
A Solitary Invader
Something Between Frankenstein and Shrek
A Swarm of Visitors
When Human and Virus Meet
Chapter 13: Social Distancing as Border Performance
Social Distancing Constrains Borders
Borders Are Performances
Border Performances on Twitter
Masks as Border Transversal(s)
Disinformation Architecture on Twitter
Chapter 14: Social Distancing from COVID-19 by Buying Toilet Paper: Critiquing “Self-Protective” Consumerism Through Memes
The Great Toilet Paper Panic and Consumption
The Meme Analysis
Consumption and Nostalgia
The Perceived Worth of Toilet Paper
The Use of Alternatives
A Critique of Consumer Practices
Toilet Paper as a Means of Protection
Chapter 15: Unmasking the Pandemic: Self, Other, and the Mask as a Visual Signifier of COVID-19
On or Off: Masks in the Public
Unmasking Local Power Paradoxes Within Globalized Agricultural Practices
N95: The Abject, The Carnivalesque, The Supplement
To Prevent Something From Being Seen or Noticed
A Covering for All or Part of the Face that Protects, Hides, or Decorates the Person Wearing It
Appearance or Behavior That Hides the Truth
Unmasked: Unseen Ubiquity
Conclusions and Considerations
Chapter 16: Going Corona-Viral with a Bilateral Phenomenon of Laughter: Othering and Prejudice in Memes Depicting (Early) Reactions to COVID-19
Social Stigma and Social Distancing
Virus Reactions in Literature and Media
Socio-critical Reflections of Memes in Media
The Meme Analysis
Chinese Coronavirus Memes
Italian Coronavirus Memes
Mexican Coronavirus Memes
Part IV: Discourses of Dissent: Pandemic Reactions to Misinformation
Chapter 17: Varieties of Church Pandemic Literacy During the 1918 and 2020 Epidemics
Chapter 18: “Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make”: Memes and the Social Media Critique by the UK Public in Response to COVID-19
Memes and Public Policy
“Some of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make”
From Trolls to Public Discourse
Chapter 19: Don’t Hold Your Breath: Motives and Anxiety in Facebook COVID-19 Viral Shares
Introduction: The Breathing Test and Medical Credibility
Social Media and the Sharing of Misinformation
Efforts to Halt Hoax Transmission
The Perceived Value of Fake Ethos Claims
Chapter 20: Idols of COVID-19: Francis Bacon and the Pandemic of 2020
Chapter 21: The Epic Spectator Meets the War on the Coronavirus
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Douglas A. Vakoch John C. Pollock Amanda M. Caleb   Editors

COVID Communication Exploring Pandemic Discourse

COVID Communication

Douglas A. Vakoch  •  John C. Pollock Amanda M. Caleb Editors

COVID Communication Exploring Pandemic Discourse

Editors Douglas A. Vakoch METI International and California Institute of Integral Studies San Francisco, CA, USA Amanda M. Caleb Department of Medical Education Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine Scranton, PA, USA

John C. Pollock Departments of Communication Studies and Public Health The College of New Jersey Ewing, NJ, USA

ISBN 978-3-031-27664-4    ISBN 978-3-031-27665-1 (eBook) © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors, and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. This Springer imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland

“In an era of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, COVID Communication provides a smart, urgent alternative to our collective downward spiral, not only offering a fiery critique of our selfish and self-destructive present but also providing galvanizing, positive visions of what futures we might hope for.” — Shailendra Saxena, King George’s Medical University, India; editor of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Epidemiology, Pathogenesis, Diagnosis, and Therapeutics “COVID Communication shows that the pandemic affects us not only because it makes us sick or ruins our economy, but also because of how it is spoken, written, and thought about, ultimately because of how it is socially constructed. An original and very necessary look to arm ourselves intellectually against the pandemic.” — Alberto del Campo Tejedor, Pablo de Olavide University, Spain; author of La infame fama del andaluz “The COVID-19 pandemic represented a global challenge that needed nations and their people to come together, find a joint response, and build a narrative that was clear, consistent, inclusive, and respectful of people. The reality, however, is that the responses to the pandemic reflected the ideologies of national leaders, political leaders, media outlets, and activists, leading to a fragmented and at times polarized global discourse. This important work examines the different narratives that circulated within the information environment to explore how these may have led to differing levels of trust in politicians, in science, and in one another. Through an analysis of rhetoric across diverse nations and platforms, the chapters provide a framework that is crucial for understanding the interplay between discourse, cognition, and behavior.” — Darren Lilleker, Bournemouth University, UK; co-editor of Political Communication and COVID-19: Governance and Rhetoric in Times of Crisis “This book presents a collection of must-read scholarly chapters that illustrate a panoramic view of how people from different countries and cultures communicate about this global pandemic. These chapters paint a rich canvas of thoughts, emotions, reactions, and actions through communication expressions, ranging from intuitive rhetoric and probing cartoons to emotional memes and creative advertising. The book is a great resource for aiding health communication scholars, instructors, professionals, journalists, and students in enhancing their COVID-19 research, teaching, practice, reporting, and learning.” — Carolyn A. Lin, University of Connecticut, USA; co-editor of Communication Technology and Social Change: Theory and Implications



“In an era of cultural anxiety caused by the global pandemic and social unrest, COVID Communication could not be timelier. Presenting broad cross-cultural and multi-modal perspectives on media portrayals of the illness that has caused so much suffering and uncertainty, this insightful book offers a ‘rhetorical toolkit’ that gives us tools to navigate the maze of modern communication with a deeper understanding of the power of language in the time of social media. It is a perfect resource for classes on media literacy, while it is useful to anyone who wants to become a more active, independent, and secure consumer of the media in the age of information abundance.” — Katja Plemenitaš, University of Maribor, Slovenia; co-author of Josip Hutter and the Dwelling Culture of Maribor “COVID-19, as a disaster and series of converging crises, has forever shaped society. COVID Communication offers an easy-to-read, unparalleled academic-­ practitioner focus to help understand the cultural, social, economic, political, community health, and personal risk assessment aspects of communication during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, in a ground- breaking analysis that enhances the rich intellectual tradition of the field of communications, each chapter in COVID Communication offers readers the opportunity to view multiple media sources and approaches that engender a deeper understanding of health information and communication during and after COVID-19 and its ensuing crises.” — DeMond S. Miller, Rowan University, USA; co-editor of Community Disaster Recovery and Resiliency: Exploring Global Opportunities and Challenges “With its twenty-one chapters exploring a wide spectrum of issues ranging from individual and social responses to the global coronavirus breakout to the divergent narrative patterns identified from various countries, COVID Communication is indeed a timely and significant guide to understanding the recent pandemic. The collection makes the reader realize and acknowledge the multitude of complex, intersecting factors and processes that are relevant to comprehend the coronavirus pandemic and to cope with its various representations.” — Şemsettin Tabur, Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Turkey; author of Contested Spaces in Contemporary North American Novels: Reading for Space “In focusing on how the media and in particular the language used in social media have depicted COVID-19, the authors of this volume provide readers with a means of developing critical literacy amidst frighteningly widespread misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories about the virus and the pandemic.” — Tina Besley, Beijing Normal University, People’s Republic of China; co-­author of Pandemic Education and Viral Politics

To Julie, for her inspiring creativity. To Peggy, who enriches every relationship she is in. To Ella and Gabe, for their patience and love.


COVID Communication: Exploring Pandemic Discourse is an empowering effort by scholars in different fields to mine primarily social media for linguistic factors that play a role in the conceptualization of illness. This innovative book addresses and crafts initial answers to the following critical questions: • What health communication lessons can be learned from exploring the field of health humanities, the exciting convergence of medical education and humanistic inquiry? • How often does pandemic discourse in social media, whether employed by politicians or the general public, foreground a reflexive nationalism or promote the public good? • What rhetorical traditions promote metaphors viewing illness as “passivity” versus an opportunity for “activity”? • How do some discourse patterns limit the social construction of illness to “biomedical” perspectives, while others expand the concept of illness to “experiential” dimensions? • How does “personification” of a virus (as a social, political, or metaphysical actor) change narratives from those of a limited “biological” category? • Which rhetorical COVID-19 labels reflect, dampen, or amplify cultural anxieties, promoting isolation or alternatively inclusion and collective identity? Suggesting that COVID-19 or those infected resemble biological “enemies” can engender fear and nationalism, while metaphors such as a race, a football game, handcuffs, a nightmare, or a game of chess may open opportunities for cooperation, identity plasticity, and boundary performance shifting in the face of the pandemic. • What does wearing masks mean to people of different backgrounds (e.g., First Nation/Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese-Canadians, or Nigerians)? How much does “masking” bolster or disrupt longstanding discourses and generalizations surrounding ethnicity? • What dimensions of pandemic discourse arm readers or viewers with the intellectual resources to recognize rhetorical choices? For example, about a decade ix


• • •


before the Italian plague of 1629–1631, Sir Francis Bacon published “New Method of the Great Instauration,” introducing four “Idols” (or metaphors) representing “assaults” against science and knowledge so that “truth can barely enter.” These four “Idols” of the Tribe, the Cave, the Marketplace, and the Theatre can aid our understanding of politicians, pundits, and physicians who render opinions and manipulate responses to the current pandemic. Which rhetorical perspectives are most effective in helping identify the motives of those who employ them, equipping readers/viewers with the intellectual weapons to make independent, analytical judgments about the reliability of different pandemic news sources? How does the theatrical concept of the “epic spectator,” with its interrogation of the sociopolitical structures that cause characters’ suffering, help us engage with pandemic rhetoric in a spirit of resistance? Comparing reactions to the 1918 flu epidemic and the modern COVID-19 global virus, how have the viewpoints of fundamentalists/evangelicals and mainstream protestant spokespeople aligned or diverged in the two time periods? In early visual social media depictions of the coronavirus, how much evidence emerged of patterns reinforcing national stereotypes, for example, regarding China, Italy, and Mexico? How much did emphasis on consumer behavior memes such as toilet paper competition reinforce or promote “othering”? How much have targeted comics contributed to mass coronavirus education, in particular among children in selected countries? How much have coronavirus experiences and metaphors reinforced or amplified previous public perceptions of government leaders, whether as purveyors of corruption and insensitivity to public needs, or as heroes of coordination and compassion?

One of the first books of its kind to be published anywhere, COVID Communication is an ambitious endeavor by communication scholars throughout the world to illuminate the ways different illness frames, perspectives, and memes present the public with choices about its responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Ewing, NY, USA

John C. Pollock



Introduction: The Rhetoric of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigating Health Literacy and Disease Knowledge������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������    1 Michael J. Klein and Lisa DeTora

Part I Political and Media Discourses: Pandemic Constructions 2

 The Rhetoric of Pandemics: Health, Politics, and the Public��������������   19 Amanda M. Caleb


Rhetorical Media Devices and COVID-19: Comparing U.S. News and Social Media Responses to National Events Since 9/11������   31 Kathy Elrick


COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine������������������������������������������������������������������������������   41 Elizabeth F. Chamberlain


Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians, and the Media Interact with the Public on Twitter������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������   61 Derrick Shapley and John Blumer


Textual Analysis of Cartoons on Nigerian Politicians’ Reactions to COVID-19 Pandemic on Social Media����������������������������   75 Godswill Okorobia Okiyi

Part II Visual Discourse: Pandemic Information Distribution 7

The Rhetoric of Visual Representations: Visualizing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Polish Media ��������������������������������������������   89 Karolina Glowka





Countering the Infodemic through Comics: COVID-19 and Graphic Medicine ����������������������������������������������������������������������������  101 Anu Mary Peter, Raghavi Ravi Kasthuri, and M. K. Senthil Babu


This Is What Pandemic Looks Like: Visual Framing of COVID-19 on Search Engines������������������������������������������������������������  113 Mykola Makhortykh, Aleksandra Urman, and Roberto Ulloa

10 Advertising  in the Time of COVID-19: A Thematic and Social Engagement Analysis of Messages and Consumer Feedback ������������������������������������������������������������������������  125 Margaret (Peg) A. Murphy and Grace Yiseul Choi Part III Discourses of Inclusion/Exclusion: Pandemic Communities 11 Self-Isolation  and Consubstantiality: COVID-19 Terminology and Collective Identity����������������������������������������������������������������������������  141 Louise Zamparutti 12 Personifying  Coronavirus Through Social Media��������������������������������  153 Abdallah Zouhairi 13 Social  Distancing as Border Performance ��������������������������������������������  163 Mari E. Ramler 14 Social  Distancing from COVID-19 by Buying Toilet Paper: Critiquing “Self-­Protective” Consumerism Through Memes��������������  173 Rachel L. Carazo and Teresa S. Welsh 15 Unmasking  the Pandemic: Self, Other, and the Mask as a Visual Signifier of COVID-19����������������������������������������������������������  189 Chaseten Remillard, Michelle Tsutsumi, Olaolu Adeleye, and Zhenyi Li 16 Going Corona-Viral with a Bilateral Phenomenon of Laughter: Othering and Prejudice in Memes Depicting (Early) Reactions to COVID-19��������������������������������������������������������������  199 Rachel L. Carazo, Stefano Rozzoni, and Teresa S. Welsh Part IV Discourses of Dissent: Pandemic Reactions to Misinformation 17 Varieties  of Church Pandemic Literacy During the 1918 and 2020 Epidemics������������������������������������������������������������������  223 Roger Chapman 18 “Some  of you may die, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make”: Memes and the Social Media Critique by the UK Public in Response to COVID-19 ����������������������������������������������������������������������  233 Jessica Ruth Austin



19 Don’t  Hold Your Breath: Motives and Anxiety in Facebook COVID-19 Viral Shares ��������������������������������������������������������������������������  243 Zoe Alderton and Tara B. M. Smith 20 Idols  of COVID-19: Francis Bacon and the Pandemic of 2020 ����������  255 Thomas Burkdall and Bob Sipchen 21 The  Epic Spectator Meets the War on the Coronavirus����������������������  265 Kara Reilly Index������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������������  277


Olaolu  Adeleye  is Associate Faculty Member at Royal Roads University. He earned an MA in Poverty Reduction: Policy and Practice from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. His research and teaching translate this international experience into engaging approaches that reframe contemporary global issues. Zoe Alderton  is Lecturer in the School of Economics at the University of Sydney. She earned a PhD in religion from the University of Sydney. Her research interests include the spread of dangerous or controversial ideas online such as self-harm, proanorexia, and hoaxes such as Momo. Jessica  Ruth  Austin  is Associate Lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She earned a PhD in English and Media from Anglia Ruskin University and an MA in Media and Cultural Politics from the University of East Anglia. Her research focuses on utilitarian philosophy and how it applies to political communication and has applied this to popular culture narratives in video games (Horizon Zero Dawn and the Fallout franchise). M.  K.  Senthil  Babu  is Assistant Professor of English in the School of Social Sciences and Languages, Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore. He earned a PhD in Academic Language Acquisition from the National Institute of Technology, Trichy. His research concentrates on second language acquisition, sociology, graphic medicine, and eating disorder comics. John  Blumer  is Assistant Professor and Chair of English at Miles College. He earned a PhD in English from Middle Tennessee State University. His research focuses on modernism, with an emphasis on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, and T.S. Eliot. Thomas  Burkdall  is Associate Professor and Chair of Writing and Rhetoric at Occidental College. He earned a PhD and an MA in English from UCLA.  His xv



publications and presentations include a wide variety of topics: James Joyce and film theory, writing and technology, writing center practice, and the Harry Potter series. Amanda M. Caleb  is Professor of Medical Humanities at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. She earned a PhD in English and an MA in nineteenth-century studies from The University of Sheffield and an MPH from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her research interests include the medical and public health humanities, health communication, health narratology, narrative medicine, and bioethics and the Holocaust. She has published articles and book chapters on topics ranging from the medicalization of social policies to the marginalization of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic to dementia and the role of narrative medicine. Rachel L. Carazo  is a doctoral student in Education: Leadership and Innovation with a Sports Administration Concentration at St. Thomas University. She earned an MLIS from the University of Southern Mississippi and an MA in Ancient Worlds from the University Edinburgh. She works as an editor and is currently editing collections on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, mythological equines in literature and film, and dragons (including dragons in children’s literature, dragons in ecocritical contexts, and dragons in mythology). Elizabeth  F.  Chamberlain  is Director of Sustainability at iFixit, having previously served as Director of First-Year Writing and Assistant Professor of English rhetoric and composition at Arkansas State University from 2018-21. She earned a PhD in English Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Louisville and an MA in English from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Driven by a desire to contribute to climate action, she has left academia and manages internal sustainability projects and advocates worldwide for the right to repair everything we own. Roger Chapman  is Professor of History at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He earned a PhD in American Culture Studies and History from Bowling Green State University and an MA in Intercultural Studies from Wheaton College. He has published books chapters and journal articles on diverse topics, including special forces operations, the Tea Party movement, hippies, Cold War popular culture, the Red Scare, Ponce de Leon, and Dostoyevsky. Grace  Yiseul  Choi  is Assistant Professor in the Communication Department at Columbia College Chicago. She earned a PhD in Mass Media from the University of Missouri and an MA in Media and Cinema Studies from DePaul University. Her research focuses on creatively using social media to empower minority representations and encourage creative processes to diversify the technology field. Lisa DeTora  is Associate Professor and the Director of STEM Writing at Hofstra University. She earned a PhD and an MA in English from the University of Rochester



and an MA in Bioethics from the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College. A long-time member of the International Society of Medical Publication Professionals Ethics and Standards Committee and speaker at The International Publication Planning Association, she has published on various topics in publications practice, planning, and ethics, including authorship and ghostwriting. Kathy  Elrick  is Assistant Professor of Teaching in the English Department at Wayne State University. She earned a PhD in Rhetoric, Communications, and Information Design from Clemson University, an MA in English from Arcadia University, and an MA in Political Science from Illinois State University. Her main areas of research are satire, political communications, rhetorical theory, rhetoric in journalism, irony, and digital rhetorics in social media. Karolina Glowka  is Lecturer in Digital Marketing at the University of Lincoln. She earned her PhD in Communication in Media Studies and an MA in Polish Philosophy (with a specialization in media studies) from the University of Gdansk and an MA in Psychology from SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Raghavi  Ravi  Kasthuri  is Assistant Professor of English in the Department of Languages, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vellore Institute of Technology, AP-University, Amaravati. She earned a PhD in English from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli. Her area of research is graphic medicine and health humanities. Michael  J.  Klein  is Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.  He earned a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Virginia Tech, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and an MA in Technical Communication from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His recent scholarship has focused on medical narratives and intercultural communication, and the creation of graphic embodiment memoirs in an interdisciplinary writing course. Zhenyi Li  is Professor and Director of the School of Communication and Culture at Royal Roads University. He earned a PhD in Intercultural Communication from the University of Jyvaskyla and an MA in Communication from East China Normal University. As a researcher, he is committed to understanding the effectiveness of public health communication in different cultural contexts and across different media. Mykola  Makhortykh  is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Bern. He earned a PhD in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam, a joint MA in Euroculture from the University of Goettingen and Jagiellonian University, and an MA in Archaeology at Kyiv Taras Shevchenko University. His research interests include visual framing



of armed conflicts and emergencies and the influence of algorithmic systems on the public sphere. Margaret  (Peg)  A.  Murphy  is Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Communication Department at Columbia College. She earned an MA in Speech Communication from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research and teaching interests include strategic marketing, advertising, and primary research methodologies. Godswill Okorobia Okiyi  PhD, is Lecturer in the Mass Communication department at Nasarawa State University. He earned a PhD in Advertising/Public Relations from Babcock University. His areas of academic interest are IMC, mainly advertising/PR, Development communications, and AI and media studies. Anu Mary Peter  PhD, is Project Coordinator at Springer Nature, the Netherlands, and an independent graphic medicine researcher, having previously served as Assistant Professor of English, School of Social Sciences and Languages, Vellore Institute of Technology, Chennai (India). She earned a PhD in English from the National Institute of Technology, Trichy. Her research articles have appeared in various Web of Science/Scopus indexed journals such as Health: An International Journal for Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, Journal of Graphic Novels, and Comics, INKS: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, among others. John C. Pollock  is Professor in the Departments of Communication Studies and Public Health at The College of New Jersey. He earned a PhD in Political Science from Stanford University and an MPA from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Serving on several editorial boards, including Journal of Health Communication, Communication Theory, and Mass Communication and Society, he has written articles for numerous scholarly and non-scholarly outlets, including Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, Journal of Health Communication, Mass Communication and Society, Journal of Human Rights, Human Rights Review, Society, The Nation, and The New York Times. Mari E. Ramler  is Associate Professor of English in the Professional and Technical Communication program at Tennessee Tech University. She earned a PhD in Rhetorics and Communication and an MA in English from Clemson University and an MA in Education from Columbia College. At the intersection of science and religion, she writes about climate collapse, sex education, and UX design for marginalized bodies. Kara Reilly  is Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter. Her research examines intersections between theatre/science/ technology. She earned a PhD in Theatre History and Dramatic Literature from the University of Washington and an MA in Performance Studies from New  York University. She co-edits a book series for Palgrave called Adaptation in Theatre and Performance. Her own books include



Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History (2011), and two edited collections: Theatre, Performance and Analogue Technology (2013) and Contemporary Approaches to Adaptation (2018). Chaseten Remillard  is Associate Professor in the School of Communications and Culture at Royal Roads University. He earned a PhD and MA in Communication Studies from the University of Calgary. His research interests focus on questions of social and environmental justice in visual and professional communication, interrogating how images gain and transmit meaning and how these meanings serve to reinforce particular “ways of seeing” ourselves and the world around us. Stefano Rozzoni  is a doctoral candidate in Transcultural Studies in Humanities at the University of Bergamo, in co-tutelle with Justus-Liebig Universität Gießen, where he is a member of the International PhD Programme “Literary and Cultural Studies.” He has an MA in European and Pan-American Languages and Literature from the Università degli Studi di Bergamo. His research interests focus on ecocriticism, posthuman studies, and pastoral poetry. Derrick  Shapley  is Professor and Department Chair of Sociology at Talladega College. He earned his PhD and MA in Sociology from Mississippi State University. His academic interests include rural sociology, rural stratification, rural health, Social Media, and Political Sociology. Bob Sipchen  is a Pulitzer Prize-winning career journalist and former editor of the Los Angeles Times’ Opinion pages. He served as National Communications Director for the Sierra Club, America’s oldest, largest, and most effective grassroots environmental non-profit, and has taught journalism and communications at Occidental College in Los Angeles for 23 years. Tara B. M. Smith  is Associate Lecture and Unit Co-ordinator for an introductory arts and humanities unit at the University of Sydney. She earned her PhD in Religion from the University of Sydney. Her research interests include contemporary religions, speculative fiction, conspiracy theories, and ecology. Michelle Tsutsumi  is Strategic Convenor and Organizer for the British Columbia Co-op Association. She earned an MA in Professional Communication from Royal Roads University and an MA in Counseling Psychology from the University of Alberta. Her research and practice interests include employing reflective practices that facilitate tension and emergent spaces to catalyze change and looking at social justice and regenerative practices within food systems in British Columbia. Roberto  Ulloa  is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Computational Social Science department of GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences. He earned a PhD in Hispanic Studies from Western University and an MS in Computer Science from Universidad de Costa Rica. His research interests include the role of institutions in polarization and homogenization of the public opinion.



Aleksandra Urman  is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Social Computing Group at the University of Zurich. She earned a PhD in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Bern and an MA in Political Science from the Central European University. Her research interests include the effects of online platforms on users’ political attitudes, and the use of computational methods for social science research. Douglas A. Vakoch  is President of METI International and Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He earned a PhD and MA in Psychology from Stony Brook University and an MA in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Notre Dame. He has edited or coedited more than 20 books covering COVID-19, communication, psychology, sustainability, and the search for life beyond Earth, and his work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, The Economist, Nature, and Science and broadcasts on the BBC, The Science Channel, and The Discovery Channel. Teresa S. Welsh  is Director of the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Southern Mississippi. She earned a PhD in Communication and Information and an MLIS from the University of Tennessee. Her research interests include bibliometric and webometric research, e-publishing, and e-learning. Louise  Zamparutti  is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, specializing in Rhetoric. She earned a PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research examines the interaction of public memory and identity construction in times and locations of collective trauma. Her stage play Identità/Identiteta was produced in Milwaukee, WI, and is part of the curriculum in drama courses at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. Abdallah  Zouhairi  is Associate Researcher at the University Hassan II of Casablanca. He earned a PhD in Sociology from the University Hassan II of Casablanca. His research interests focus on the strategies in situations of informality and precarity.

Chapter 1

Introduction: The Rhetoric of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigating Health Literacy and Disease Knowledge Michael J. Klein and Lisa DeTora

A Public Health Emergency For the first time in over a century, the entire world was gripped by an acute infectious public health emergency. The emergence of the novel coronavirus strain called SARS-CoV-2, first identified in Wuhan province, China, in late 2019, quickly led to a pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which spanned the globe, causing millions of confirmed cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths within 6 months (WHO 2020). Not since the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918 had so many people been adversely affected by a novel virus. COVID-19 remains poorly characterized. It is unclear what its primary biological target might be, what type of illness it causes, or whether the virus primarily affects one body system or another. Basic information like time to recovery or even measures of what “recovery” means are also lacking. What is known is how and why this virus is so dangerous. SARS-­ CoV-­2 is highly transmissible via the same vectors as other viral diseases like the common cold and most often causes a mild type of illness that seems, also, like a cold or a mild case of the flu. More seriously, its incubation time appears to be lengthy—up to 2 weeks. This means that people may be infected without knowing it and can shed virus onto vulnerable people. SARS-CoV-2 can pass easily from person to person who are not aware that they are carrying the virus. Even though the relative proportion of serious and fatal illnesses are small, given the complete lack of immunity among humans, health systems have been overwhelmed with severe cases (Andersen et al. 2020). And because COVID-19 is a viral disease, antibiotics M. J. Klein (*) James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, USA e-mail: [email protected] L. DeTora Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 D. A. Vakoch et al. (eds.), COVID Communication,



M. J. Klein and L. DeTora

cannot effectively treat it. In effect, the medical community cannot draw on the basic types of health discourse it usually mobilizes to address epidemic or pandemic illnesses. While the rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 spans all discourse communities, few types of inquiry are especially interesting in the light of news coverage, political statements, and the generalized anxiety and panic that film theorist Daniel Dinello (2005) predicted as occurring when the viral demonstrated its ability to impact humanity on the same scale, or even greater scales, than nuclear weapons. For example, health/medical humanities, science and technology studies, and the rhetorics of health and medicine each examine the cultures of the hospital, the clinic, and the laboratory and also find ways to make sense of how these cultures are represented and imagined in different public spheres. Central questions have emerged about the nature of healthcare delivery, biomedical research, and the ways that their scientific, medical, and social contexts play out among groups of people seeking answers that do not yet exist. Basic health literacy is impeded by a lack of useful information. This volume examines various sites where the rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 might be understood and provides a basis for beginning to make sense of the current pandemic not only culturally and socially but also in the context of existing traditions of academic endeavor such as literacy, rhetoric, literary analysis, and communication studies.

COVID-19 Although relatively little is known about the virus that causes COVID-19, its general structure is like several other coronaviruses that have had a significant media presence during the current century. This same basic type of virus was initially discovered during the 1960s, and the best-known coronavirus diseases prior to 2019 were SARS and MERS. Each coronavirus carries ribonucleic acid sequences that can enter animal cells, which then produce copies of the virus. The clinical conditions caused by some coronaviruses, particularly SARS and MERS, are associated with highly virulent, rapidly transmitted disease and high acute mortality rates. Like COVID-19, the SARS outbreak of 2002 originated in Asia and affected thousands of people in North America, South America, and Europe (hundreds of whom died) before public health interventions headed off the virus’s ability to spread (Li 2016). In contrast, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which broke out a decade later, killed about 35% of identified patients, orders of magnitude more than SARS (Li 2016). SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is presumed to have originated in an animal host; the first cases were among people known to have entered a specific marketplace in China (Zhou et al. 2020; Wu et al. 2020). Among various strains of SARS-CoV-2, only a few genetic differences have been identified, which suggests that the virus does not mutate as rapidly as influenza, although several variants are currently known to be circulating.

1  Introduction: The Rhetoric of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigating…


Lower rates of mutation aid in vaccine development efforts indirectly by providing a more stable target (Zhou et al. 2020). Reassuringly, SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to be neutralized by sera from several COVID-19 patients, which indicates that humans can produce antibodies capable of providing protection against the virus. Existing scientific understanding of SARS-CoV-2 is being leveraged to develop novel vaccines, which have shown promising effects across the world, and treatments. The primary vaccine target is the “spike” protein that protrudes from the virus, creating the halo or crown that gives the coronavirus its name. Researchers in China released the structure and RNA sequence globally as soon as they characterized it. Destroying the spike protein undermines the structural integrity of the virus, effectively neutralizing its ability to invade cells. Existing vaccine efforts against other coronaviruses include a MERS vaccine that showed early promise in humans in clinical trials. These vaccine efforts might provide a model for vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. Another potential target for investigation is the ACE2 protein, which SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter animal cells, the same receptor site used by SARS-CoV, the virus that causes SARS disease. An agent or vaccine that prevents viruses from accessing the ACE2 protein to enter cells could provide protection against multiple coronaviruses (Zhou et al. 2020). The currently available vaccines have been effective in slowing the spread of disease as well as limiting mortality. At stake in examining the rhetorics around COVID-19 are the ways that medical and scientific information is presented, reimagined, and contextualized to serve varying publics and discourse communities and intellectual spheres. These presentations pose increased challenges for audiences that are still building basic pandemic literacies in the face of developing situations. At stake are not only depictions of healthcare delivery and the ability to interpret them but also the material conditions of that delivery itself. By placing the rhetorics of COVID-19 against modes of inquiry like health/medical humanities or narrative medicine, clinical and humanities researchers alike can interrogate what it means to be on the front lines of a pandemic and how communication and persuasion form fields of intervention that protect not simply the lives and health of patients and communities but also their access to the trappings of personhood. In other words, rhetorics associated with COVID-19 help define what it means to be a citizen or a thinking subject as opposed to a vector for disease. And basic pandemic literacy in this setting may ultimately rely on the work of rhetoricians, health/medical humanities, and communication studies scholars who help make sense of complicated information for varied audiences.

Pandemic Rhetoric The notion of what a pandemic is also informs the rhetorics of COVID-19 and, as such, is also examined in the current volume. The World Health Organization often defines a global pandemic as the global spread of a disease; however, other


M. J. Klein and L. DeTora

definitions of a pandemic exist, and the rhetoric of COVID-19 suggests still further types of significance attached to this single word, particularly as its currency fluctuates between discourses. For example, some public health settings define a pandemic as any acute disease outbreak that spans more than one major geographic region or continent. News coverage tends to treat the word “pandemic” such that it represents a significant event or milestone that requires specialized intervention or even a disease that is clinically more severe as compared with other illnesses. This tendency was pronounced in the many media outlets that traced the build of COVID-19 from a serious problem in China, to European outbreaks, to full pandemic status. For those still developing a basic health literacy in this type of discourse, media narratives can be perniciously misleading. The science of epidemiology explains the occurrence of pandemic diseases in terms that include the ability of people, animals, and birds to travel, carrying pathogens with them. The plagues of the Middle Ages took many years to achieve what today might be termed pandemic status and spread slowly over time by the movements of people, rats, and migratory birds. Troop movements, like those in World War I, have also been associated with disease transmission, and the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic has been traced to military actions as well as the practice of bringing new recruits together from varied geographic locations. In 2002, SARS caused worldwide concern not only because it quickly and unpredictably killed many of its victims but also because global travel patterns made it possible for a new, deadly pathogen to span the globe in a matter of days. This different type of health literacy transcends the linguistic and extends into material culture, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and healthcare delivery. Anywhere that people from many nations gather can be a site for starting a pandemic. The World Bank, for example, had noted a more than threefold increase in air travel from the 1970s to 2019 (The World Bank 2019). Religious observance, like pilgrimages to Mecca for Hajj and Umrah, has long been known to foster disease transmission, but the increased numbers of participants— over three times as many visitors in 2019 as compared with 2009—means that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has had to remain at the vanguard of preventive vaccination and public health interventions, going so far as to provide vaccines for devout Muslims from less industrially developed countries. Sporting events that draw global audiences, like the World Cup or the Olympics, have also provided opportunities for disease transmission (Aguiar et al. 2015). The rhetorics of pandemics draw on contemporary and prior cultural and historical, as well as medical and scientific narratives, each of which make their own demands on those seeking to enhance or develop their health literacy in these discourses. Hence, the current volume situates the rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 against many different types of sources, from plague literature to social media, and understood through discursive power.

1  Introduction: The Rhetoric of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigating…


 ealth/Medical Humanities, Rhetorics of Science, Technology, H Health, and Medicine The current century has seen a blossoming of the rhetorics of health and medicine (RHM), a subdiscipline that shares ties with the health/medical humanities, rhetoric, and narrative medicine as well as with rhetorical study of science and technology. These rhetorical approaches may employ textual analysis, content analysis, quantitative methods, and close reading to come to terms with various discursive practices. Each of these approaches interrogates the basic means by which pandemic literacy can be developed, supported, or impeded. Paul Crawford and colleagues (2015), in their volume Health Humanities, interrogate the meanings and connections between healthcare delivery and humanistic study by adopting and adapting the practices and modes of inquiry on each side of this potential divide. Of course, health humanities, a more inclusive field than its forerunner medical humanities, has always been a necessarily interdisciplinary endeavor. Current scholarship, medical education practice, and physician enrichment date back to the 1970s, when the exigences created by burgeoning technology skewed medical school admissions and impacted bedside manner. In the drive to keep up with scientific and technological advances, attention to patient concerns and even the well-being of physicians was overlooked. One way of attending to this problem and reducing burnout among healthcare providers was using literary and cultural sources (Friedman et al. 2014). In recent years, health and medical humanities have expanded to include disciplines like graphic medical memoir and graphic medicine, which use comic books to describe healthcare delivery and stories of illness (Shapiro 2012; Shapiro et al. 2009). These forms bridge material, visual, and linguistic literacies, providing rich opportunities for inquiry and exchange. Medical and health humanities converge at a divide between medical education and humanistic inquiry, which includes studies of medical and healthcare rhetorics. Experts like to identify primary aims of medical humanities in medical education as the use of humanities resources and approaches to enhance the ability of medical students and physicians in delivering the best care to their patients without suffering burnout. Yet using humanities to address medical education and healthcare delivery requires more than just a passing knowledge of humanistic inquiry. For this reason, among others, K. Danner Clouser called for medical humanities to include serious scholarly study by humanities experts (in Jones et al. 2014). Health humanities, as conceived of by Crawford, Jones, and others, takes a more expansive view of medical delivery and includes additional perspectives beyond those of the physician and patient (Jones et  al. 2014). The inherently interdisciplinary nature of medical humanities has lent to its incorporation in numerous interdisciplinary subfields— gender studies, disability studies, literature and medicine, theories of embodiment, as well as social sciences and rhetorics of medicine. One example of medical humanities that bridges into rhetorics of health and medicine is narrative medicine. It is important to understand that the rhetorics of health and medicine also have ties to the early development of what would later


M. J. Klein and L. DeTora

become narrative medicine. A “narrative turn” in literary studies that drew on the work of critics such as semiotician Roland Barthes (1977) employed narrative as a means of analyzing and explicating texts, and its approaches gradually broadened across the humanities and social sciences (Punday 2003). The early 1980s then saw a rhetorical turn in the humanities and social sciences (see Simons’ The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry). Medical sociologist Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller (1995) aimed to “shift the dominant cultural conception of illness from passivity—the ill person as ‘victim’ of disease and recipient of care—toward activity” (Weingarten 2015). Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program was established by the time of Rita Charon’s 2006 seminal text Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. (Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons 2018). Charon’s notion of narrative medicine incorporates “the narrative competence to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness” (vii). This is an inherently clinical practice because the stories of illness Charon initially described were those told to her by patients seeking care. And this mode of narrative competence may also be interpreted as a type of health literacy. Current work in the rhetorics of health and medicine as described by Melonçon and Scott in a recent volume on disciplinary approaches to the field grows out of earlier work by scholars and researchers like Ellen Barton, Celeste Condit, and Judy Segal, who bridge fields including communication and rhetoric. This grounding includes additional approaches derived from English, rhetoric, communication, and narrative medicine, as evidenced by the creation of a new journal, Rhetoric of Health and Medicine. Science and technology studies (or science and technology in society), abbreviated as STS, is “an interdisciplinary field that investigates the institutions, practices, meanings, and outcomes of science and technology and their multiple entanglements with the worlds people inhabit, their lives, and their values” (Felt et al. 2017, 1). In particular, STS draws upon methodologies found in history, philosophy, sociology, and political science, among others. Many practitioners within the field adhere to a social constructivist approach in their work, arguing that, “[b]ecause the social constructivist position acknowledges the importance of contextual values, it provides citizens with accessible standards for evaluating scientific knowledge claims” (Bingle and Gaskell 1994, 185). In other words, these practitioners seek to help citizens develop scientific and technological literacy. By the early 1990s, the work of medicine had increasingly become a subject for investigation using the constructivist perspective (Casper and Berg 1995). For example, in their analysis of the social construction of illness, Peter Conrad and Kristin K. Barker (2010, S69) argue that in contrast to the medical model (that diseases exist solely as physical entities), the social constructivist model acknowledges that, “[i]llnesses have both biomedical and experiential dimensions.” This broadening of the conception of illness allows for linguistic factors playing a role in the conceptualization of illnesses, including metaphorical connotations (Sontag 1978), which may, in turn, lead to the stigmatization of certain illnesses (e.g., HIV/AIDS). Increased health literacy can help counteract these negative effects.

1  Introduction: The Rhetoric of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigating…


The Current Volume The current volume is divided into four sections, each of which takes up a certain approach to the rhetoric of the COVID-19 pandemic and its discursive power. Such divisions represent a variety of disciplinary approaches to understanding pandemic discourse under a broad health humanities umbrella.

Pandemic Constructions The thinkers and scholars included in this section consider rhetorical responses to COVID-19 as a continuation of earlier literary, political, economic, and social narratives. Building upon the health humanities work on disease constructions, these essays examine the impact of public discourses of COVID against literary and narrative traditions as well as ethics and the ability of social media users to recast dominant narratives about COVID by using personification to convey social meaning through humor. Amanda M. Caleb opens the discussion in “The Rhetoric of Pandemics: Health, Politics, and the Public” with a rhetorical analysis of how the pandemic has been used by the World Health Organization (WHO), politicians, and the general public (via social media) in ways that counter the discursive power and effectiveness of public health. The lack of a consistent definitional framework for pandemics, even from WHO, allows for the politicization of the term pandemic that destabilizes not just the word itself but also the public understanding of COVID-19. Entangled within health, political, and public discourses, pandemics are not simply biological occurrences but are also social and political constructs that can be manipulated to the benefit or detriment of pandemic responses. Kathy Elrick in “Rhetorical Lenses of COVID-19: Comparing US News and Social Media Responses to National Events Since 9/11” argues that US responses to COVID- 19 are not new. While our technological framework of social media “virality” may be new, communal fear, communication networks, and even speed of information have historically shown how the impact of large events unearth underlying systemic issues. Even in the recent past, events such as 9/11, Katrina, the 2008–2009 recession, and the uptick in school shootings, have also revealed the more rhetorically savvy narratives from corporate news; if nothing else, outlets report information with less regards for objectivity, or even different perspectives, and instead lean toward immediacy and outrage. In this context, an often overlooked, rhetorical strategy is anti-intellectualism, particularly when fostered by those possessing political or regulatory power. The popular anti-intellectual reflection is galvanized by the news and social media strategies and happenings, but all people can be impacted because there has been a lack of critical inquiry skills and basic health literacy among the general public.


M. J. Klein and L. DeTora

Elizabeth F. Chamberlain’s essay “COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine” considers the discourse of COVID-19 in various influential news outlets. Since the early aughts, think pieces decried as the tendencies of millennials to social withdrawal in various developed countries. But now, the fear of social isolation has become the rule, and the most-withdrawn groups have suddenly become experts. Autism spectrum disorders have been transformed into expertise in various mainstream media outlets. Meanwhile, metaphors about COVID-19 reveal other anxieties about society: Is the disease a “black swan,” “gray rhino,” “elephant in the room?” A “silver bullet” for climate change? Do we “fight” it? Is this a “world war?” Like a “zombie apocalypse?” Every age has its disease, Susan Sontag argued; thus, Chamberlain considers how metaphors of and about COVID-19 in media reflect and amplify current cultural anxieties. In “Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians, and the Media Interact with the Public on Twitter,” Derrick Shapley and John Blumer consider exchanges in the public sphere. The chapter uses participant observation to analyze the dialogue occurring between five categories of Twitter users: QAnon, The Intellectual Dark Web, Academics, Media Sources, and Politicians. The authors examine narratives that users create on Twitter by using a sample of ten people from each category and examine how they and their followers construct narratives that enter the mainstream of Twitter concerning the coronavirus. They also analyze the linguistic conflicts and verbal engagements that occur on Twitter by examining the central debates around this virus: quarantines, the travel bans, social distancing, and legislatively enacted regulations. The authors analyze original Tweets and the discussions within the Tweets, along with re-Tweets to ascertain why certain concepts go “viral” while others do not. The work also seeks to address how “fringe” or conspiracy theories spread on this platform through an analysis of QAnon. By examining the aforementioned groups and their respective communication dynamics, the authors argue that Twitter becomes a battleground that leads to idea legitimation within certain social groups. Next, Godswill Okorobia Okiyi presents “Textual Analysis of Cartoons on Nigerian Politicians’ Reactions to COVID-19 Pandemic on Social Media Platforms.” Okiyi considers Nigerians posting cartoons of politicians and different situations related to the coronavirus pandemic in social media platforms especially Facebook and WhatsApp. Okiyi’s analysis is underpinned by a consideration of the public sphere and gratification theories. A qualitative research approach is adopted as is textual analysis of cartoons posted within a four-week period between March and April when a lockdown was ordered by the Nigerian government. Okiyi found that governments (politicians) were mocked and ridiculed, especially as they were perceived to be affected more by the coronavirus. Many Nigerians perceive governments at different levels as being corrupt and insensitive to their needs, with a resulting sense of apathy and disinterest in governments’ activities. This perception was fueled with reports of legislators not subjecting themselves to tests for COVID-19 after a trip overseas.

1  Introduction: The Rhetoric of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Investigating…


Visual Discourse Section two comprises essays that consider how images convey meaning about the COVID-19 pandemic through visual discourses. These thinkers present a broad, global view of images freely available to the public on social media platforms and search engines as well as published works in the burgeoning field of graphic medicine and essays that concentrate on specific national contexts. Visual forms may present specific challenges to audiences still developing subject matter literacy. Together, these essays build a generalized analysis of the role of visual information in presenting messages about the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Rhetoric of Visual Representations: Visualizing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Polish Media” by Karolina Glowka considers a specific national context by examining the role of COVID-19 data visualizations in shaping risk perception in Poland. Drawing on the notion of framing theory, the paper analyzes the rhetorical potential of visual data and the impact of vision on the public reaction to epidemic disease. A visual content analysis was employed to investigate different rhetorical strategies in Polish media coverage of COVID-19. Results show that data visualizations presented information focused on threats (e.g., regarding mortality rates, a lack of vaccine, a shortage of medical equipment) and advisable prevention methods that could lead to reactions of fear and uncertainty. Anu Mary Peter, Raghavi Ravi Kasthuri, and M.  K. Senthil Babu’s essay “Countering the Infodemic through Comics: COVID-19 and Graphic Medicine” continues this section with a discussion of graphic narratives. From the earliest days of the pandemic, graphic medicine helped in preparing individuals to face the crisis, by bolstering their knowledge about the pandemic through health educational comics. In many countries like Korea, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Mexico, awareness programs about COVID-19 started with the widespread circulation of a short comic by Weiman Kow on how COVID-19 spreads. The authors present close readings of recent health education comics such as Kids, Vayu & Corona by Ravindra Khaiwal, A Comic Just for Kids: Exploring the New Coronavirus by Malaka Gharib, Droplet by Agrahya Manna, Covid 19 Comics by Robyn Jordan, The Covid-19 Chronicles by Dale Fisher, and Palliative Care in the Time of Covid by Nathan Gray, among others. Peter and colleagues begin by exploring the nuances of graphic medicine and health care comics, before delving into the unique portrayals of the coronavirus outbreak using comics produced across the world as reliable sources of information and concludes by reflecting on the implications of the use of graphic medicine in garnering visibility to COVID-19, a global public health fiasco. Mykola Makhortykh, Aleksandra Urman, and Roberto Ulloa’s “This Is What Pandemic Looks Like: Visual Framing of COVID-19 on Search Engines” examines visual representation in a global context. The authors present a comparative analysis of how different search engines prioritize visual information related to COVID-19. To investigate how search algorithms visualize the pandemic in Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex, DuckDuckGo, and Baidu. The authors simulated simultaneous search activity using bots (n = 200), for the term “coronavirus” in English, Russian,


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and Chinese. They retrieved the first 50 images and then used qualitative content analysis to investigate visual frames, or recurring patterns of representation, constructed by the search algorithms. In particular, they discuss how classic news frames (e.g., the attribution of responsibility, human interest, and economics) are used in relation to COVID-19 and how their visual composition varies between the search engines. Preliminary findings indicate significant differences in the use of frames such as, for instance, less pronounced use of classic news frames in English and Russian compared with Chinese. “Advertising in the Time of COVID-19: A Thematic and Social Engagement Analysis of Branded Wins and Misses” by Margaret A.  Murphy and Grace Yiseul Choi examines advertisements and their reception during the early days of the pandemic. The authors present a rhetorical content analysis that explores key themes in advertisements during the early days of COVID-19 as actively supportive, informative, or empathetic strategic messaging, identifying “hits and misses” advertising in terms of impactful, appropriate, or tone-deaf communication. Some COVID-19 responses explored within this analysis include Geico’s “High Five” commercial, KFC’s “finger licking good” tagline, Axe’s “Don’t Overthink It” commercial, Nike’s “Just Don’t Do It” campaign, and VW’s “Thanks for Keeping Your Social Distance” commercial, along with a few light-hearted approaches such as Busch Beer’s “Foster a Dog, Get Busch” and the City of Chicago’s mayoral social distancing digital ad campaign. Within this discussion of pandemic advertising responses in the early days of this COVID-19, successful and less successful branded responses in consumer-facing media are measured via a rhetorical content analysis framework based on academic and industry professionals’ evaluations of most effective messaging strategies as well as social engagement both in terms of shared and earned media coverage. This discussion includes both recommendations for future academic investigations comparing these advertising responses to other advertisements in times of national and international crisis, as well as strategic guidance for industry professionals to consider when pre-planning branded crisis communication should another pandemic or other global crisis strike.

Pandemic Communities The essays in this section consider how communities of communication and practice grew up or were impacted by the pandemic. For instance, isolation and social distancing in connection with the COVID-19 public health emergency were represented in various discourses early in the pandemic. Factors like subject matter literacy, or even basic health literacy, impact these studies, especially insofar as they concentrate on messaging and communication of complex medical information to the general public. Moreover, these communities can function as sites of inclusivity or spaces of exclusion, demonstrating the discursive power of othering. Louise Zamparutti’s “Self-Isolation and Consubstantiality: COVID-19 Terminology and Collective Identity” considers how specific language can be used

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to establish collective identities. The chapter argues that the rapidly developing lexicon of COVID-19 terminology, including expressions such as “safer-at-home,” “self-isolation,” “shelter-in-place,” and “social distancing,” enacts a new global and cross-cultural understanding of collective identity. Applying Kenneth Burke’s theories on identification and consubstantiality to analyze the use of this new terminology across different news media channels and social media platforms in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States, Zamparutti examines how these catchphrases transform perceptions of people as individuals and as part of a global community. COVID-19 terminology enacts a unifying concept of identity and connectivity that simultaneously contradicts and is fueled by mandated physical isolation. Following Burke’s theory of consubstantiality, she argues that the experience of physical isolation is transformed into a new sense of collective identity through the act of sharing the stylistic vocabulary of COVID-19 terminology. The section continues with Abdallah Zouhairi’s essay “Personifying Coronavirus through Social Media.” In this essay, Zouhairi explores how social media users give coronavirus form and existence. The focus will be on forms of personification of coronavirus including shared texts, images, and videos. These narratives present the virus as a social, political, and a metaphysical actor instead of the limited biological category of coronavirus. Zouhairi interprets these works through an emerging literature on nonhuman entities and their relationality with humans as in the work of Donna Haraway. A possible agency for the coronavirus is addressed as marginal in social media in opposition to more sophisticated medical contents, which focus on restricting narratives about the virus to enemy status, creating a state of emergency and war. Social media offers an alternative by considering coronavirus as a nonhuman actor devoid of evil, using humor rather formal discourses. Interesting ideas and innovative approaches to understanding the agency of coronavirus as a nonhuman being may offer an alternative to the unknown enemy image in classic media. Mari Ramler’s “#StayAtHomeAndStaySafe: Social Distancing as Border Performance” uses Ono and Sloop’s idea of the border as social practice to discuss how Twitter hashtags intended to encourage specific behaviors during the pandemic operate globally. Digital maps, new policies, flight schedule changes, and entire countries on lockdown all serve as improvised performances of borders, continually drawn and redrawn as COVID-19 moves across the world. Ramler witnesses these border performances and theorizes their construction through Julia Johnson’s idea of border performance. “Social Distancing from COVID-19 by Buying Toilet Paper: Critiquing ‘Self-­ Protective’ Consumerism through Memes” by Rachel L. Carazo and Teresa S. Welsh considers how memes operate to communicate implicitly about the pandemic, reinforcing borders and social distancing. For example, the “Great Toilet Paper Panic” solicited early commentary and evaluations of Internet memes. The memes critique aspects of modern consumerism while also ultimately serving as an assessment of the apparent trend of using the conspicuous consumption of toilet paper as way to demonstrate effective social distancing. Ultimately, the authors suggest that societies should seek other methods besides buying material objects to deal with and protect themselves from the virus.


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In “Unmasking the Pandemic: Self, Other, and the Mask as a Visual Signifier of COVID-19,” Chaseten Remillard, Michelle Tsutsumi, Olaolu Adeleye, and Zhenyi Li ask how images of the COVID-19 pandemic, circulated in the Canadian public sphere, simultaneously bolster or disrupt longstanding discourses and generalizations surrounding ethnicity. They employ quantitative and qualitative analysis of images published in media reports from mainstream Canadian news sources. These images gain meaning within discursive and conventional contexts. Adeleye and colleagues triangulate coded content analysis, interpretive qualitative analysis, and socio-historic discursive contextualization to investigate how media images support the propagation of stereotypes that scapegoat or ostracize certain minority and immigrant groups. The research also demonstrates how images function as important nodes for various discursive, representational, and performative meanings. The chapter provides important insights into how contemporary Canadian society conceptualizes the connection between otherness and contagion through media images. In “Going Corona-Viral with a Bilateral Phenomenon of Laughter: Othering and Prejudice in Memes Depicting (Early) Reactions to COVID-19,” Rachel L. Carazo, Stefano Rozzoni, and Teresa S.  Welsh directly examine a series of memes that emerged early in the pandemic. The authors provide a critical analysis of memes dedicated to the early phases of the coronavirus’s spread to highlight their involvement with issues of othering and their contribution to fostering cultural prejudice in relation to the nation(s) first affected by the outbreak. By applying Morrell’s discussions of superiority and incongruity theory to this selection of memes, this research focuses on a paradox: the idea of humans’ interconnectedness deriving from the pandemic that also reinforces patterns of exclusion, xenophobia, and national stereotypes. The article organizes the memes on a chronological basis that reflects the escalation of the health emergency: first, the responses to the virus’s outbreak in China; second, comments toward the wave of the illness in Italy; and third, the early reactions involving North America, which also imply a link between Mexico and alcoholic beverages, specifically the Corona brand. As a result, this paper centers on digital memes and their expressions of cultural prejudice, which reveal a suspicion of the “other” that reflects the “unknown” nature of the virus: just like a virus carrier may be anyone or someone unaware that he or she is spreading it, the creators of these corona-memes remain anonymous while actively adding to the “bilateral” virality of this online phenomenon.

Discourses of Dissent The essays in the final section consider how different modes of disagreement and dissent were mobilized by various groups during the pandemic. A key focus among these essays is the ways in which discomfort, discontent, and a willingness to harm others played out in various media. These essays implicitly respond to many of the pandemic constructions represented in earlier chapters and engage in health

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humanities work to understand how mainstream pandemic discourses can be challenged and reimagined. Roger Chapman opens the section with “Varieties of Church Pandemic Literacy during the 1918 and 2020 Epidemics,” a study of the parallels between the Spanish Influenza and COVID-19 pandemics. The essay comprises a discourse analysis of how church leaders in both instances responded to government leaders ordering the suspension of public gatherings. Utilizing archives and newspapers and secondary sources to glean how the pandemics were explained and spiritually conceptualized, Chapman focuses on how church leaders and historians in 2020 reviewed and evaluated how churches responded to 1918. In addition, the chapter examines pertinent popular culture texts of various kinds that offer religious viewpoints in the broadest sense. Jessica Ruth Austin considers the willingness to sacrifice others in “‘Some of you may die, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make’: Memes and Social Media Critique by the UK Public in Response to COVID-19.” An analysis of the reaction to the coronavirus response in the United Kingdom through social media platforms provides an insight as to how communicating political policy can become ineffectual in the age of instant critique through memes. The UK’s strategy at that time was to allow healthier parts of the population who had a greater chance of surviving the virus to become infected and then recover. Guided by experts, the UK government believed that this was the best strategy. However, the UK public were outraged by this utilitarian approach, and on social media sites, Twitter and Facebook in particular, used memes as civic engagement and political expression. This chapter uses Whitney Phillip’s research that memes are the lingua franca of the digital native generation: memes can be effective for telling the reaction to political policy and in this case displayed an unwillingness by the UK online population to the notion of utilitarianism. In “Don’t Hold your Breath: Memes and Anxiety in Facebook COVID-19 Viral Shares,” Zoe Alderton and Tara B.M. Smith examine the trends and motives behind the circulation of incorrect viral information in the era of COVID-19 using textual analysis to note patterns in the dangerous information that people choose to share with their networks. This analysis focuses primarily on a particular social media post about the “COVID-19 breathing test,” a post that appears in the form of shared group texts and messages, Facebook tags, or status updates by concerned members of the public. The post suggests that a person at risk can determine if COVID-19 has damaged their lungs by holding their breath for 10 seconds and observing the sensation. If the act is difficult, a person has the virus. This misinformation frequently includes fallacious appeals of ethos such as “this is the advice given to hospital staff in Spain,” “experts from the Stanford Hospital Board,” “an anesthetist,” or “Taiwan experts.” The post morphs and mutates, changing subtly as it is spread through the internet. While Facebook has been efficiently deleting this material, it has proven hard to erase completely. As such, search terms like “COVID-19 breathing test” have increased exponentially since March 2020. By tracing the appeal of this content and reasons why it is trusted, this paper establishes the relationship between


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COVID-19 social media posts and illuminates the potential danger it has to the international social media community. The next essay, “Idols of COVID-19: Francis Bacon and the Pandemic of 2020” by Thomas Burkdall and Robert Sipchen, explores how identifying Sir Francis Bacon’s Idols can bolster citizens’ resistance to threats upon compromised intellectual immune systems. A decade before the Italian plague (1629–31), Bacon published his New Method of The Great Instauration. In this attempt to reform knowledge, he introduced his four Idols “that so beset men’s minds that truth can barely” enter. These “assaults” against science and knowledge continue to bedevil us as we face the plague of COVID-19. Bacon’s Idols—of the Tribe, the Cave, the Marketplace, and the Theatre—aid our understanding of politicians, pundits, and physicians who render opinions, manipulate responses, and mandate protocol in our current pandemic. Their rhetoric—both what they say and how they perceive—may be analyzed using these Renaissance ideas. Burkdall and Sipchen build on the trajectory Elrick began, resituating the current pandemic in the light of traditional knowledge and narrative formations. Kara Reilly discusses the importance of the dialectic between our now moment— what Walter Benjamin termed the jetzeit or now time—and other key moments in history when intellectual distancing was more important than social distancing. “The Epic Spectator Meets the War on the Coronavirus: Notes from the Ground from Exeter, England” uses a method called hauntological dialectic materialism. Originally coined by Jacques Derrida, hauntology is a portmanteau word combing haunting with ontology to offer readers their own toolkit for critical thinking. How do we learn to read the news media in such a way that the strange becomes familiar and the familiar becomes strange? The goal is not just distancing; it is a critical attitude that allows the epic theater spectator to survive. Reilly advocates for verfremsdungeffekt in response to meeting the virus during a period of social distancing. Not dissimilar to Freud’s notion of the unheimlich or the uncanny, the V-effekt produces a sense where what was once familiar and comfortable suddenly seems unfamiliar and disturbing.

References Aguiar M, Coelho GE, Rocha F, Mateus L, Pessanha JE, Stollenwerk N (2015) Dengue transmission during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Lancet Infect Dis 15(7):765–766. https://doi. org/10.1016/S1473-­3099(15)00073-­0 Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF (2020) The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med 26(4):450–452.­020-­0820-­9 Barthes R (1966/1977) Image-music-text (trans. Stephen Heath). Collins, Glasgow Bingle WH, Gaskell PJ (1994) Scientific literacy for decision making and the social construction of scientific knowledge. Sci Educ 78(2):185–201 Casper MJ, Berg M (1995) Constructivist perspectives on medical work: medical practices and science and technology studies: introduction. Sci Technol Hum Values 20(4):395–407. https://

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Charon R (2006) Narrative medicine: honoring the stories of illness. Oxford University Press, New York Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (2018) Narrative medicine overview.­medicine. Accessed 12 Nov 2021 Conrad P, Barker KK (2010) The social construction of illness: key insights and policy implications. J Health Soc Behav 51(S):S67–S79. Crawford P (2015) Health humanities. Palgrave, New York Dinello D (2005) Technophobia!: science fiction visions of posthuman technology. University of Texas Press, Austin Felt U, Fouché R, Miller CA, Smith-Doerr L (2017) Introduction in Felt, Fouché. In: Miller S-D (ed) The handbook of science and technology studies. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp 1–26 Frank AW (1995) The wounded storyteller: body, illness, and ethics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago Jones T, Wear D, Friedman LD (2014) Health humanities reader. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick Li F (2016) Structure, function, and evolution of coronavirus spike proteins. Annu Rev Virol 3(1):237–261.­virology-­110615-­042301 Punday D (2003) Narrative after deconstruction. State University Press, Albany Shapiro J (2012) Whither (whether) medical humanities? The future of medical humanities and arts in medical education J Learn Through Arts 8(1):n.p Shapiro J, Coulehan J, Wear D, Montello M (2009) Medical humanities and their discontents: definitions, critiques and implications. Acad Med 84(2):192–198 Sontag S (1978) Illness and its metaphors. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY The World Bank (2019) Air transport, registered carrier departures worldwide. Accessed 18 Apr 2020 Weingarten R (2015) Review of The Wounded Storyteller. Psychiatr Rehabil J 28(3):308–310 WHO (2020) WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020.­general/speeches/detail/who-­director-­general-­s-­ opening-­remarks-­at-­the-­media-­briefing-­on-­covid-­19%2D%2D-­11-­march-­2020. Accessed 13 Mar 2023 Wu F, Zhao S, Yu B, Chen Y-M, Wang W, Song Z-G, Hu Y et al (2020) A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China. Nature 579(7798):265–269. https://doi. org/10.1038/s41586-­020-­2008-­3 Zhou P, Yang Z-L, Wang X-G, Hu B, Zhang L, Zhang W, Si H-R et al (2020) A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature 579(7798):270–273.­020-­2012-­7

Part I

Political and Media Discourses: Pandemic Constructions

Chapter 2

The Rhetoric of Pandemics: Health, Politics, and the Public Amanda M. Caleb

Introduction One of the most searched terms on Google on March 11, 2020, was “pandemic,” which coincides with the World Health Organization (WHO) officially labeling COVID-19 a pandemic, despite earlier calls for the label by various media outlets and public health officials. The WHO’s delay in applying the term pandemic to COVID-19 was heavily debated leading up to and after the WHO’s declaration: speculations about the delay included financial obligations to member countries; the mishandling of the 2009 H1N1 (“swine flu”) pandemic; the appropriateness of applying influenza pandemic guidelines, which favor mitigation over containment; and the risk of public panic (Raphael 2020; Mackenzie 2020; “COVID-19” 2020). These debates expose the political and public baggage that comes with labeling disease transmission as a pandemic, which can influence the effectiveness of any public health responses. They also reveal the complexity of what the word pandemic connotes as much as what it denotes; as Kristian Bjørkdahl and Benedicte Carlsen (2019, 5) argue, “the term does not simply denote a medical phenomenon which threatens human culture and society, but rather a phenomenon which, in many unpredictable ways, already is human culture and society.” This interrelationship between disease, human culture, and society is furthered by the uncertainty of the disease itself: labeling a disease as a pandemic does not tell us more about the disease, but rather how we should understand our response to it—this understanding is complicated when applications of the word pandemic are unclear or politicized. The use of the term pandemic, then, must be viewed as an exercise in health communication, evaluated in light of its rhetoric in public health, politics, and social A. M. Caleb (*) Department of Medical Education, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, Scranton, PA, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 D. A. Vakoch et al. (eds.), COVID Communication,



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media in order to recognize the varied and wide-reaching impact of the word itself. While the term pandemic is rooted in public health, its usage is much more far reaching; moreover, the definition of the word itself is more often assumed than explicitly stated, resulting in fluid meanings of the term to suit a particular agenda. This is not to deny the reality of a pandemic by any means, but rather to suggest how complicated the labeling of pandemic is in light of the different rhetorics and modes of communication that can be applied. As such, this chapter will focus on three examples of pandemic usage to describe COVID-19 in the initial months following the declaration of a pandemic that were used to persuade within different arenas: the WHO (health), the Trump administration in the United States (politics), and social media. Understanding the range of concerns and the impact of using a public health term like pandemic offers insight into the rhetorical weight of any health term and emphasizes that these health discussions must occur in disciplines beyond medicine and public health.

The WHO and the Pandemic Definition Problem The WHO’s delay in labeling COVID-19 a pandemic is, in part, a product of backlash against their application of pandemic guidelines to H1N1 in 2009, which were the same guidelines the WHO initially recommended in combatting the coronavirus (WHO 2020). The resulting debate about language and public health preparedness shaped the decision-making in 2020 and the rhetoric used by the WHO in discussing COVID-19 and encouraged the malleability of the word pandemic. Amid concerns about the spread of H1N1, the WHO was accused of changing the definition of pandemic on their website to allow for the classification of H1N1 as a pandemic. This allegation was sparked by a CNN reporter noting that the website removed “enormous numbers of deaths and illness” from its description of a pandemic, thus simplified to “an influenza pandemic may occur when a new influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity” (Doshi 2011, 532). The WHO denied any definitional change, arguing that the statement was not a definition but a description (Lowes 2010). While the difference may seem slight—even slighter when considering Peter Doshi’s (2011, 533) labeling of the phrase as “description-definition”—the rhetorical impact is significant: definition is a precise meaning and is conceptual, whereas description is a detailed account and is perceptual. The difference, then, is that the latter allows for more flexibility of application than the former, which can lead to confusion about what is and what is not a pandemic. While some critics have argued that there is no standard definition of a pandemic and that the WHO relied on assumptions of features (Doshi 2011; Abeysinghe 2019), Heath Kelly (2011, 540) has noted that at the time, there was (and still is) a standard definition that comes from A Dictionary of Epidemiology: “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people.” The definition, as Kelly (2011) notes, is problematic, as it could include seasonal epidemics: it lacks any mention of severity and uses the word “usually,” implying exception to a major

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assumption about pandemics—that they impact a lot of people. The vagueness of the definition allows for the inclusion of a range of ongoing pandemics, but in doing so, it fails to communicate clearly and therefore can result in undervaluing (based on this definition) or overvaluing a pandemic (if the definition is not trusted). The definitional absence by the WHO is even more problematic in light of its Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response (2009) guidelines, which were first developed in 1999, revised in 2005, and are referenced as guidelines that should be applied to COVID-19 responses. The guidelines include six phases of planning for and responding to a pandemic (and two post-pandemic phases): phases 1–3 address “predominantly animal infections; few human infections”; phase 4 addresses “sustained human-to-human transmission”; phases 5–6 address “widespread human infection”; post-peak addresses the “possibility of recurrent events”; and post-­ pandemic is when “disease activity is at seasonal levels” (WHO 2009, 24). However, as noted by Sudeepa Abeysinghe (2019, 907), “for the Phases to be of any utility in circumscribing public health action, the WHO needed to provide a workable definition of the concept of ‘pandemic’ as well as to illustrate the measurable boundaries of such an event.” For instance, phase 5 is described as a “strong signal that a pandemic is imminent” and includes “sustained community level outbreaks in two or more countries in one WHO region,” which distinguishes it from phase 6, “the pandemic phase,” which includes phase 5 spread and “sustained community level outbreaks in at least one other country in another WHO region” (WHO 2009, 11). However, phase 5 is also regularly grouped with phase 6 and includes the same measures of monitoring and assessment, reducing spread, health care provisions, and communications (WHO 2009). In this blurring of phases, the signal and the existence of a pandemic are merged into one, resulting in the loss of meaning of a pandemic, and was a source of criticism of “the inadequacies of the Phases and signified the ill-defined nature of the concept of ‘pandemic’ itself” (Abeysinghe 2019, 907). Despite these criticisms, these phases and this document were still used during the COVID-19 pandemic. These inadequacies are also evident in the labeling of COVID-19 as a pandemic. The delay in moving H1N1 through the pandemic phases (and labeling it a pandemic) was in part because the WHO did not want to incite panic; as noted by WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, “in reality, it had the opposite effect” (ref 11), and countries took extreme and costly measures, “a fact that led many to wonder if public health responses to H1N1 had not been disproportionately aggressive” (Doshi 2011, 532). This concern about panic certainly framed the decision regarding COVID-19: on February 24, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (2020b) stated that “using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts, but it may certainly cause fear.” The delay in labeling COVID-19 a pandemic is again an effect of the definitional shortcomings and the indistinct boundaries of pandemic phases 5 and 6. By the WHO’s own description, COVID-19 was a pandemic as soon as the coronavirus was labeled novel and people tested positive for it in numerous countries—which could be dated to the end of January. Using the phase descriptions, however, COVID-19 only becomes a pandemic when there was evidence of


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community spread in several WHO regions, which could be dated to late February (CDC 2020a; McKeever 2020). During this period, the WHO made several statements with regard to the severity of COVID-19: on January 30, Ghebreyesus (2020a) declared COVID-19 to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), which mobilized resources and recommendations for country action; on February 24, he stated, “Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet” (Ghebreyesus 2020b). The first statement was framed by reported cases of COVID-19 in five WHO regions; the second statement was just two days before the CDC reported community spread in the United States (CDC 2020a). Much like the controversy surrounding the H1N1 pandemic label, the description of a pandemic, when applied to COVID-19, was also altered in some media briefs: in the February 24 statement, Ghebreyesus included severity in the description of a pandemic, a modification the WHO’s 2009 description (which was only removed from their website in late 2020). When the WHO finally labeled COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, Ghebreyesus’s (2020c) speech revealed further inconsistencies in operationalizing a pandemic: “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.” He emphasized the significance of the label pandemic, offering the two extremes of its misuse, and implicitly justified the WHO’s delay in using the label. However, the statement also included a continuation of existing action, which contradicts other guidelines provided by the WHO: for instance, a February 3 draft (published on February 10) of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV): Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan indicates that preparedness and response plans should be built upon existing plans, including the pandemic influence preparedness and response plan (WHO 2020), which would suggest increased action at the labeling of a pandemic. Ghebreyesus’s March 11 statement suggests the label does not change action—in which case, the label pandemic loses some of its significance and risks the very danger of underestimation to which he alludes. What these events reveal is the general challenge of when to apply the label of pandemic, particularly given the range of possible descriptions that could be utilized to make this determination. This challenge is derived from the lack of definitional distinction and phase boundaries within the WHO’s framework; it is also a product of the receiver’s implied meaning of the word pandemic: thus, in deciding to label COVID-19 a pandemic, the WHO contended with simultaneous limited and expansive language of their own descriptions and their concern about how that very language will be received and utilized.

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Pandemics in Politics: President Trump’s Response The WHO’s label of disease spread as a pandemic is arguably only as effective as the political acceptance and accountability to act: in other words, the WHO must have buy-in from government officials in order for public health measures to be enacted. With the creation of the 2009 guidelines, the WHO could label pandemic phases that provided certain actions for governments to help mitigate transmission. Government officials, however, can translate the word pandemic from its accepted definition (or description) in order to persuade the public to action or to alleviate fears—often this means amplifying pandemic to include a severity component that is not part of the WHO’s description or the public health definition. In these situations, the discontinuation of using the label pandemic, then, would imply the urgency has lessened—even if a pandemic is still ongoing. While this political rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 was evident across the globe, former US President Donald Trump’s use of the word pandemic during the first months of COVID-19 demonstrates how a definition (or description) can be altered for a specific political purpose and therefore the fragility of pandemic labeling itself. His planned public addresses regarding COVID-19 largely came from his national address on March 11, 2020, and Coronavirus Task Force press briefings (from February 29 to April 27, 2020), which were broadcast via television, radio, and the Internet. These addresses were intended for the American people and represent the clearest and most direct engagement with how to persuade US residents on responding to COVID-19. In the scripted portion of these addresses, it is evident that President Trump fluctuated on the severity of COVID-19 not because of changes in transmission or severity, but rather to suit a larger political narrative. President Trump’s first mentioning of the word pandemic in these mediums coincided with the WHO’s own labeling of COVID-19 as a pandemic. In his March 11 address to the nation, he shared that the WHO had labeled COVID-19 a pandemic and followed by saying, “we have been in frequent contact with our allies, and we are marshalling the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people” (Trump 2020a). His language indicates a severity that requires an extreme response, one that is framed in protecting Americans, and which is echoed in a number of early press briefings that imply the dangers of the pandemic to American society. The evocation of militaristic language of marshalling and allies further creates a sense of urgency and gravity that appeals to public support of political action (Laucht and Jackson 2020). Indeed, in his press briefing announcing his invocation of the Defense Production Act—a presidential power first linked to the Korean War—Trump framed this measure as part of a strategy in “our war against the Chinese virus” and referring to himself as a “wartime president” (Trump et al. 2020a). As “wartime president,” Trump declared he would be meeting “with nurses on the frontlines of the battle against the virus” and declaring that “we’re going to defeat the invisible enemy…And it will be a complete victory. It’ll be a total victory” (Trump et al. 2020a). Such militarized rhetoric situates the unfamiliar context of a pandemic within the familiar (or more comprehensible)


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context of war, but in doing so, “evokes an us/them tension that is inherently problematic” (Laucht and Jackson 2020) perpetuating a nationalistic public health that is, by its very rhetorical construction, ill-equipped to combat a global event. This rhetoric of action was repeated in press briefings that were tied to the Trump administration’s political agenda; for instance, in a March 20 briefing, President Trump used the word pandemic twice, both times in reference to deterring illegal immigration into the country, which he described as “a perfect storm […] Left unchecked, this would cripple our immigration system, overwhelm our healthcare system, and severely damage our national security” (Trump et al. 2020b). Similarly, in an April 1 press briefing, President Trump claimed links between the pandemic and drug cartels, prioritizing reports on these responses over updates on measures taken to combat coronavirus, despite the fact that the United States had the most confirmed cases globally (Trump et al. 2020c; CDC 2020b). In his remarks, Trump returned to a militarized rhetoric that indicates a multi-front war, one that justifies shifting priorities: “We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we are at war with the drug cartels as well” (Trump et al. 2020c). When combined with the word pandemic, these warnings about illegal immigration and drug cartels suggest a severity of impact beyond health itself—which allowed for President Trump to use pandemic as a cause of action on other administrative priorities. Thus, pandemic severity is seen not as merely a health threat, but rather as a social threat in terms of how it impacts related policies and structures. On the other extreme, President Trump used the press briefings to downplay the severity of the pandemic, particularly in the last weeks of the Coronavirus Task Force press briefings, which ended on April 27. In the twelve press briefings from April 8 to 27, President Trump only mentioned the word pandemic in six briefings: in four of these, he combined pandemic with epidemic (e.g., “nightmare of an epidemic or pandemic,” Trump et al. 2020d), which serves to both downplay the severity of COVID-19 (even with the adjective “nightmare”) and to situate it within a single region rather than in a global context—a shift from early claims to working with allies and a perpetuation of the us/them tension. Constructing the words as interchangeable (rather than related, as “and” would imply) destabilizes their meaning, as does Trump’s reference to COVID-19 as “anything you want to call it,” which implies an individualized view of the pandemic that undermines public health measures. This destabilization allows for further manipulation of the word’s meaning to align with political priorities—in this case, President Trump’s introduction of the phrase “epidemic or pandemic” aligns with his push to reopen the US economy (Trump et al. 2020d). These brief examples from President Trump’s public and planned addresses demonstrate a deliberate use of the word pandemic to suit political needs. The manipulation of the word pandemic, whether to enhance severity for a related issue or to downplay the ongoing threat, can impact how individuals receive the message about the pandemic and how they understand the word itself. President Trump’s announcement to terminate the United States’ membership in the WHO on May 29 further complicated the message about the pandemic: Trump’s claims that “This pandemic has underscored the crucial importance of building up America’s

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economic independence, reshoring our critical supply chains and protecting America’s scientific and technological advances” moves away from the global implications of the pandemic and its impact on health to a focus on nationalism (Trump 2020b). Trump’s remarks indicate an isolationist approach to a global threat that was already redefined by the President’s rhetoric.

Social Media Engagements with #Pandemic The physical restrictions of shelter-in-place and quarantine during COVID-19 led individuals to turn toward technology, especially social media, as a means of staying in contact with not just friends and family but also the wider world. This reliance on social media can be problematic, contributing to misinformation and a distrust of public health and its guidelines (Limaye et al. 2020; Bjørkdahl and Druglitrø 2019); during the COVID-19 pandemic, this resulted in Twitter introducing warning labels for misleading information (Roth and Pickles 2020). However, social media can also be a means of sharing experiences that lessen the isolation and create a sense of global reach and connectedness through the creation of digital publics. This use of social media—particularly hashtags— is part of network framing that shapes our understanding of an event through community creation and contextualization of an event, including the personal experience; adding a hashtag to a social media post connects individuals beyond their followers (Hermida 2017). Hashtags transcend boundaries through their searchability and their intended purpose of bringing ideas together—national, political, professional, medical, communicative—but their phrasing can also create these very boundaries in an us/them tension. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant growth in hashtag use, serving to disseminate information (or misinformation), connect people, and to provide an expressive outlet (Vaishali and Rukmini 2021). The rise of #Pandemic demonstrates a borrowing from public health terminology to everyday language, marking the lived experience of a pandemic and allowing for adoptability and adaptability in the application of the term pandemic (Al-Azzawi and Haleem 2021). Through #Pandemic (and related hashtags), the concept of pandemic is reimagined singularly and collectively in the (con)text shared with the hashtag: what is considered #Pandemic can go beyond the health definition (or description) to label the lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and pandemics more broadly, which can be both beneficial to community building and dangerous in the spread of misinformation. Some pandemic hashtags were a means of bringing people together and validating both the pandemic and the isolation associated with it. For instance, #MyPandemicSurvivalPlan became an avenue for individuals to recognize the severity of the pandemic and particularly the need to stay home and to share daily activities and planned projects, often with some humor, but almost always with a focus on reassuring social media users of a shared experience. Similarly, #PandemicBaking (and the related #PandemicCooking) allowed individuals to


A. M. Caleb

share baking triumphs and failures, often with a focus on the newness of baking for users who have not done so before or have not done so for a while. Cooking and baking during the pandemic were means for people to feel productive and to reduce some of the anxiety about the pandemic itself (Chittal 2020); sharing these baking experiences was simultaneously a reminder of the limitations and opportunities during a pandemic and a sense of global connectedness. Cooking also served as a “safe nostalgia,” an opportunity to connect to family, to memories, and to a past reliance on cooking that has been replaced, for some, by a reliance on prepared meals (Stokes and Atkins-Sayre 2022). #PandemicBaking and #PandemicCooking shifted the person nostalgia to a communal one, creating a space for collective resiliency (Stokes and Atkins-Sayre 2022). In redefining the pandemic through these hashtags, individuals represented it as both insulating—a conflation of the event and the response—and communal through this sharing of information. Hashtags have the power to bring people together and to disseminate information, but in doing so, they can undermine public health authority and ultimately the meaning of a pandemic. Such is the case with #Plandemic (and related #Scamdemic and #PandemicHoax), a hashtag that emerged on January 24, 2020, and influenced a conspiracy video by the same name that appeared on May 4, 2020, on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms—and ultimately refueled the use of #Plandemic (Kearney et al. 2020). The creation of the portmanteau “plandemic” questions the natural occurrence and existence of the pandemic by combining the meaning of the original words plan and pandemic. Given the variability of pandemic meaning in its application, the portmanteau accentuates this instability by suggesting that it was a plan discovered by individuals who used the hashtag—in other words, not a very good plan or effective pandemic. The hashtag perpetuated false information, but it did so by modifying the word pandemic in attempt to not only discredit the existence of the pandemic but also the meaning of the word itself with regard to COVID-19.  Patterns in #Plandemic use shifted in response to the conspiracy film: before its release, it was tied to undermining the severity of coronavirus, likening it to the seasonal flu, and broad claims of COVID-19 conspiracies; after May 4, the hashtag was used to focus on coronavirus as a manufactured issue and vilifying specific figures, most notably Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci (Kearney et al. 2020). This shift in focus created a sense of community among the #Plandemic users and perpetuated an us/them tension by positioning the hashtag user against leaders in public and global health. This tension was further by users who encouraged individuals to do their own research about the pandemic and find their own evidence of a fake pandemic (Nazar and Pieters 2021). Such an effort, however, risks undermining the communal aspect of #Plandemic by inviting multiple, competing descriptions of a pandemic. While these examples may seem small in comparison to the use of pandemic in health and political rhetoric, they demonstrate how individuals understood their experience of a pandemic, which defines it beyond that of health or politics. The use and modification of #Pandemic is unique in the social media response to COVID-19 because it does not specify the disease or virus, but rather focuses on the notion of a pandemic itself (rather than #COVID19). In this regard, these hashtags are an

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expansion of historical journaling about plague experiences: they chronicle daily lives, but they also connect individuals who share a similar view and/or experience of the pandemic and not just the disease. Such usage does not come without risk of misinformation, but it also moves the meaning of pandemic beyond the level of population health to its impact on even those who have not experienced the disease directly and allow for some certainty in an uncertain time.

The Uncertainty of Pandemic The different uses of the word pandemic in health, politics, and social media suggest the malleability of the word, even as groups and individuals assume an accepted meaning. While on the surface this may not matter much—as Dr. Juan Dumois notes, “it’s really just a matter of semantics” when used by the WHO (McDonnell 2020)—the meaning does matter in how the public views and responds to a pandemic, whether through a sense of severity or national interests, trust or distrust, or community or isolation. The instability of the word pandemic is in part because of its roots in uncertainty regarding the very disease it describes, which is entangled with political, communicative, and even linguistic uncertainty (Bjørkdahl and Carlsen 2019). Thus, social and rhetorical constructions of pandemic abound, with connections to the health definition (or description), but with meanings that can serve entities other than public health. As such, there is need for constant attention to how pandemics are represented (linguistically and practically) and how groups and individuals respond with their own constructions—not to undermine the experts by any means, but rather to recognize the reception of meaning in communications that complicate the work of public health. Bjørkdahl and Carlsen (2019, 6) argue that “a pandemic becomes a pandemic only because the disease is new, but culture and politics moves at least as fast as nature, so that, by the time a new disease looms, we do not just have a new disease to deal with, we also have to deal with the new society that has emerged since the previous pandemic.” These changes and entanglements demonstrate how pandemics are socially and political constructed, even in the face of health data. As such, there is need for attention to how pandemics are represented (linguistically and practically) and how groups and individuals respond with their own constructions to recognize the reception of meaning in communications that complicates the work of public health.

References Abeysinghe S (2019) Global health governance and pandemics: uncertainty and institutional decision-making. In: Bjørkdahl K, Carlsen B (eds) Pandemics, publics, and politics: staging responses to public health crises. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, pp 11–28


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Al-Azzawi QO, Haleem HA (2021) “Do you speak Corona?”: hashtags and neologisms since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Int J Linguist Lit Transl 4(4):113–122. https://doi. org/10.32996/ijllt.2021.4.4.12 Bjørkdahl K, Carlsen B (2019) Introduction to pandemics, publics, and politics: staging responses to public health crises. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, pp 1–9 Bjørkdahl K, Druglitrø T (2019) When authority goes viral: digital communication and health expertise on In: Bjørkdahl K, Carlsen B (eds) Pandemics, publics, and politics: staging responses to public health crises. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore, pp 75–91 CDC (2020a, February 26) CDC confirms possible instance of community spread of COVID-19 in U.S.­ Covid-­19-­spread.html. Accessed 29 May 2020 CDC (2020b, May 18) Previous U.S. COVID-19 case data. coronavirus/2019-­ ncov/cases-­updates/previouscases.html. Accessed 5 June 2020 Chittal N (2020, March 27) Quarantine cooking is about more than just feeding yourself. Vox.­goods/2020/3/27/21195361/quarantine-­recipes-­cooking-­baking-­ coronavirus-­bread. Accessed 6 June 2020 COVID-19, A pandemic or not? (2020) Lancet Infect Dis 20(4):383. doi: S1473-­3099(20)30180-­8 Doshi P (2011) The elusive definition of pandemic influenza. Bull World Health Organ 89(7):532–538. Ghebreyesus TA (2020a, January 30) WHO Director-General’s statement on IHR emergency committee on novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).­ director-­general-­s-­statement-­on-­ihr-­ emergency-­committee-­on-­novel-­coronavirus-­(2019-­ ncov). Accessed 29 May 2020 Ghebreyesus TA (2020b, February 24) WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19.­director-­general-­s-­ opening-­remarks-­at-­the-­media-­briefing-­on-­covid-­1924-­february-­2020#:~:text=Using%20 the%20word%20pandemic%20now,individuals%20to%20focus%20on%20preparing. Accessed 29 May 2020 Ghebreyesus TA (2020c, March 11) WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19.­director-­general-­s-­opening-­ remarks-­at-­the-­media-­briefing-­on-­covid-­1911-­march-­2020. Accessed 29 May 2020 Hermida A (2017) Twitter, breaking the news, and hybridity in journalism. In: Franklin B, Eldridge SA (eds) The Routledge companion to digital journalism studies. Routledge, London, pp 407–416 Kearney MD, Chiang SC, Massey PM (2020) The twitter origins and evolution of the COVID-19 “plandemic” conspiracy theory. Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review 3(1).­2020-­42. Accessed 4 June 2021 Kelly H (2011) The classical definition of a pandemic is not elusive. Bull World Health Organ 89(7):540–541. Laucht C, Jackson ST (2020, April 24) Soldiering a pandemic: the threat of militarized rhetoric in addressing Covid-19. History and Policy.­articles/ articles/soldiering-­a-­pandemic-­the-­threat-­of-­militarized-­rhetoric-­in-­addressing-­covid-­19. Accessed 29 May 2020 Limaye RJ, Sauer M, Ali J, Berstein J, Wahl B, Barnhill A, Labrique A (2020) Building trust while influencing online COVID-19 content in the social media world. Lancet Digit Health 2(6):E277–E278.­7500(20)30084-­4 Lowes R (2010, June 8) WHO says failure to disclose conflict of interests of pandemic advisors was an “oversight.” Medscape, Accessed 29 May 2020 Mackenzie D (2020, February 26) Covid-19: why won’t the WHO officially declare a coronavirus pandemic? New Scientist.­covid-­19-­why-­ wont-­the-­who-­officially-­declare-­a-­coronavirus-­pandemic/. Accessed 1 June 2020

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McDonnell T (2020, March 5) Coronavirus is now technically a “pandemic”—here’s why that matters. Quartz.­coronavirus-­technically-­a-­pandemic-­does-­that-­ matter/. Accessed 6 June 2020 McKeever A (2020, March 11) Coronavirus is officially a pandemic. Here’s why that matters National Geographic.­coronavirus-­ could-­become-­pandemic-­and-­why-­it-­matters/#close. Accessed 1 June 2020 Nazar S, Pieters T (2021) Plandemic revisited: a product of planned disinformation amplifying the COVID-19 “infodemic”. Front Public Health 9:649930. fpubh.2021.649930 Raphael T (2020, February 27) Why the WHO won’t call the coronavirus a pandemic. Bloomberg Opinion.­02-­27/coronoavirus-­why-­the-­ who-­won-­t-­call-­covid-­19-­a-­pandemic. Accessed 1 June 2020 Roth Y, Pickles N (2020, May 11) Updating our approach to misleading information. Twitter.­our-­approach-­to-­misleading-­ information.html. Accessed 6 June 2020 Stokes A, Atkins-Sayre W (2022) Coping through COVID cooking: nostalgia and resilience in online communities. Pop Cult Stud J 10(1):8–30 Trump DJ (2020a, March 11) Remarks by President Trump in address to the nation. White House.­statements/remarks-­president-­trump-­address- ­ nation. Accessed 4 June 2021 Trump DJ (2020b, May 29) Remarks by President Trump on actions against China. White House [issued on 30 May].­statements/remarks-­ president-­trump-­actions-­china. Accessed 4 June 2021 Trump DJ et al (2020a, March 18) Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and members of the coronavirus task force in press briefing. White House. https://trumpwhitehouse.­statements/remarks-­president-­trump-­vice-­president-­pence-­members-­ coronavirus-­task-­force-­press-­briefing-­5. Accessed 4 June 2021 Trump DJ et al (2020b, March 21) Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and members of the coronavirus task force in press briefing White House. https://trumpwhitehouse.­statements/remarks-­president-­trump-­vice-­president-­pence-­members-­ coronavirus-­task-­force-­press-­briefing-­7. Accessed 4 June 2021 Trump DJ et al (2020c, April 1) Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and members of the coronavirus task force in press briefing. White House. https://trumpwhitehouse.­statements/remarks-­president-­trump-­vice-­president-­pence-­members-­ coronavirus-­task-­force-­press-­briefing-­15. Accessed 4 June 2021 Trump DJ et al (2020d, April 13) Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and members of the coronavirus task force in press briefing. White House [released 14 April]. https://­statements/remarks-­president-­trump-­vice-­president-­ pence-­members-­coronavirus-­task-­force-­press-­briefing-­25/. Accessed 4 June 2021 Vaishali VS, Rukmini S (2021). Hashtags in linguistic anthropology: a COVID-19 case study. Angles 12: online. Accessed 4 June 2022 WHO (2009) Pandemic influenza preparedness and response: a WHO guidance document. World Health Organization, Geneva. Accessed 29 May 2020 WHO (2020) 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV): strategic preparedness and response plan. World Health Organization, Geneva.­ preparedness-­and-­response-­plan-­for-­ the-­new-­coronavirus. Accessed 29 May 2020

Chapter 3

Rhetorical Media Devices and COVID-19: Comparing U.S. News and Social Media Responses to National Events Since 9/11 Kathy Elrick

In March 2020, U.S. states posted “shelter-in-place” orders to help stop the spread of COVID-19. At that time, there was no vaccine; to minimize the transmission and spread of the coronavirus, states ordered people to stay at home. The order would not save infected people, but it was generally projected to “flatten the curve,” or not overburden hospital resources with a spike of extra cases. However, states ended up enacting the quarantine lockdown not simply as a health measure but as a reaction toward both lack of federal congressional aid and a hostile president. President Trump had disregarded federal pandemic preparation from the Obama administration (Diamond and Toosi 2020), the federal pandemic preparedness team had been laid off and disbanded in 2018 (Palma 2020), and federal stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) were not replenished from H1N1 in 2009 (Sherman 2020). And instead of seeking out new sources of PPE, President Trump let states compete for what was left in a “bidding war” (Lara et al. 2020). In relation to the shelter-in-place orders, by April, the first wave of “lockdown protests” were happening across the country. These protesters challenged the legal validity of the states’ orders, were often equipped with personal artillery, and very few of them wore masks or practiced social distancing. Yet this narrative only explains one thread of the larger political situation at the beginning of the pandemic and how it was explained by the news and social media. The broader COVID-19 situation is also contextualized by pervasive systemic inequalities. For example, the coronavirus heightened already high tensions around the cost of health care, the lack of job stability, people living paycheck to paycheck with little to no savings for the long-term, and minimum wage not being a living wage. Soon after shelter-in-place orders went into effect, over 22 million people filed for unemployment (Horsley 2020) and were unable to pay rent; food insecurity K. Elrick (*) Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 D. A. Vakoch et al. (eds.), COVID Communication,



K. Elrick

was exacerbated by cuts in supply chains (Gibbens 2020); factories shut down from sick workers. And, by the last week of May 2020, three Black individuals—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—were killed, the latter two by police. The reports of these killings set off a second wave of protests starting the last week of May, exacerbated by the already tense situation the lockdowns were uncovering. The way each of these lockdown protests alone were investigated (or not) and reported by news and social media echoes how U.S. news has historically reported large-scale national events. This chapter will discuss some of those echoes, including how specific events like 9/11 used familiar narratives, word choice, and tropes, or what will be referred to as rhetorical media devices as explored in rhetoric scholar Kenneth Burke’s posthumous work, War of Words. These devices work much like playing a string-instrument—when you place your fingers on the string and fingerboard to create the right pitch, the other hand plucks or bows the string to make a sound. In this analogy, the device sets the pitch, and the provided situational context produces the sound we hear. Journalism, media studies, and political science often discuss the similar concepts of framing and agenda-setting, but Burke’s devices capture how specific events are used as tropes to make narratives resonate, or rather, reverberate. In this chapter, I will explore devices in relation to these historical resonances and how they relate to the COVID-19 situation as part of our pandemic literacy.

Devices, 9/11, Cable News, and COVID-19 The 24/7 cable news style is fueled by narratives that drive a permanent sense of alert. Regardless of perspective or specific style of a network, there is an adrenaline rush, there is emotion—specifically fear. The underlying narrative of that fear is that we are at war or facing conflict. In War of Words, Kenneth Burke discussed the conflict-based theme as a central feature in his devices. Polite language and actions would somewhat disguise real actions taking place, or the intent of the actions, among political leaders, journalists, and even neighbors. The purpose of that communication was generally to undermine another person and/or throw them off the scent of what was actually happening. Burke further explained a root of that conflict-­ theme and its importance in his review of the first English translation of Mein Kampf in Burke’s “Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle.” Burke argued readers should not just dismiss Hitler’s work as propaganda, but rather read it like literature to further unravel implications in narrative structure and word choice (Burke 2000). Burke’s analytical lens of words as indicators for Hitler’s intent mirrors Burke’s devices later described in War of Words. While the journalist’s motive, position, and situation differ from Hitler or politicians in general, journalists use narrative structure and conflict-themed narratives to impact their audience. Journalists’ narratives are driven by context and application, which are what make Burke’s devices work (Burke 2018). The devices need to be situated in some event or explained through particularly context-heavy

3  Rhetorical Media Devices and COVID-19: Comparing U.S. News and Social Media…


relationships. For cable news, 9/11 offered a dense set of pathos, and politicians would use the event label as its own cliché long after the fact. When 9/11 happened, technology and social media were still in their infancy, but cable news utilized the exigence of 9/11 to cultivate a style of alert-narrative through repetitive headlines, ingratiating narrative cycles through repetition and talking points, new graphics such as the continuous tickertape at the bottom of the screen, and continuous coverage of a central topic. Due to the various kinds of repetition, the alert-narratives did not do so much to inform as to saturate. While intense, longer news events existed before—such as coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the O.J.  Simpson trial in 1995, or the Clinton impeachment trial in 1998—9/11 was jarring and unnerving and became the springboard for multiple war-based narratives under the Bush administration. The cable news’ fear-based, alert-narrative style ended up dovetailing with the Bush administration. At that time, journalistic compliance was a sign of nationalistic duty, and together the two estates set the agenda and stalemated dissenting arguments. Relating to the 9/11 example of patriotic jargon, Kenneth Burke’s devices further support that patriotic narratives and specific word choice can be used to frame the zeitgeist. Some nationalistic language includes terms like hero, as communications scholar Michael Hyde explains surrounding the rhetorical context of 9/11. The people who died that day were not soldiers in a known war. They were people who had been caught unaware; they had no intent to be a hero. From the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, we heard that war wording. Doctors and other essential workers were framed as heroes, at the frontlines, in a warzone, going to battle. It is a narrative of sacrifice relating to being in military service, not trying to save lives or work at the grocery store. Doctors have explained that they do not see themselves as soldiers, or that at least the narrative is problematic as it shuts off the very human side of living in an RV instead of your own home (Faith 2020). However, we still repeat these narratives. During events of upheaval, national unrest, and uncertainty, we use what information we have and look to who is speaking. If possible, we seek out people or public personalities that we know and have some sense of trust in their message. Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci named those people intellectuals. Intellectuals give us the narrative we will accept or work with. They direct what we talk about. Intellectuals are actors at the heart of agenda-setting, where the public follows the line of argument laid out by those in power, but usually who we listen to are journalists. While we can focus on politicians, journalists are the intermediaries between the public and politicians. Particularly in the 24/7 model of cable news, journalists play a part in contributing to and upholding audience bias. FOX News hosts reflected and amplified President Trump’s anti-China sentiment over the origins of COVID-19 in early March 2020 (Chiu 2020), and after conservative news outlets in general espoused anti-Asian sentiment during the same period, anti-Asian violence reportedly rose 800 percent (Yam 2020). What intellectuals do, or how they deliver their message, is influenced by their intent or what are they trying to do with the narrative they provide. In From Cronkite to Colbert, communications scholar Geoffrey Baym explains the cable news model


K. Elrick

of journalist as post-modern with commercial interests and a relativistic attitude. Journalism, but specifically cable news, has shifted away from a “high modern” style in which anchors were the intellectuals who reflected the standard of objectivity and attempted neutrality. However, this period of the high modern style has not historically been the norm of journalism; journalism’s history includes mudslinging, propaganda, and yellow journalism. The application of objectivity also is problematic, regardless of the ideal or perceived intention. Journalist and satirist Molly Ivins explained throughout her speaking career how objectivity is still based on certain parties’ concept of what objectivity is or means (2019). Ivins’ sentiment echoes Burke’s point about selective information sharing by journalists (2018): objective narratives while stating facts may not tell all the facts, or they will omit certain parts of the narrative; thus, they will lack transparency and accountability. A main reason we still cling to the ideal of objectivity has more to do with the application of facts, or at least using facts at all. During the high modern time, fact-­ checking was not an additional or extracted step from reporting. Part of that pattern is directly related to organization of who does what regarding a story, speed of when the story needs to be reported, and intent. By post-modern cable news outsourcing fact-checking, journalists can spend more time proffering the alert-narrative, which is heavily based on speed and immediacy. Alternatively, sources like,, and can be more efficient with research—staff writers and researchers with scholastic and journalistic experience can focus primarily on investigation and multiple perspectives cultivating research.

Journalistic Devices and Cognitive Bias During COVID-19, journalists have used their alert-narrative to heighten existing tensions as well as conflate political relations among governors, congress members, and the president. While on the surface few professional clashes are instigated by journalists—even against a president who openly mocked and derided any journalist—this situation itself is where devices show through. On one side of the situation, journalists’ fraught relationships with politicians have provided a narrative of the importance of journalists when they offer facts if not some semblance of objectivity or its ethos. On another side, journalistic style focuses on specific stories and soundbites; this is partly logical fallacy, partly motive, but definitely a device. Devices depend on information such as what journalists report or do not report, like when journalists shame politicians with evidence of victims and suffering. For a specific example, let us explore a device that would encompass how the press covers conflicts between different heads of state during the Hurricane Katrina crisis, a situation where states lacked infrastructure and had immediate needs for resources and federal assistance, not unlike the PPE issue mentioned earlier. During Katrina and its aftermath in 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and President Bush were slow to respond to the situations of: immediate need for rescue and resources, the long-term impact of not getting help

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soon enough or getting aid for clean-up, the pre-existing issues of economic inequality, impact on a predominantly Black community, and a federal levee system that should have been repaired long before the hurricane. While all three authorities failed in their duty to their constituents, Mayor Nagin served jail time for bribery. Main stories revolved around how Nagin did not evacuate when he could have, Gov. Blanco was responding to President Bush with form letters, and Bush cultivated largely nepotistic hires to lead departments like FEMA. This description of these three officials provides a limited snapshot of what was reported, but it is a familiar narrative of interest cable news will come back to. Journalists will also distract from their own participation of agenda setting by focusing on the administration and the actions of the administration after the initial event. In Covering Disaster, editors Ralph Izard and Jay Perkins point out the focus on rumors, gossip, and unverified information that was reported of Hurricane Katrina, but particularly its aftermath. The information was available, but not necessarily credible; the 24/7 model of news reported first rather than reflected upon the impact of journalists’ coverage, narrative, or lack of correct information. For the COVID-19 pandemic, 24/7 news has repeated information from the Trump administration as well as reported from politicians more often than scientists (Hart et al. 2020); and audiences of conservative media outlets in March of 2020, including FOX News, were told that that the novel coronavirus was a hoax (Crothers 2020). FOX News is often singled out for partisan bias, but news outlets overall have used hype-over-substance as a device to build intrigue. Take the example of cable news and news outlets reporting of Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation into President Trump’s involvement with Russia over the 2016 election, which provides more context behind various journalists’ bias and lack of detachment. MSNBC, CNN, and other print news outlets who were not pro-Trump closely followed the federal investigation over Russian involvement and the Mueller Report over two years. Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi explained how cable news gave Trump a pedestal but also made him a scapegoat for journalists in the article “It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD: The Iraq war faceplant damaged the reputation of the press. Russiagate just destroyed it.” Taibbi’s argument lays in the initial device of how journalists were complicit to the Bush administration’s narrative during the invasion of Iraq. While journalists did not have to personally agree with the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) narrative, those in the major cable news networks did not publicly counter it and they continued to cover the narrative due to its drama and alert-hype. Taibbi establishes the fervor of the one-note news narrative-campaign of the Mueller investigation, which makes a particularly poignant model of the WMD example of device; because as a device, you can see how journalists’ intent shifts the narrative focus from being pro-nationalism with Bush, to being pro-patriotism against Trump. This shift of narrative under the device unveils a device’s potential irony, or the device’s ability to function in different contexts. During the Bush administration, satirists on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report used irony to parody journalists by locating and exploiting devices. Stewart, Colbert, and the comedian correspondents amplified absurd systemic issues and language as well as


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how information was being framed. For example, after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, Stewart broke down narratives from FOX News that defended the police: “Yes. Describing the actual facts of the case really does color the way we look at it. White cop shoots unarmed Black teen does sound terrible.” Journalists’ perspective impact news narratives, which is part of why the issue of intent and ethos becomes more complicated. Communications scholars Zhong and Newhagen (2009) list several communication studies that have considered the effect of intent on decision-making parts of crafting stories since before 9/11, as well as in more recent context. The study points to how journalists are not always trained for situations or prepped with all the facts—like how to talk about human rights (Reilly 2018)—and that lack of training, in both content and how to process the information, influence how often we hear rumors and conspiracy theories without fact-­ checking first, if at all. In the beginning, in the of stories about COVID-19 cases in the U.S., xenophobic rumors and conspiracy theories about crafting the coronavirus in a lab in Wuhan, China, circulated on major news outlets before they were shut down. The president even refused to call COVID-19 by its proper name and instead created a racial-slur. Defense Secretary Michael Pompeo seconded the conspiracy theory of the coronavirus being made in a lab. Collectively, instead of questioning why these slurs were used or explaining a bigger context behind the sensationalistic tropes, 24/7 cable news focused on and repeated these narratives. Journalists can shift the narrative simply by running the story or not, but they can also shift the perspective of the issue at hand by accepting the premise set by their subject or changing the premise to reflect the larger situation at hand. In this case, the 24/7 cable news model promoted hype over substance by airing, headlining, and repeating sensationalistic statements like Pompeo’s rather than examining context that would negate the statement’s amplified import. Lack of journalistic training for scientific reporting and sticking to tools like repetition demonstrate holes in narrative adaptability outside of the conflict-theme, even though there has been plenty of scientific reporting before. Communications scholar Thomas Listerman pointed out ways in which news covered biotechnology in Germany and the U.S.A. before 2001, providing models that demonstrated peaks of interest and duration of the public’s attention span. Part of why there was a story depended on why the public was supposedly interested. Some central figure to explain what was going on, as well as how they explained the topic to the larger public, would impact how many people watched: an intellectual. At the time of the two COVID-19 lockdown examples, both Dr. Anthony Fauci and Governor Andrew Cuomo fit this model. Journalists also had to contend with the speed and impact of social media. During the COVID-19 crisis, scientific information has been difficult to separate from the conspiratorial theories due to the issues of real time empirical research versus the speed and amount of misinformation being posted. While it is important to note that the scientific community has worked together on a global scale as we’ve never seen before—and with speed, resources, and united goal—it’s still difficult to combat the amplification of misinformation on social media. The World Health Organization reportedly attempted to flood social media with “myth buster” infographics in 2020

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and was able to reduce some of the impact of misinformation at the time (Vraga and Bode 2021).

Rhetorical Exhaustion, Trolls, and Social Media Irony Amplification of information on social media is a means of rhetorical exhaustion or using intense repetition as a means of drowning out or “tiring out” competing perspectives or narratives. Amplification helps to explain why social media like Twitter has been a feeding ground for political operatives. Scholar Jonathan Bradshaw points out how Russian interference in the 2016 election not only infiltrated pro-­ Trump groups, but they also used amplification in an extreme tactic of “rhetorical exhaustion,” where they would wear down a target—in this case, Black communities. The effect was cynicism and disengagement, based on AI and foreign influence rather than any real engagement with a U.S. Trump supporter. In a study about the spread of false news via Twitter, Vosoughi et  al. (2018) researched how quickly and easily new information spread, regardless of its truth factor; the type of information that spread the fastest from their categories was false political news. People share information they do not necessarily agree with or like, they may even share that more. The effect is similar to the intent behind how people do not always vote for a candidate they like, but rather vote against the other one. Entities on social media like bots, trolls, or people who disguise their intentions, especially political intentions, use devices built off the premises fostered by cable news. The easiest to construct come from the larger events like fear from 9/11, various narratives from lies and the argument for WMD, or easy to target infrastructure and government scapegoats. Using a demagogue is an easy way to engage audiences, enrage them, or disengage them. Currently, audiences try to figure out who to listen to for news, partly to find alternatives to over-saturation of alert-narratives, conflict-narratives, or narratives that repeat conspiracy theories that go unverified for just long enough to hurt the journalist or news organization’s credibility. Or, if the audience is on social media, part of why they keep looking is to figure out who is trolling or not. Trolling here is not simply lying or being mean to someone else, such as rhetorical exhaustion, but rather plays into irony and flows along the line of Harry Frankfurt’s argument in “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt echoes Kenneth Burke’s polemics about intent, and how intent drives the way messages are framed. We can never directly contrive what a person is thinking, but we can see a bigger picture, or rhetorical situation, based upon what events, people, acts, and settings are involved. Trolls, bots, and external agents of the situation attempt to shape the discussion through actions that lean into biases which, in these situations, are mostly far-right ideologies that exhibit extremist claims and occasionally incite or plan terrorist behaviors. Social media “bullshit” can be used for good, especially considering power struggles, including live protests. An example during the George Floyd


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protests is where Internet-famed “hacktivist” Anonymous flooded pro-Trump hashtags with K-pop content. Social media is not easily understood because of the quirky senses of reference, interests, and irony. The irony of social media is terribly specific to each platform, where conversations will make no sense if you try to use similar applications or concepts from Facebook to TikTok if users are not aware of, or like, both. Cable news, while often on several social media applications, does not consider the nuances besides whether information needs to be fact-checked, or sense of irony and intent of the content. For example, cable news has turned to using social media as a kind of “man on the street” poll, which is not only worse than a political soundbite for lack of context, but out of touch with the audience (McGregor 2019).

Discussion Since the rhetorical impact of the beginning of COVID-19 has waned and we have multiple vaccines, the situation has changed, but the impact of the devices over the long-narrative remains. Amplification, Trump as a scapegoat, journalistic biases from multiple perspectives, and journalism’s conflict-narratives have challenged the public’s trust or ability to see facts from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as of 2022, CNN has stopped using its breaking news tickertape because they found it was being ignored. Devices would shift if cable news particularly, but journalism as a whole—as well as social media—tackled regulation and standards on misinformation. Journalists who have worked to shift the public discourse to social inequities in the beginning of the pandemic have been targets of violence, particularly surrounding the George Floyd protests. Journalists were openly tear-gassed and shot at, and a Black CNN correspondent was arrested for just being at a protest. But there have also been more reports of both protesters and specifically Black people being harassed, with several more fatalities after the protests began. At the time, Rep. Tom Cotton also wrote a pro-fascist op-ed in The New York Times; it was recalled, but the editorial decision about running it at all was publicly questioned by Black journalists who spoke up about their safety. The editor who ran the piece later resigned. Science reporting and publications have offered alternative narratives to cable news devices by explaining coronavirus findings in real time as well as holding journalists accountable for COVID-19 misinformation (Hart et  al. 2020). Social media has galvanized and made public the interaction among scientific communities worldwide in the race for a vaccine. However, empirical information straight from research requires translation to the public, and it also does not easily translate to common journalists’ devices. As mentioned earlier, the reporting would not simply be teaching journalists science, but how to explain science in the frame of news or a device. This is why pulling in other intellectuals like Dr. Fauci was a good start, but it did not change the impact on the inflamed conflict-theme audience. There is a

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drive to establish concrete truths, to dismiss that which they do not already believe or know, but mostly they’re oversaturated by their intellectuals’ messages. In a sense, what the scientists have done by offering their work publicly is to challenge the cable news devices. Additionally, the George Floyd protests counter cable news’s devices by continuing to fact check, to call out false stories, and flip scripts through trolling, much like The Daily Show did in the 2000s and early 2010s. The alternative interfaces social media offer to interact with events that drive the news cycle could potentially balance out the agenda-setting power of 24/7 cable news post-modern journalism model. However, even though social media more efficiently uses irony and context than current cable news, we need to continue to reflect upon the influence of conflict-themed narratives as imbedded in those contexts across media overall.

References Baym G (2010) From Cronkite to Colbert: the evolution of broadcast news. Paradigm Publishers, Boulder Bradshaw JL (2020) Rhetorical exhaustion & the ethics of amplification. Comput Compos 56:1–14. Accessed 8 June 2020 Burke K (2000) Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle. In: The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd edn. University of California Press, Berkley Burke K (2018) War of words. University of California Press, Berkley Crothers B (2020) Top Coronoavirus Myths, Hoaxes, and Scams. FOX News. https://www.­coronavirus-­myths-­hoaxes-­scams. Accessed 28 Mar 2023 Chiu A (2020, March 19) ‘China has blood on its hands’: Fox News hosts join Trump in blame-­shifting. The Washington Post. coronavirus-­fox-­news-­china/. Accessed 15 Sept 2022 Diamond D, Toosi N (2020, March 25) Trump team failed to follow NSC’s Pandemic playbook. Politico.­coronavirus-­national-­security-­ council-­149285. Accessed 9 June 2020 Faith A (2020, April 10) Doctors and nurses are heroes on-duty, ‘Lepers’ Off-Duty. MedicineNet. Accessed 9 June 2020 Frankfurt H (2009) On bullshit. Princeton University Press, Princeton Gibbens S (2020, May 19) These 5 Foods Show How Coronavirus Disrupted Supply Chains. National Geographic.­19-­ disrupts-­complex-­food-­chains-­beef-­milk-­eggs-­produce/. Accessed 9 June 020 Gramsci A (1992) Selections from the prison notebooks. International Publishers, New York Hart PS, Chinn S, Soroka S (2020) Politicization and polarization in COVID-19 news coverage. Sci Commun 42:679–697. Accessed 15 Sept 2022 Horsley S (2020, April 16) Over 22 million file for unemployment in 4 weeks. NPR. https://www.­22-­million-­file-­for-­unemployment-­in-­4-­weeks. Accessed 9 June 2020 Hyde M (2005) The Rhetor as hero and the pursuit of truth: the case of 9/11. Rhetor Public Affairs 8:1–30. Accessed 15 Sept 2022 Ivins M, Goodwyn W (2019, September 15) A portrait of Molly Ivins, Maverick Texas Journalist. In: ‘Raise Hell’. NPR.  Accessed 9 June 2020. https://www.npr. org/2019/09/15/760632698/a-­portrait-­of-­molly-­ivins-­maverick-­texas-­journalist-­in-­raise-­hell


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Izard R, Perkins J (2010) Covering disaster: lessons from media coverage of Katrina and Rita. Transaction Publishers. EPub, New Brunswick Lara J, Rand J, Bartley L (2020, April 3) Coronavirus: bidding wars break out as cities, states, hospitals struggle to procure personal protective equipment. ABC7 Investigations. https://­covid-­19-­ppe-­personal-­protection-­equipment/6072267/. Accessed 9 June 2020 Listerman T (2010) Framing of science issues in opinion-leadings news: international comparison of biotechnology issue coverage. Public Underst Sci 19:5–15. https://doi. org/10.1177/0963662505089539. Accessed 9 June 2020 McGregor S (2019) Social media as public opinion: how journalists use social media to represent public opinion. Journalism 20:1070–1086. Accessed 9 June 2020 Palma B (2020, March 13) Did trump administration fire the US pandemic response team? Snopes.­check/trump-­fire-­pandemic-­team/. Accessed 9 June 2020 Reilly JE (2018) Reporting without knowledge: the absence of Human Rights in U.S. Journalism Education. Human Rights Rev 19:249–271.­018-­0493-­7. Accessed 9 June 2020 Sherman A (2020, April 8) Trump said the Obama admin left him a bare stockpile. Wrong. Politifact, The Poynter Institute.­ trump/trump-­said-­obama-­admin-­left-­him-­bare-­stockpile-­wro/. Accessed 9 June 2020 Stewart J (Comedy Central) (2014, August 28) The daily show - race/off. YouTube. https://www. Taibbi M (2019, March 23) It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD: The Iraq war faceplant damaged the reputation of the press. Russiagate just destroyed it. Reporting by Matt Taibbi.­is-­wmd-­times-­a-­million. Accessed 9 June 2020 Vosoughi S, Roy D, Aral S (2018) The spread of true and false news online. Science 359:1146–1151. Accessed 9 June 2020 Vraga EK, Bode L (2021) Addressing COVID-19 misinformation on social media preemptively and responsively. Emerg Infect Dis 27:396–403. Accessed 15 Sept 2022 Yam K (2020, September 29) Anti-Asian bias rose after media, officials used ‘China virus,’ report shows. NBC News.­america/anti-­asian-­bias-­rose-­after-­ media-­officials-­used-­china-­virus-­n1241364. Accessed 15 Sept 2022 Zhong B, Newhagen JE (2009) How journalists think while they write: a transcultural model of news decision making. J Commun 59:587–608.­2466.2009.01439.x. Accessed 9 June 2020

Chapter 4

COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine Elizabeth F. Chamberlain

Is our resistance to COVID-19 a “fight” or a “game of chess”? A “football game” or a “nightmare”? Do we need a “battle plan” or a “map”? Are we the “real” virus? Or is the virus capitalism? Communism? Racism? This chapter examines metaphorical representations of COVID-19, with particular focus on the prominence of war metaphors and on the ways that the disease was itself used as a metaphor for the ills of society, including systemic racism, especially in the first few months of the pandemic. Drawing on conceptual metaphor theory, I argue that metaphorizing is a natural and understandable response to facing such an amorphous and intimidating threat. Many have called for more attention to the metaphorical choices we make, pointing to the dangers of framing disease response as aggression; I am sympathetic to their concerns, and I echo their calls to consider the potential of metaphors to enable more community-oriented approaches to disease response. When we see healing as a journey rather than as a war, perhaps we are less likely to frame other countries as our enemies and more likely to accept that recovery (both at an individual and a societal scale) will be slow, meandering, and require cooperative action. Metaphors structure thought, so indeed we ought to metaphorize with attention and intention. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, I also want to point to the value of war metaphors in considering disease: thinking of disease as war helps mobilize difficult responses, instill a sense of personal responsibility to the collective good, and inspire action from a place of fear. And the rise of viral metaphors in the Black Lives Matter activism demonstrates that potential. When we have agreed, metaphorically, that we are capable of bringing our best weapons to the fight against an amorphous viral threat, we enable metaphorical slippage—we let ourselves see potential in other difficult fights against other amorphous threats, including something as

E. F. Chamberlain (*) Sustainability Department, iFixit San Luis, Obispo, CA, USA © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 D. A. Vakoch et al. (eds.), COVID Communication,



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amorphous and threatening as systemic racism. The impossible battle no longer seems so impossible; racism’s entrenchedness serves only to call us to those trenches. I do not argue for us all to change the language we use to describe COVID-19, or other diseases—not that I disagree with the scholars and others who are making such calls, or that I do not see the dangers of over-militarizing disease response. Conceptual metaphor theory suggests that war metaphors are too central to our understanding of disease to excise them completely from our international vocabularies (Lakoff and Johnson 1980); furthermore, such an excision, if possible, might not have fully positive social effects. Rather, I see attention to metaphor as a key tool in our pandemic communication toolkit: the metaphors we use to describe disease offer insight into our social focus, and attention to the war metaphors of COVID-19 helps elucidate some of the conditions that made 2020 a year ripe for more success in civil rights activism than the United States has seen in many decades—through, among other things, the metaphors of the virus of racism and activism as the vaccine.

The Fight, the Grey Rhino, the Perfect Storm Public discourse about COVID-19 has been littered with metaphor: a study of over 200,000 pandemic-related tweets from March and April 2020 found that 4.66% included a war metaphor (Wicke and Bolognesi 2020, 26). An Oxford English Dictionary (2020) corpus analysis of web-based news content identified the word “fight” as the thirteenth most-common collocate of “coronavirus” in March—more common than “disease,” “patient,” or “death.” Infected individuals “fight” the disease, of course, as do doctors, nurses, and researchers, who are often described as being on the “front lines”; but headlines also engage the language of a “battle” against the disease in pointing to the importance of “data,” “entrepreneurial spirit,” and “technology” (Walia 2020; Sudo 2020; Modic 2020, respectively). A Chicago Tribune (2020) editorial urges, “In the battle against COVID-19, privacy can’t become collateral damage.” And President Trump (2020) on March 22 declared himself “a wartime president.” More than two years later, “fight” remains the dominant metaphor for responding to COVID-19. Even in the Reuters article announcing that bivalent vaccines had hit shelves and the World Health Organization declared that the end of COVID-19 is “in sight,” reporters wrote about the “fight against the virus” (Mishra 2022). This discursive prominence of COVID-19 metaphors, especially war metaphors, has been critiqued from wide-ranging disciplines. Many point to Susan Sontag’s (1978) argument in Illness as Metaphor that speaking of cancer in war metaphors misrepresents the experience of the disease. “War metaphors used for COVID-19 are compelling but also dangerous,” University of Ottawa public and international affairs scholar Costanza Musu (2020) warns in an essay for The Conversation. When we envision fighting a disease like a war, Musu cautions, we risk entrenching nationalistic attitudes, framing countries as victims and enemies, and forgiving

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“dangerous authoritarian power-grabs” like Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s new power to rule by decree. War metaphors also perpetuate the potentially damaging narrative that surviving COVID-19 depends on a fighting spirit, others argue. As UK palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke (2020) writes for The Guardian, “People do not die from this illness—or from any other—because they lack grit. Nor do they live by sheer pugnaciousness.” Such framings can be painful for those who are ill with or who have lost loved ones to the disease. Linguists and others on Twitter quickly took up Musu’s call to describe the illness with other metaphors, using the hashtag #ReframeCovid to amplify alternatives from news media and political speeches all over the world. Linguistic metaphor scholars Veronika Koller and Elena Semino began collecting these alternatives in a public Google Doc that as of September 2022 included over six hundred examples from news and media descriptions of the disease worldwide, framing the virus and our response to it as a race, a football game, handcuffs, a nightmare, a game of chess, and so on (“#ReframeCovid” 2020). In an article about the #ReframeCovid project, Koller, Semino, and other linguistics researchers involved are clear that they do not intend to be prescriptive; they describe the project as ethnographic, looking for ways cultures around the world have conceptualized the disease beyond the dominant framing. Still, they point to a vast body of research suggesting that overreliance on war metaphors of disease can distort patients’ understanding of their own illness, militarize the public sphere, and even make “people underestimate the seriousness of literal armed conflicts” (Olza et al. 2021, p. 9). Moving away from aggressive metaphors, many who have engaged with the #ReframeCovid project have suggested, may help decrease our pandemic-related anxiety, fear, and violence. Replacing war metaphors with ecological language in particular, Alissa Wilkinson (2020) argues, could emphasize our social and geological interconnectedness. Yet war metaphors are not the only COVID-19 metaphors to have been denounced: When the virus started to pick up speed in the United States in March, Fast Company’s Marcus Baram (2020) encouraged journalists to stop calling the disease a “black swan” (a rare, unforeseen, high-impact event) and instead call it a “grey rhino,” a term Michele Wucker coined for the Greek financial crisis to describe “highly probable but neglected threats.” Baram suggests we ought to avoid language that denies the high probability of pandemics. Similarly, in an April New England Journal of Medicine opinion piece, Allan Brandt and Alyssa Botelho (2020, 1493) warn against using the term “perfect storm” to describe the disease, because it “evokes a sense of anomaly and unpredictability.” These metaphors downplay the warnings we had, such as White House Ebola response coordinator Ronald Klain’s (2016) 69-page “playbook” for responding to “emerging infectious disease threats” including “novel coronaviruses” and Bill Gates’s (2015) TED talk “The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready,” which argued, “The failure to prepare could allow the next epidemic to be dramatically more devastating than Ebola.” Indeed, of course, our failure to prepare allowed exactly that. These attempts to police people’s metaphorical use of language have mostly proven to be like herding cats, like nailing jelly to the wall, like pouring water into


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a sieve.1 War metaphors remain the dominant domain for describing our global response to COVID-19. Articles have continued to describe the pandemic as a “black swan” event (Drake 2021; Velappan 2022). And more than two years on, journalists still turn to the term “perfect storm” to describe situations in which COVID-19 has intersected with other disasters that put stress on our healthcare systems, from flu season (Dador 2022) to staffing shortages (Gallagher and Day 2022) to RSV causing hospital overcrowding (Griffin and Hosford 2022). But the predominance of war metaphors in Spring 2020 seeped into another target domain toward the end of May 2020: in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter protesters called for police departments to ameliorate their systemic racism and violence that has often gone unchecked. In communication surrounding these protests, the collocation of the civil unrest and the coronavirus proved to be a rich metaphorical space: The “fighting” language that many decried in metaphorical representations of COVID-19 gave protesters an at-­ hand vocabulary for individual and collective action in response to a problem that seemed both dire and overwhelming. And many protesters began to speak of the “virus of racism,” rolling the international mood of community resistance from the literal virus to the metaphorical one.

Metaphor Makes the Unknown Known One potential explanation for the prominence of metaphorical representations of COVID-19 is how quickly the disease spread before we could fully understand it. When diseases become fully understood, Sontag (1978, 71) argues, we do not find them very interesting for metaphor; she suggests that this is why the 1918–19 Spanish Flu has not been metaphorized and has largely faded from cultural memory. It was deadly and horrific but, Sontag (1978, 71) argues, “simply epidemic.”2 Though epidemic, COVID-19 has not been “simple.” Disease researchers around the world have been throwing darts at the board: epidemiologists seeking etiological histories, public health researchers tracking effectiveness of lockdown procedures,  I ran a Google News search for the search terms “COVID-19” and “fight” every few days April– June 2020 while working on this chapter, and I never failed to find at least a page full of news stories from the previous few hours. 2  I am not fully convinced of the “simplicity” of the Spanish Flu epidemic, particularly given the fact that “scientists had not yet discovered flu viruses” and hospital crowding was so severe “that schools, private homes and other buildings had to be converted into makeshift hospitals” (CDC 2018). Perhaps the Spanish Flu was less tempting to metaphorize because it arrived during, was helped spread by the conditions of, and arguably provoked the peace treaty that ended World War I (Kahn 2012). It likely seemed insensitive to use war metaphors to describe the Spanish Flu when the world was preoccupied with literal soldiers and literal front lines. Plus, given that we tend to describe abstract, amorphous threats in terms of more-concrete ideas, even a poorly understood disease may have seemed less amorphous than the apocalyptic threat of the first worldwide war, featuring the first large-scale use of both powered aircraft and submarines in battle. 1

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virologists quickly sequencing the disease and beginning vaccine trials. In a May 2020 British Medical Journal blog post, infectious disease professor Paul Garner (2020) describes his seven-week recovery from COVID-19 with “constantly shifting, bizarre symptoms” on an “unpredictable course,” new symptoms still rearing up when he had long since returned to work, purportedly recovered: “The symptoms changed, it was like an advent calendar; every day there was a surprise.” In the early days of the pandemic, the disease was an amorphous, emerging threat, and as the world tried to comprehend it, we reached for more familiar terms, even when those terms—such as Garner’s “advent calendar”—aimed to emphasize the strangeness of it. This definition of the abstract and unfamiliar in concrete metaphors is central to Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) “conceptual metaphor theory” (CMT), which Zoltán Kövecses (2016, 16) articulates as the human tendency to “conceptualize less easily accessible domains in terms of the more easily accessible ones.” Life, hence, is like a box of chocolates, not the other way around. Kövecses (2016, 20) further proposes that we may bind a group of conceptual metaphors together “by virtue of the fact that they share a particular aspect that is conceptualized metaphorically by means of the same source domain,” giving the example of seven concepts we describe with fire-themed metaphors: anger, love, desire, imagination, enthusiasm, conflict, and energy. Each of these concepts, Kövecses (2016, 20) explains, “share[s] the aspect of (degrees of) intensity through the application of a single source,” and fire metaphors emphasize that single-sourced intensity. In engaging war metaphors for all aspects of COVID-19 response, we assert strength against an array of frightening unknowns, rally the community to the cause. We are ready to fight, both individually if infected and as a community for research into treatment. We are shoring up our defenses by donning masks and instituting lockdowns. We are celebrating our heroes on the front lines of the illness. This tendency to use the language of battle to describe our COVID-19 response extends far beyond the English language: the French say “la guérison du coronavirus,” the Spanish say “la lucha contra la coronavirus,” and the Germans have coined the compound word “COVID-19-Bekämpfung.” Medical rhetorician Lisa Keranen told Vox that “some scholars have located centuries-old uses in China of defensive and martial language to talk about defending your health” (Wilkinson 2020). Such international preference for war language in disease discourse supports the notion that there are core aspects of the human conceptualization of disease that are warlike, with winners and losers, weapons, and strategies. Though critics reasonably point to ways that war metaphors of disease may limit public policy to aggressive and nationalistic rather than cooperative action, we will likely never stop talking about “fighting” disease. The metaphor aligns in so many aspects that it is the cross-culturally dominant way of describing a response to illness. Yet analysts rarely acknowledge the ways that battle metaphors of illness enable positive social response, from being willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good of society to applying “fighting spirit” to more metaphorical social diseases.


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Demonstrating Metaphorical Ills in the Body Politic Perhaps nearly as prominent as combat language in public discourse of COVID-19 is the tendency to see COVID-19 as a metaphor for society. In some formulations, we are the disease. In others, the true virus is some other social problem. In still others, the disease has become personified as our social teacher: it demonstrates, reveals, and shows things about us. The coronavirus is an equal-opportunity puppet, a Rorschach test for journalists’ and pundits’ pet issues. For years, journalists have been writing about what the pandemic demonstrates, what it teaches us. They say it shows us “just how much the Census counts” (Wice 2020). “Just how much sports matter” (Sielski 2020). “The danger and inanity of our prison state” (The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board 2020). The “value of art” (Irish Examiner Editorial 2020). The “subjective nature of risk perception” (Kelly 2021). The “power of science-industry collaboration” (Nature 2021). The “power of misinformation” (Sridhar 2022). That “there’s still no such thing as a totally human-free self-driving car” (Hawkins 2020). “That in China, politics matters more than pragmatism” (The Economist 2022). “That inequality is about more than jobs or earnings” (Johnson 2021). “That safety is a privilege” (Kaplan-Myrth 2022). Many commentators in the first few months of the disease connected COVID-19 with the global cultural tension between nationalization and globalization, each side claiming the coronavirus proves their preexisting argument. Declaring “the coronavirus is us,” Michael Marder (2020) writes for the New York Times that nationalist responses to the disease ignore the way “that borders are porous by definition…more like living membranes than inorganic walls.” Similarly, for The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (2020) says “coronavirus shows British–EU solidarity [is] vital,” and Neal Lawson (2020) says it calls for cooperation over “ethno-nationalism.” Conversely, the disease, Rod Liddle (2020) argues, shows that the UK was right to leave the EU: “Coronavirus shows we got out just in time—now someone switch the EU ventilator off.” For the Financial Times, Ian Goldin (2020) says that “coronavirus shows how globalization spreads contagion of all kinds.” More specifically, Geoff Caldwell (2020) proposes “coronavirus demonstrates [the] threat China poses” to the United States, and James Roberts (2020a) says it “shows why we must make things in America.” This call echoes President Trump’s view that the “coronavirus shows he was right” about the need to move manufacturing supply chains to America (AP 2020). Meanwhile, Jennifer Senior (2020) thinks the disease “shows the failure of Trump’s empty cabinet” and Ted Widmer (2020), refuting Trump’s claims otherwise, says it “shows that the post office is the most American thing we’ve got.” “Never mind Trump,” Patrick Roberts (2020b) responds, “Coronavirus shows why electing competent state and local officials is vital.” Beyond physical globalization, our era is characterized by the competing technological forces of near-instantaneous global intercommunication and filter bubble insularity/misinformation. Doctors with WikiProject Medicine collaborated internationally starting in January 2020 on a series of Wikipedia pages about COVID-19 that have been live-updated with new studies and trials throughout the pandemic

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(Cohen 2020), but more than eight million people also watched a video called “Plandemic” claiming “that wearing a mask will ‘activate’ the virus” (Newton 2020). We fear technology is harming our ability to be social, but the pandemic demands a technology-mediated social life. In a 2015 Pew study, 82% of Americans polled said they thought the presence of a cell phone hurt the quality of social interactions (Rainie and Zickuhr 2015); in March 2020, video conferencing service Zoom tripled its userbase as socially distant social interactions became the norm (Koeze and Popper 2020). Social distancing, too, engages cultural fears in the water since the early aughts. In 2007, Thomas Friedman in the New York Times frets that Millennials were “too quiet, too online for their own good.” Jean Twenge (2017) wonders for The Atlantic if smartphones have “destroyed” Gen Z by leading them to spend most of their time “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed.” This “rise of millennial hermits” is the less-disparaged subject of Sarah Todd’s (2019) Quartz explainer, “Why Millennials Never Want to Leave Their Apartments Anymore.” In the same period, reports from Japan have puzzled over the socially withdrawn “hikikomori,” more than half a million 20- and 30-year-olds who never leave their apartments. But as the fear of social isolation became the rule, Japanese health ministers “appointed a hikikomori as the head of the special emergency council on ‘self-quarantine strategies’” (Wilson 2020). As Dr. Julian Maha (2020) points out, “For those with autism and invisible disabilities, the social isolation of the coronavirus pandemic is nothing new,” and Morgan Simon (2020) shares COVID-19 isolation tips from the Ultranauts, a quality engineering firm that is “75% autistic, 100% remote, and 2x less lonely.” Yet the sudden cultural embrace of socially distant work has been a source of frustration for some disability advocates. Pointing to the work from home and telemedicine changes that “were implemented nearly overnight,” Naomi Ishisaka (2020) asserts “coronavirus shows everyone what people with disabilities have known all along”— that refusal to accommodate is often prejudice, not impossibility. Some point to ways the coronavirus has highlighted other systemic prejudices: In business, coronavirus reportedly “shows working women are underpaid” (Lunn 2020). As people were asked to quarantine in their homes, the disease came to show how “housing costs leave many insecure” (Alexander 2020). In an op-ed “signed by more than 5,000 researchers from more than 700 universities,”3 Isabelle Ferreras et al. (2020) suggest that “coronavirus shows why we must democratize work,” stop treating work “as a commodity,” and recognize that “humans are not resources.” Simon Wooley and Imran Sanaulla (2020) similarly called for more attention to workers’ rights, especially for black and other minority citizens, describing how COVID-19 “has laid bare our structural inequalities that leave some communities much more vulnerable than others”; written five days before George Floyd’s death, their article described diversity as “a matter of life and death”—not presciently predicting the police brutality to come, but instead expressing the well-documented

 Also “published in 43 newspapers in 36 countries around the world” and translated “into 27 languages.” 3


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ways that Black lives have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus all over the globe. Given how much changed soon after, were it not for the news record it would be easy to forget that when Black British actor Idris Elba reported having contracted the coronavirus on March 18, he was not only the first Black celebrity to fall ill but had to plead with the public: “Stop saying black people can’t get coronavirus” (Smith 2020). The myth seems grounded in pernicious misinformation about Black patients’ greater pain tolerance and lesser susceptibility to disease, which has led to their reports of ailments being taken less seriously and their complaints of pain being less well-­ managed (Patel et al. 2022). Yet, at the beginning of the pandemic, the notion that Black people could not get COVID-19 was also popular in some Black communities, for which Laura Washington (2020) offered an explanation in The Chicago Sun-Times on March 15: “For centuries, African Americans have been told we are inferior. It’s a comforting notion that our blackness might make us invincible in a pandemic, to believe that blackness is stronger, mightier, immune to this twenty-first century pandemic.” Washington reported encountering widespread, enthusiastic, and dangerous belief in the myth; yet by the time she was writing, Black people were already disproportionately contracting the disease. Just 21  days later, the same paper reported, “While black residents make up only 14.6% of the state, they’ve suffered 42% of Illinois’ 307 coronavirus deaths. In Chicago, where the population is 30% black, the 108 deaths have been 72% black” (Issa 2020). As states began reporting more demographic data, the universality of the trend became horrifically undeniable: Michigan has 14% Black population that accounts for 41% of deaths, in Louisiana, a 33% Black population for 70% of deaths, and “in New York City, black and Latino people are twice as likely to die from the virus than their white peers” (Connley 2020). Six Black doctors speaking to Courtney Connley (2020) of CNBC on May 15 identified three major categories of “racial health disparities” that the coronavirus “exacerbated”: (1) “housing location and resources,” including the prevalence of food deserts in Black communities; (2) “employment and health-care options,” including lower rates of health insurance and higher rates of working in “essential” service sector jobs such as grocery stores and home health; and (3) “lack of trust in the health care system,” based on the historical precedent of the Tuskegee syphilis study (in which treatment was withheld from 399 Black men for 40 years) and the present day reality that Black patients’ health concerns are taken less seriously than White patients’. Thus, long before a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, the pandemic was highlighting ways that Black people’s lives have mattered disproportionately less to our system.

Nature Is Healing, We Are the Virus Before the rise of the Black Lives Matter protesters began declaring racism a virus, the prevailing metaphorical viral claim was that humanity itself was a virus on our ecologically beleaguered planet. In an early March Wired editorial, Laurie Penny

4  COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine


(2020) points to the way the virus exploits our many sources of “weakness in the body politic,” from “ignorance of germ theory” to “bigotry” to “prejudice and dogma” to our “weak social immune system.” Ultimately, she turns to the climate crisis as the next big horror facing global society and calls COVID-19 “a test of our capacity to cope with planet-scale disasters.” Penny nods to Sontag, but strangely dismissively: “When it comes to illness as metaphor, Covid-19 is not subtle. Susan Sontag would struggle to get a whole book out of it.” This dismissal seems made in ignorance of the second half of Sontag’s (1978, 73) argument, that when diseases become “master illnesses,” they become “polemical,” “used to propose new, critical standards of individual health, and to express a sense of dissatisfaction with society as such”—much as Penny’s editorial does. Sontag (1978, 70) even anticipates the turn Penny makes toward the environment, noting that among the metaphors of cancer is the suggestion it “signifies the rebellion of the injured ecosphere.” Indeed, in the first few weeks after COVID-19 went global, so too did stories about that “injured ecosphere” taking back the planet: dolphins playing in clear Venice canals undisturbed by motorboat traffic launched a thousand commentators, epitomized by Luca Santis’s tweet, “Nature just hit the reset button on us” (Palma 2020). Through the virus, according to UN environment chief Inger Andersen, “Nature is sending us a message” (Carrington 2020). Sustainability Strategist Brad Zarnett (2020) saw “nature reasserting itself” and suggested that COVID-19 might be “a silver bullet for a stable climate.” April brought reports of “smog-free” skies in Beijing and Los Angeles (Rogers 2020) and improvement in “key environmental indices” including lower carbon emissions, “lower [seismic] vibrations from ‘cultural noise,’” a “lower toll for roadkill,” and increasing visibility of wild animal populations—coyotes being “spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge” and peacocks “strut[ting] through Bangor” (Watts 2020). This metaphorical ecospheric rebellion has been widely satirized through memes that ironically declare, “Nature is healing, we are the virus,” alongside pictures such as an alligator on an alligator-shaped pool float; “Furbies sitting in a leaf-bare tree”; and technicolor Lisa Frank dolphins, puppies, and seals (“this photo of the Hudson River was taken yesterday”) (Friedler 2020). Increasingly, journalists have explicitly rejected the notion that nature is “taking back” the planet; Jonathan Watts (2020) calls it a “dangerous misconception,” pointing to the fact that for “poorer countries,” the pandemic has resulted in less funding for conservation efforts and will likely lead to higher levels of poaching. Watts sees evidence of Naomi Klein’s notion of “the ‘shock doctrine’ of disaster capitalism,” with oil and aviation company bailouts, rollbacks of standards, and resumed construction on the Keystone XL pipeline. Even if some measures of environmental health show temporary improvement, as Delilah Friedler (2020) explains, “A few months of humans being on lockdown does not the Earth heal.” Yet while these commentators reject the idea that our ecosystem is rebelling, they do not reject the metaphorical framing of COVID-19: Friedler says, “‘We’ are not the metaphorical virus plaguing Earth—the capitalist system is.” Parth Dasgupta and Inger Anderson (2020) echo this link between COVID-19, business, and the environment: “Coronavirus shows we must change our economy to recognize that


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human wealth depends on nature’s health.” In a piece for the Stanford Law Review called “What the Pandemic Can Teach Climate Attorneys,” Sara Bronin (2020) points out that court actions to address COVID-19 may set important precedents for climate change. Other climate activists also turn to COVID-19 as evidence of “the limits of what personal choice can do for the climate” (Tim McDonnell 2020), as proof that “exploiting wildlife poses risks to human health” (Tanya Sanerib 2020), and thus that “we must get serious about the well-being of animals” (Kendra Coulter 2020). Dina Gilio-Whitaker (2020) is less circumspect: “Coronavirus shows we must change how we live or face self-destruction.”

The Virus of Racism Problems named as “the real disease,” “the real virus,” or “the real pandemic” run the gamut: “fear” (Sovuthy 2020; Andersson 2020); “our lack of critical reflection” (Abao 2020); “senselessness” (Pitts, Jr. 2020); “addiction” (Vecchio 2020); “too many people” (McCargo 2020); “social collapse” (Milanovic 2020); “government regulations” (Miller 2020); a society “that criminalizes dissent” (Tripathi 2020); people who “capitalize on people’s needs and hopes” (Crockett 2020); “the solution” of economic shutdown (Ryness 2020); “religious freedom” (Waltz 2020); “cognitive decline” (CTech 2022); “unsafe abortion” (This Day 2021); “boyish men” (Flash 2022); “mental health problems in children and teens” (Spence 2022); “democrats” (Hroncich 2022); and, in an elaborate extended metaphor, “China’s Communist Party” (Xue 2020). The latter, articulated in Sheng Xue’s (2020) April editorial in The Daily Mail, opens: There is a virus stalking the world. It is a nasty organism that leaves death, destruction, and misery in its wake as it spreads contagion across the globe. It has infected all our lives—changing the way we behave as human beings by challenging our most basic freedoms to live and love, to work and play. It leaves us bored, confused, dazed, even distrustful of others. For Xue, an expat who fled China for Canada after the Tiananmen Square massacre, this metaphor is deeply personal; twenty years since leaving China, she continues to be harassed by Communist Party representatives and worries Britain’s collaboration with Huawei to build a 5G system may allow the party to “infect” western communications technology with “spy software.” Yet for many Asian people around the world, the more urgent and immediate metaphorical virus may derive simply from its association with China; describing the pandemic-era increase in racism against Asians—including people “harassed, spit on, chased down and threatened”—Katie Baird and Turan Kayaoglu (2020) suggest the real “plague” is “reacting to fear with hatred.” The metaphorical pairing of COVID-19 and racism gained prominence in the last week of May 2020, as people in all fifty US states and many countries around the world joined Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. At a protest in Watford, England,

4  COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine


boxing champion Anthony Joshua decried the “virus” of racism, calling protesters “the vaccine” (SkyNews 2020). On the American television program 60 Minutes, Bill Whitaker (2020) argues, “This virus of racism and injustice has threatened and infected America for 400 years.” Emphasizing this metaphorical connection between systemic racism and COVID-19, health care workers who walked out of Mount Sinai Hospital stood and applauded protesters, “reminiscent of the 7:00 PM clap for medical staff that has become a daily ritual for New Yorkers during the coronavirus crisis” (AFP 2020). Some protesting health care workers echo comments by the Harvard school of public health dean, Michelle Williams, and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; both have called racism a “public health crisis” (Dwyer 2020; Hodgberg 2020). In the Chicago Sun-Times, John Fountain (2020) extends the metaphor, describing the “injurious, infectious droplets of hate” that are “in the air all around us,” teaching black Americans to practice “avoidance from certain social settings,” “disproportionately affect[ing] those with the underlying condition of being male.” In the Bangor Daily News, Jim Owen (2020) extends the metaphor yet another way, suggesting the “racism virus” has “a superspreader in the White House.” The way Black Lives Matter protesters have worked to link the fight against COVID-19 and the fight against racism points to the rhetorical potential of metaphorical associations: activists are able to build on the COVID-19 spirit of collective social action and foster the battle-metaphor sentiment of rapid, aggressive response to something that threatens lives. We have been facing a threat that is amorphous, global, and not fully understood; describing racism as a virus like COVID-19 reminds us that we need not be rendered helpless by such threats. It reminds us that we are capable of taking systemic, unprecedented action. It calls attention to all the policies and procedures we have enacted in 2020 to save lives from COVID-19 but not from police violence, and how darkly ironic it is that George Floyd “tested positive for coronavirus, but it had nothing to do with his death” from asphyxiation (Karimi and Fox 2020). In addition to calling racism a virus, there was a movement among some protestors to classify systemic racism as a public health crisis; that movement was ultimately successful—“for good reason,” a Brookings Institute analysis explains (Roberts 2021): “Structural racism also fortifies and informs policies in the United States that perpetuate racial disparities in health outcomes, inequalities in health determinants such as housing, education, and healthcare, as well as through the discriminatory policing of African Americans.” Systemic racism being considered a public health crisis allows public health agencies to address its conditions and consequences directly. It enables the direction of public funding to the effort. Plus, it helps organizations reorganize their priorities in favor of combatting systemic racism. Could this reclassification have happened without the rise of “racism is a virus” metaphor? Of course—but it seems likely that it would not have happened so quickly. In the two years since 2020, scholars have begun to address the complexities of the intersection of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. One particularly compelling treatment is photojournalist Lauren Walsh’s (2022) Through the Lens: The Pandemic and Black Lives Matter, which opens with the insurrection


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at the US Capitol in 2021, framing a discussion of the war-like nature of both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020: But while this early 2021 date readily invited discussion of a home-grown war, the reality is that the preceding year was, arguably, one of the most conflicted in American history. Wars take lives. Wars tear at the social fabric. Yet the United States witnessed both of these outcomes, and more, in 2020 without any declarations of war. Walsh uses the comparison to war to bind the pandemic and Black activism. The metaphor points, for Walsh, to the scale of both challenges, the live-­ and-­death nature of them, and the way that they deeply affected society. Many worried publicly about the risk of protests becoming superspreader events, due to such transmission-risky behaviors as group chanting and many cities’ nine-­ minute “die-ins” in which “protesters lay close together on the ground” (Madrigal and Meyer 2020). Agencies that warned against public gatherings for months responded in sometimes surprising ways: the World Health Organization (2020) voiced support for the protests, encouraging protesters to wash their hands and keep some distance, but forgoing the pandemic-usual discouragement of large group gatherings (Pien and Aubrey 2020). Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County released a statement expressing conflictedness, but concluding, “Ultimately, we decided that the situation is too dangerous for us to encourage greater attendance at these in-person protests,” noting the many systemic inequalities that make many of the Black and minority communities likely to protest especially susceptible to the virus (Fowler 2020). Despite these concerns, data analyses of disease spread following the protests suggest that they were not superspreader events, and in fact, because they increased stay-at-home behavior in non-protest populations that might have otherwise been engaging in riskier activities such as visiting restaurants and bars, they may have lowered community spread (Dave et  al. 2020). The same equilibrium effect was observed in Washington, D.C., during the Capitol riot: non-protestors stayed home, and so D.C. itself saw no increase in disease spread—though counties outside D.C. with high protestor outflow saw a small increase in case growth (Dave et al. 2022). The metaphorical association between the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic, as well as the reclassification of systemic racism as a public health crisis, has resulted in some pretty significant reframings of policing. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, calls abounded for the city to dismantle the police. Although voters ultimately rejected a ballot proposal to replace the police department with a new Department of Public Safety (Karnowski and Ibrahim 2021), Minneapolis has instituted a pilot program of contracting with a mental health crisis response team instead of dispatching police officers, where relevant; that work is managed by the Minneapolis Public Health & Safety Committee (Halter 2022). Chicago is running a pilot of a very similar program, again administered by the Department of Public Health (Goudie et al. 2022). Universities around the country, including Cal State Long Beach, Oregon State, and University of Florida all now have mental health response teams that work with campus police (Knott 2022). Whether these initiatives will decrease the rate at which police officers racially

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profile, commit violence against people of color, or disproportionately arrest Black people remains to be seen. Regardless, however, the metaphorical association of the pandemic and racism seems to have driven these initiatives, to an extent—they are being framed as public health initiatives. Plus, the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s death occurred at a time when society had largely recognized that we are capable of grander scale reimagining social structures. Would such a broad-based conception of a new social order have been possible without the influence of COVID-19’s rise to a “master illness”? Perhaps COVID-19, like tuberculosis and cancer before it, has served metaphorically to propose what Sontag (1978, 73) calls “a profound disequilibrium between individual and society, with society conceived as the individual’s adversary.”

Associative Animals: Fighting or Playing Chess? We are drawn to metaphors because we are associative creatures: We look for patterns, look for connections between unlike things. We use the familiar to understand the unfamiliar; this is how we learn and how we build bridges between the unknown and the known. Those bridges serve to highlight similarities and deemphasize differences. Thus, when we think of COVID-19 as a fight, we are more likely to think of its potential to be beaten, its patients as warriors. But the metaphor downplays the importance of waiting and patience that a metaphor like a chess game might highlight. Bridging this way has some social risks: it can lend credence to the wrong aspects of the analogized subject. Metaphors always run the risk of oversimplifying, of being over-explained or conversely too oblique. They can give leaders justification for seizing power. But they also have the power to enable social movements to build on other successes: Black Lives Matter surely has had greater prominence and success in 2020 than ever before in part because people are fired up by the fight against COVID-19. Metaphor also helps us use COVID-19 to diagnose the ills in society, to point to things we saw as wrong before or that we have discovered COVID-19 highlights. In some cases, as in the rise of Black Lives Matter, those ills are broadly recognized; in others, the association is more idiosyncratic. But in all cases of COVID-19 as itself a metaphor, we are narratively called to look ahead to a time on the other side of the disease, a time when the wars and storms and fights and handcuffs and chess games have all reached a natural conclusion. We will find ourselves facing with more focused attention the diseases of the body politic toward which so many pundits have pointed. And perhaps our metaphorizing now will allow us then to draw lessons from our COVID-19 teacher: as we crawl our way out of the pandemic trenches, let us find ways that we can become the vaccine for the social diseases we have wrought.


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4  COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine


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E. F. Chamberlain

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4  COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine


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E. F. Chamberlain

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4  COVID-19 as Metaphor: Fighting the Virus of Racism, Becoming the Vaccine


Smith T (2020) Idris Elba: ‘Stop saying Black people can’t get coronavirus.’ Cleveland. https://­elba-­stop-­saying-­black-­people-­cant-­get-­ coronavirus.html. Accessed 8 June 2020 Sontag S (1978) Illness as metaphor. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York Sovuthy K (2020) Hun Sen says the real disease is fear, not coronavirus. Camboja News. https://­sen-­says-­the-­real-­disease-­is-­fear-­not-­coronavirus/. Accessed 1 June 2020 Spence A (2022) Sir Peter Gluckman warns of ‘overwhelming’ new pandemic of mental health problems in children and teens.­peter-­gluckman-­ warns-­of-­overwhelming-­new-­pandemic-­of-­mental-­health-­problems-­in-­children-­and-­teens/ QPQZVBACBOGBBZLKQPRUDB2CBQ/. Accessed 20 Sept 2022 Sudo C (2020) The bottom line: CFO nurtures pennant’s entrepreneurial spirit in Covid-19 battle. Senior Housing News: The Bottom Line. the-­bottom-­line-­cfo-­nurtures-­pennants-­entrepreneurial-­spirit-­in-­covid-­19-­battle/. Accessed 6 June 2020 This Day (2021) Unsafe abortion: the real pandemic. This Day. index.php/2021/11/25/unsafe-­abortion-­the-­real-­pandemic/. Accessed 20 Sept 2022 Todd S (2019) Why Millennials never want to leave their apartments anymore. Quartz. https://­millennials-­became-­a-­generation-­of-­homebodies/. Accessed 20 Mar 2020 Tripathi S (2020) Specks of thought that yearn for freedom. LiveMint.­v iews/coronavirus-­o pinion-­s pecks-­o f-­t hought-­t hat-­y earn-­f or-­ freedom-­11586948736822.html. Accessed 6 June 2020 Trump D (2020) Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and members of the coronavirus task force in press briefing. briefings-­statements/remarks-­president-­trump-­vice-­president-­pence-­members-­coronavirus-­ task-­force-­press-­briefing-­8/. Accessed 22 May 2020 Twenge J (2017). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic.­the-­smartphone-­destroyed-­a-­generation/534198/. Accessed 20 Mar 2020 Vecchio M (2020) Addiction is the real disease of isolation. The Province. https://theprovince. com/opinion/letters/letters-­to-­the-­province-­june-­4-­2020-­the-­disease-­of-­isolation. Accessed 4 June 2020 Velappan N (2022) Looking for ‘black swan’ outbreaks can prepare for future pandemics. Stat.­for-­black-­swan-­outbreaks-­can-­prepare-­for-­ future-­pandemics/. Accessed 20 Sept 2022 Walia A (2020) In the battle against COVID-19, data holds the key. Nextgov. https://www.nextgov. com/ideas/2020/06/battle-­against-­covid-­19-­data-­holds-­key/165799/. Accessed 6 June 2020 Walsh L (2022) Through the lens: The pandemic and Black Lives Matter. Routledge, Milton Park Waltz M (2020) The real virus to the Chinese Communist Party: religious freedom. The Hill.­blog/religious-­rights/499775-­the-­real-­virus-­to-­the-­chinese-­ communist-­party-­religious. Accessed 1 June 2020 Washington L (2020) Kill the myth: anyone can get COVID-19. The Chicago Sun-Times. https://­washington-­c oronavirus-­ covid-­19-­immunity. Accessed 8 June 2020 Watts J (2020) Nature is bouncing back during the coronavirus crisis—but for how long? Mother Jones.­updates/2020/04/nature-­is-­bouncing-­back-­ during-­the-­coronavirus-­crisis-­but-­for-­how-­long/. Accessed 29 May 2020 Whitaker B (2020) This virus of racism and injustice has threatened and infected America for 400 years. 60 Minutes Overtime. Accessed 4 June 2020


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Chapter 5

Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians, and the Media Interact with the Public on Twitter Derrick Shapley and John Blumer

Introduction Social media have been called by many in the media (Foer 2018) and academia (Jaffer 2018) a “New Public Square.” Twitter, the second largest social media platform in the world, currently plays a key role in the dissemination of news, information, and propaganda. It also is a conduit for the development of understanding for many people in society (Search Engine Journal 2020). Because of its recognition and widespread use by the public, Twitter has rapidly become a primary source of information sharing by many politicians and the news media, with some, including President Trump, using it as their primary correspondence with the public.1 It is has become a contested marketplace for primacy in pandemic literacy and rhetoric. In this research, we looked at five different categories of people on social media: Academics, The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), Media, Politicians, and people who align with the ideas of the QANON movement. We created a diverse array of ideologies to gather a macro-scale understanding of how narratives are created and formed in the Twitter Universe (Twitterverse). We attempt to better understand the role of how people on Twitter worked to inform, incite, and influence debate and understanding about the coronavirus among others from the period of January

 Trump was banned from Twitter on January 8, 2021, due to the capital riots and perceived actions to instigate the riots. 1

D. Shapley (*) Talladega College, Talladega, AL, USA e-mail: [email protected] J. Blumer Miles College, Fairfield, AL, USA e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 D. A. Vakoch et al. (eds.), COVID Communication,



D. Shapley and J. Blumer

18–April 21, 2020. This research seeks to address two competing theoretical frameworks: The Collective Action Research program (CARP) (Lichbach 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997) and the Structuralists Synthetic Political Opportunity Theory (SPOT) (Mcadams et al. 1996, 2001; Tarrow 1998a, b, 2001), sometimes called the mapping of contentious politics. We used participant observation to analyze narratives that have developed and the influence of other media in disseminating narratives because of debates forged on Twitter with regard to the coronavirus. We argue that Twitter is a “‘Contested Private Sphere’ with public square attributes” because Public Square has certain legal attributes that do not apply to a private company (Twitter), which has terms of service agreements and other legal frameworks that prevent it from being fully recognized as a public square of free information. We also argue that the people we analyzed are rational actors who are aware they are spreading information that influences people and, moreover, that many do so to influence their followers and other members of society. We also argue that certain segments of the population we analyzed do so in support of a perceived cause or ideology and try to increase the pandemic literacy of others according to their favored ideology.

Literature Review The collective action research program (CARP) is based on three premises “(1) a view of institutions as bundles of contracts between (2) principals and agents whose interactions are governed by (3) hierarchical control rather than decentralized exchanges between anonymous agents” (Johnson and Prakash 2007, 223; also see Moe 1984, 2005). In contrast, Synthetic Political Opportunity Theory (SPOT) argues contentious politics as “the public, collective, and episodic interactions between makers of claims when a) at least some of the interaction adopts noninstitutional forms, b) at least one government is a claimant, an object of claims, or a party to the claims, and c) the claims would, if realized, affect the interests of at least one of the claimants” (Mcadams et al. 2001, 7; also see Hemsley and Eckert 2014, 1845). To contrast the theories further, CARP argues there has to be a hierarchical control at some level of the analysis to create, disseminate, and guide respondents— while SPOT argues episodes or events within society present political opportunities to respond that can be presented in both institutional or non-institutional roles. There has been widespread study on Twitter of the use of hierarchical and non-­ hierarchical arrangements to research social movements (Wang et al. 2013; Hemsley and Eckert 2014). Sparse research has been done on the analysis of interactions in the content linked to the dissemination of individuals and social movements. Park et al. (2015, 208) argue that Twitter users generated a loosely connected hub-and-­ spoke network, suggesting that information was likely to be organized by several central users in the network and that these users bridged small communities. On YouTube, homogeneously themed videos formed a dense mesh network, reinforcing shared ideas and meanings. According to the geographic distribution, both

5  Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians…


Twitter and YouTube networks were actively organized by US users, but the YouTube network was activated mainly by anonymous users. Gleason (2013, 2) argues with Twitter interactions that the brevity of tweets is associated with a number of significant advantages of reading such brief messages, including speed of reading and the ability to read a number of multiple perspectives. However, the likelihood of using Twitter to read multiple, or opposing, perspectives remains contested. Researchers have suggested that individuals are more likely to associate with people who are similar to them, a principle known as homophily. Twitter is a loosely connected network of people who often engage in sharing of tweets with those who have ideology or interests similar to them. However, there is often a hierarchy involved in Twitter (Kumar et  al. 2013). Hierarchy in Twitter comes through the people who have the most followers. Among the Twitter accounts with the most followers, many of these influencers try to occupy the top space on that account by replying in order to disseminate, criticize, or reinforce certain messages (Warzel 2017). Because of Twitter’s complicated algorithm, it is not entirely clear to users but involves some form of when you reply, how many comments you receive, and how many retweets you receive. Along with the power of a tweet being discussed throughout Twitter, there is also a certain power in what is called “sub-tweeting.” Sub-tweeting is the idea of bringing a tweet from the persons’ Twitter timeline to your timeline (Edwards and Harris 2016). There are three main reasons this occurs: 1. You are bringing the tweet to your timeline to disseminate the information because it is also your ideology or belief system and you want to inform your followers. 2. You are bringing the tweet to your timeline to ridicule a person who has an opposite view or an ideology on a ground that is more favorable to you. Since most users follow other Twitter users with similar interests, engaging in arguing with the person increases the chances of getting people with similar interests joining in the conversation if moved to your timeline. 3. You are bringing the tweet to your timeline for further understanding of the subject.

Research Methods We analyzed 10 people separately (as detailed in Tables 5.1, 5.2, and 5.3) in five broad categories: Academics, the IDW, the media, Politicians, and QANON. We use these categories because a wide range of discussions within these groups have focused on COVID-19. Whether it has been legitimated discussions or the creation of widespread conspiracies there has been a use of twitter to debate COVID-19 and there have been efforts to spread information whether legitimately or illegitimately through the discourse. We only analyzed people who had a minimum 5000 followers and tweets that had over 50 retweets or replies. The tweets we focused on were


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Table 5.1  Twitter users analyzed: Academics and Intellectual Darkweb # of tweets 20

Academics Nicholas Christakis Nicholas Grossman Carl Bergstrom Philip Cohen

Twitter Handle @NAchristakis

Brad Wilcox Justin Wolfers Peter Boghossian Alan Abramowitz Yascha Mounk Nicholas Wolfinger

@WilcoxNMP 6 @Justin Wolfers 10 @Peterboghossian 8

IDW Ben Shapiro

Twitter Handle @Ben Shapiro

Number of tweets 20



Eric Weinstein





Bret Weinstein





Peter Boghossian Helen Pluckose Dave Rubin James Lindsay


@ Alanlabramowitz @YaschaMounk @ Nicholas_ Wolfinger

4 7 10


Hpluckrose 12 @RubinReport 10 @ConceptualJames 12

Christina Hoff @CHSommers Sommers Sam Harris @SamHarrisOrg Heather Heying @HeatherEHeying

5 8 9

Table 5.2  Twitter users analyzed: media sources and politicians Media sources Maggie Haberman Peter Baker Jake Tapper

Twitter Handle @maggienyt

# of tweets 15

Peterbakernyt @jaketapper

12 13

Laura Ingraham Sean Hannity Bret Baier Philip Bump Jonathan Swan Yamiche Alcindor Ari Shapiro



@seanhannity @Bret Baier @pbump @JonathanVSwan

12 11 12 14



Ted Cruz Charles Schumer Lindsey Graham Eric Swalwell Matt Gaetz Tom Cotton Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ilhan Omar



Ted Lieu

Politicians Donald Trump

Twitter Handle @ RealDonaldTrump @tedcruz @ChuckSchumer

Number of tweets 20 15 12

@ LindseyGrahamSC @ericswalwell @mattgaetz @SenTomCotton @AOC






10 12 10 11

with relation to legislation and information related to the COVID-19 pandemic. All tweets were made between January 18, 2020, and April 21, 2020. We found these tweets using Twitter’s advanced search feature. We observe not just the tweet alone but also the interaction that occurs in the tweets. We tried to have intellectual diversity in our analysis and feel we achieved that. We achieved intellectual diversity by including people with a wide range of political opinions from Ilhan Omar to Ted

5  Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians…


Table 5.3  Twitter users analyzed: QANON Media Sources Qanon report Qanon Martin Geddes The Great Awakening Joe_QAnon Q++++ Ephesians 6:12 Rona@TrustHim_7 Joe Hill JoeM

Twitter Handle @Qanon_report Qanon76 @Martin Geddes @NeverSocialist @Joe_QAnon @sparkledocawake @WorldTruthTV @trusthim_7 @omegasaxoe @thestormisuponus

# of tweets 12 13 13 11 12 13 11  0  5 O

Cruz. We also included a wide variety of media outlets such as the New York Times and Fox News. However, our analysis is limited by a lack of racial diversity, with only four accounts linked to people of color, and a lack of geographic inclusivity, as most accounts we analyzed were from the west or east coasts of the United States. As seen in Table 5.1, we analyzed academics and what has become known as the IDW. In order to be considered an Academic, the individual had to be an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor, or emeritus at an institution of higher learning.2 The IDW is more difficult to define because there is no clear definition of who it is and what it does. The most concise analysis of the IDW comes from Bari Weiss (2018, 1). Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades, and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation—on podcasts, YouTube, Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums—that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture at the present time. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, these persons are rapidly building their own mass media channels. Weiss (2018, 1). also argues that they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Second, in an age in which popular feelings about the way things ought to be often override facts about the way things actually are, each is determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient. And third, some have paid for this commitment by being purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought—and have found receptive audiences elsewhere. Weiss provided a list of people of the IDW but many have argued that others belong to the web. We define the IDW as a group of people who are against “Wokeness” or “Woke Culture” and against the efforts of what is labeled a “Social  We did not include graduate students/assistants or lecturers because of the time it would take to analyze how much experience they had in the program, whether they are near completion or have completed their PhD, or the limited power they have within the overall guidance of an institution or discipline. 2


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Justice Warrior” on Twitter. The definition develops out of the New  York Times piece by Bari Weiss (2018) in which she identifies a group of public intellectuals who go against the mainstream notions of society and willing to have discussions with a large and diverse audience. The common bond all share or discuss is an increasing skepticism in the social justice movement and identity politics. The people of the IDW also are against academic theories such as intersectionality, critical theory, and postmodernism. Wokeness has three underlying precepts in the IDW: 1. A need to want to help racial healing that presupposes white supremacy as root of all injustices levied against and within the Black Community. 2. A belief of collective guilt that Whites should have for the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, and colonization. 3. A belief of White privilege that still exists in society. The IDW also identifies Social Justice Warriors as a group of people who believe: 1. That words and actions have meaning that are “triggering” for minority and formerly disenfranchised communities. 2. That gender and race are social constructs and that oppression is the root cause of any imbalance in societies.3 Table 5.2 describes the users we analyzed for media sources and politicians. To be labeled as a media source, one had to work at one of the 10 largest outlets of print, radio, Internet news, or TV news. To be listed as a politician, a person had to be a member of Congress or the executive branch. For this analysis, we did not include state and local politicians. Finally, Table  5.3 describes the users who classify themselves as part of QANON. Since most QANON accounts are anonymous, it is nearly impossible to get an accurate account of race, gender, or geographic characteristics. We classified QAnon users two ways: those who used the hashtags or phrases WWG1WGA, QAnon, the storm is coming, or the Great Awakening in their Twitter account and also who were tweeting and retweeting QANON information. QANON is the conspiracy theory that there is an organized cabal of elites that include Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and much of Hollywood that is running a child sex operation and that a person who posted anonymously on the website 4 channel with the name Q works at a high level in government and provides information to the world in what is known as Q drops to delineate the information to the public. Unfortunately for this analysis, one of the persons who described themselves as a Q supporter had not tweeted since October 18, 2019, and another who actually had the largest QANON account on Twitter was kicked off the platform for publishing false information related to COVID-19 and encouraging violence on others.

 Also of note, we included Peter Boghossian as both an academic and member of the IDW. We felt that he could fit into the definition of both groups. To better aid our understanding of both groups and to create ideological diversity we included him in this analysis. 3

5  Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians…


Analysis Academics on Twitter posted information often related to their areas of understanding and analysis. For example, Justin Wolfers, who is an economist, often posted information on how the COVID-19 pandemic and the laws and regulations instituted were going to affect the economy. Nicholas Christakis, who is both a medical doctor and a sociologist, posted about epidemiological and medical understandings of the virus. Carl Bergstrom, a biologist, spoke about the intricacy of the virus and how viruses spread. Many of the academics on Twitter worked to combat false information and give a greater understanding of how research works. Figure 5.1 shows the beginning of a long Twitter thread detailing the threats of the disaster. Bergstrom describes in what his opponents may view as hyperbolic his belief the coronavirus would be unprecedented in the level of disaster to countries. From the tweet, it is shown that he has an awareness he is sending a message to the public and wants to convey what he believes is the enormity of the depth of the problem. Figure 5.2 shows a response to Bergstrom that describes the counterargument with the Swedish model of handling the coronavirus. The Swedish model did not go into full lockdown but did encourage social distancing and was seen by opponents of the lockdown as a model that should be copied. However, as described by Nikel (2020), the Swedish model had many problems, which is shown in the first reply underneath. The IDW had a wide diversity of thought on the pandemic. Most posts from the IDW that got significant play on the web focused on three items. 1. The lockdown. There was a diversity of viewpoints on the lockdown with some (James Lindsay, Sam Harris, and Helen Pluckrose) of the IDW who consider themselves on the left politically—arguing that it was necessary and to follow the science. Others on the right (Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin) were more skeptical of the lockdown and worried about the long-term effects to the economy. 2. Masks and labs. The Weinstein brothers (Bret and Eric) focused on how the conversation originally was against the wearing of masks and then switched to favoring the wearing of masks. They argued that the original people who should be trusted, and, as Eric Weinstein would say, their signal boosted4 are those who were in favor of wearing masks early in the discussion. The Weinstein brothers are also of the belief that a lab in China should be investigated for either accidental or purposeful release of the coronavirus, and they work to amplify the notion that these thoughts are not allowed in mainstream discourse in academia or the media. 3. Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian spent many tweets explaining how critical theory, postmodernism, and intersectionality were undermining science by creating narratives and methods outside the realm of testable science; therefore,

 Signal boost according to Weinstein refers to someone who should get more airtime in the media.


68 Fig. 5.1  Analysis of Bergstrom thread

Fig. 5.2  Response to Bergstrom

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5  Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians…


scientists could not spread accurate messaging about public health and the coronavirus because truth has become relative. Figure 5.3 shows Sam Harris who got in a debate with Candace Owens who is a conservative that some people have also called a member of the IDW over government laws and restrictions. He argued that she was putting people’s health in danger. After Owens reached out, he sent this tweet. Figure 5.4 shows the interactions on the thread in Fig. 5.3. The first three posts on the thread were from people who argued against the détente between Harris and Fig. 5.3  Analysis of Harris thread

Fig. 5.4  Interactions on the thread


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Owens. Many of the people have advocated against the intellectual dark web and were working to get their views noticed on Harris’s page.

The Media and Politicians The media and politicians had similar narratives in that depending on either their political affiliations or if they were on a right leaning or left leaning media outlet, they reinforced either pro-Trump or Anti-Trump narratives. Media and politicians on the right tended to push unproven medicine such as hydroxychloroquine (Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity) or argue against lockdowns and stay at home orders. On the left there were often reactions to the numerous tweets from our president. The president was often the one driving the conversation concerning both politicians and the media. Media and politicians on average got more interaction and more retweets than any other group. Large accounts such as Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Jake Tapper, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity on average got 1200 more likes and over 2000 more retweets with regard to COVID-19. Figure 5.5 shows a post by Jake Tapper about a conspiracy theorist. This screenshot shows that Jake Tapper got 8000 retweets and over 3000 quote tweets. The media and politicians also showed a lot more action between one another in trying to discuss COVID-19 than the other groups. Media members tended to quote tweet other media members and politicians and politicians also quote tweeted media members and other politicians but were also likely to retweet information from other accounts that conformed to the politician’s point of view.

Fig. 5.5  Jake Tapper screenshot

5  Tweeting the Pandemic Away: A Look at How Academics, Activists, Politicians…


QAnon QANON followers had an overwhelming belief that the coronavirus was the groundwork for what they call the “Storm.” The storm according to QANON is that the president of the United States is going to begin a mass round-up of largely liberal elites including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Podesta, and others. They argued that the lockdown orders represented a chance to shut down transportation systems and keep people who would be arrested in their homes. Also, when Tom Hanks and his wife were diagnosed with the coronavirus, they believed that Hanks and his wife where secretly arrested and turning over information to receive a lighter sentence. The dialogue between Q supporters often were retweets and messages hoping for the storm to come soon. Because QANON is widely seen by most as lunacy and a conspiracy, there was not much interaction with non-supporters within their network. However, Q supporters often ventured on to Tom Hanks’s Twitter account and others and received heavy backlash. Some have commented that QANON has the makings of a cult or new religious movement (Nyce 2020).

Discussion and Conclusion Twitter, while having a large number of public square attributes because of its reach in society, is still a private corporation that can manage and even suspend dialogue. As with one account, we were tracking from QANON. We also found, consistent with The Collective Action Research Program (CARP) (Lichbach 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997), there are hierarchical arrangements on Twitter, with the largest accounts getting the most retweets and replies. However, we also found consistent with the Structuralists Synthetic Political Opportunity Theory (SPOT) (Mcadams et al. 1996, 2001; Tarrow 1998a, b, 2001) the reply section underneath was a contested space with debate and propaganda. We also found consistent with the SPOT that the coronavirus presented an opportunity for people to create narratives and promote their viewpoints on social media. Consistent with CARP, we found that while there were no formal contractual arrangements within Twitter, all participants implied an understanding to either affirm or repel arguments based on one’s ideology, political affiliation, or alignment with a particular group. Consistent with Gleason (2013), we found that Twitter users are likelier to associate, follow, and reply to those with similar interests and ideologies. However, we also found that some Twitter users are motivated to respond to people with different and divergent interests. However, these users are not encouraged by understanding the other point of view, but of presenting their views and either demeaning the person they are arguing against or trying to persuade a person that they are wrong. All five groups in our analysis knew that tweets could influence and motivate users. They were also aware that by having large accounts, they were able to influence


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debates. They also understood that they were trying to inform and influence others toward a particular point of view. Our research contributes to the body of literature on political and disaster communication in three main ways. 1. Through participant observation, we have worked toward synthesizing the two leading theories in the literature; the Collective Action Research Program and the Synthetic Political Opportunity Theory. 2. We have created a greater understanding of “contested space” in social media and how social media users drive narratives during a crisis such as a coronavirus pandemic. 3. We have shown through our analysis that people on Twitter are rational actors who work to reinforce specific points of view and deconstruct other points of view. While we believe that we have moved research forward on political communications, there were limitations in our study. Our groups were not geographically, racially, or ethnically diverse. Our research, with the exception of QANON, often focused on the accounts who had the heaviest traffic. Some may argue that we ignored the interactions of minor accounts that may also be driving understandings of the coronavirus. We also did not focus on retweets, which play a significant role in driving narratives. We also did not account for influential politicians and media outlets at the state and local level. Further research should be done on the items mentioned above, as well as expanding this research to other media sites. Also, there may be differences with how users interact on Twitter based on age, race, or gender that were not discussed in this research. We also feel that studies of local crises may give a broader understanding of how narratives are created through social media. Our findings indicate that the use of Twitter does not increase clarity in pandemic literacy. We find that instead, it may increase confusion in efforts to understand the pandemic. With so much communication about the pandemic and so many debates, the lack of clarity and consistency from different groups in arriving at certain agreed upon facts lays the ground for a distrust of expertise in general.

References Edwards A, Harris C (2016) To Tweet or To Subtweet: Impacts of social networking post directness and valence on interpersonal impressions. Comput Human Behav 63:304–310 Foer F (2018, July 6) The death of the Public Square: Today’s most powerful companies are enemies of free expression. The Atlantic.­ death-­of-­the-­public-­square/564506/. Accessed 1 May 2020 Gleason B (2013) #Occupy Wallstreet: exploring informal learning about a social movement on Twitter. Am Behav Sci 30:1–17

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Hemsley J, Eckert J (2014) Examining the role of “Place” in Twitter Networks through the Lens of Contentious Politics. Presented at 47th Hawaii Conference of System Science, Honolulu, Hawaii Jaffer J (2018, October 18) Digital journalism and the new Public Square. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, digital-­journalism-­and-­the-­new-­public-­square Johnson E, Prakash A (2007) NGO research program: a collective action perspective. Pol Sci 40:221–240 Kumar S, Morstatter F, Liu H (2013) Twitter analytics. Springer, New York Lichbach M (1994) Rethinking rationality and rebellion: theories of collective action and problems of collective dissent. Ration Soc 6:8–39 Lichbach M (1995) The Rebel’s Dilemma. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 514pp Lichbach M (1996) The Cooperator’s Dilemma. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 309pp Lichbach M (1997) Contentious maps of contentious politics. Mobilization 2:87–98 McAdam D, Tarrow S, Tilly C (1996) To map contentious politics. Mobilization 1(1):17–34 McAdam D, Tarrow S, Tilly C (2001) Dynamics of contention. Cambridge University Press, New York Moe T (1984) The new economics of organization. Am J Polit Sci 28:739–777 Moe T (2005) Power and political institutions. Perspect Polit 3:215–233 Nikel D (2020, May 6) Sweden’s coronavirus not a model to copy warns Goldman Sachs. Forbes. Accessed May 6 from swedens-­coronavirus-­approach-­not-­a-­model-­to-­copy-­warns-­goldman-­sachs/#16fab9a62aac Nyce C (2020, May 14) Qanon is a New American Religion. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic. com/newsletters/archive/2020/05/qanon-­q-­pro-­trump-­conspiracy/611722/ Park S-J, Lim YS, Park HW (2015) Comparing twitter and YouTube networks in information diffusion: the case of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. Technol Forecast Soc Chang 95:208–217 Search Engine Journal (2020) The 7 biggest social media sites of 2020. Last Modified February 3, 2020.­media/biggest-­social-­media-­sites/#close Tarrow S (1998a) Contentious politics and social movements. In: Tarrow SG (ed) Power in movement: social movements and contentious politics, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Tarrow S (ed) (1998b) Power in movement: social movements and contentious politics, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Tarrow S (2001) Transnational politics: contention and institutions in international politics. Annu Rev Polit Sci 4:1–20 Wang C-J, Pian-Pian W, Zhu J (2013) Discussing Occupy Wall Street on Twitter: longitudinal network analysis of equality, emotion, and stability of public discussion. CyberPsychol Behav Soc Netw 16:679–685 Warzel C (2017, June 9) Meet the people who Battle to be the top reply to a Trump Tweet. Buzzfeed News. Accessed 2 May 2020 Weiss B (2018, May 8) Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web an Alliance of Heretics is making an End Run around the Mainstream Conversation: Should we be listening? Accessed 4 May 2020

Chapter 6

Textual Analysis of Cartoons on Nigerian Politicians’ Reactions to COVID-19 Pandemic on Social Media Godswill Okorobia Okiyi

Introduction This chapter seeks to analyze perceptions Nigerians had of their government at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic through online cartoons of politicians and different situations, which helped spread pandemic literacy. Emergence of mobile telephones and introduction of social media platforms between 2001 and 2005 transformed Nigeria’s socio-economic circumstances, in particular in communication activities. Historically, Nigeria’s telecommunication services were provided by Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), a public utility that had monopoly of telecommunications and data services until wireless services were introduced in August 2001. As Rai (2018, 194) observed, the advent of modern technology has facilitated a new venue of personal expression where people from diverse backgrounds discuss issues of public concern through a variety of multimedia and communication systems. Availability and popularity of the Internet has increased the number of users. It is estimated that by 2019, more than 90 million active users of the Internet existed in Nigeria (Ibenegbu 2019). Mainly used by young people, social media enjoys a huge popularity in Nigeria. Different kinds of blogs, online publications, and other online services form diverse communities for different kinds of social, political, and business transactions. According to Jimada (2019, 3), “social media use has increased more in the emerging markets.” Per the Pew Research Center in 2015–16, roughly four-in-ten adults across the emerging nations surveyed including Nigeria were found to be users of social networking sites. From a survey of the top 10 most visited social media sites, WhatsApp and Facebook were listed first and second, respectively, combined to include more than 41% of Nigerian social media users. As Adegboye (2015, 1) noted, “Platforms used most frequently include professional networking sites (such G. O. Okiyi (*) Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 D. A. Vakoch et al. (eds.), COVID Communication,



G. O. Okiyi

as LinkedIn), social photo and video sharing platforms (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Instagram), blogs and news outlets that feature social, political, entertainment and lifestyle influences.” These platforms provide opportunities for acquiring COVID-19 pandemic literacy. Nigeria’s historical development has been woven through political and social challenges, including a Colonial Government, the 1967–1970 Nigeria–Biafra Civil War, a series of military putsches, and palace and counter coups. Citing Ake (1995), Danladi and Malam (2019, 371) observed that the country has a history of political and institutional instability. Decades of military rule, bad governance, and corruption gave rise to poverty, decaying public utilities and infrastructures, and social tension and political turmoil. Long military rule created a unitary but unusual socio-­ political framework at handover to civilians in 1999. Power existed in the hands of few in an unwieldy Federal system of Government with absolute powers that encouraged patronage along ethnic and religious lines. As Sklar et al. (2006, 4) noted, “the growing distance between this political elite and the general public, however, has undermined accountability …Poverty and frustration over the slow pace of change fan public anger.” A widening chasm exists where members of the political class are perceived as corrupt, insensitive, and apathetic to the plights of the masses. This perception is further strengthened by poor living conditions, bad roads, lack of infrastructure, failing health institutions, high unemployment, increasing poverty, and poor governance, which contrasts heavily with the opulence, wealth, and material comfort displayed openly by members of the political class and elites. The coronavirus pandemic seemed faraway when the news of unexplained deaths from December 2019 led to increased restrictions and lockdown in Wuhan, China. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020. On February 11, 2020, WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19 (WHO May 19, 2020). According to Twachtman (2020), after an assessment of the severity and spread of the outbreak, the Director-­ General of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, declared COVID-19 a pandemic  on March 11, 2020. The pandemic did not attract much national media attention or public interest in Nigeria while it spread to Western Europe and the United States until it broke out in Africa and Nigeria. The spread of COVID-19 gained traction with reports of the index case in the country, an Italian citizen who returned to Nigeria from Milan and was confirmed infected on February 27, 2020 (Enahire 2020). Mixed reactions followed, until news media reports emerged that prominent elites, Atiku Abubakar’s son (former vice president of Nigeria), Abba Kyari (late Chief of Staff to the Nigerian President), two state governors (Nasir El’Rufai and Bala Mohammed), and a host of other members of the political class tested positive for the virus. Stories of the pandemic also gained traction on social media with divergent views on who tested positive for it, especially as stories of federal lawmakers who returned from overseas trips and evaded screening went viral (The Cable 2020). As observed, social media platforms serve as channels for political discussions, civic engagements, and youth inclusiveness in political and socio-economic conversations and discussions (Adegboye 2015).

6  Textual Analysis of Cartoons on Nigerian Politicians’ Reactions to COVID-19…


Different kinds of reports were posted online about COVID-19 in Nigeria, including texts, comments, news reports, audio-video clips, jokes, and stories, among others. Cartoons were also used to communicate visually about the spread and impact of COVID-19 in Nigeria, especially its effect on members of the political class. Through this cache of information, it became possible to investigate the acquisition of pandemic literacy.

Social Media and Political Discourse in Nigeria Nigeria is a country with an estimated population of more than 200 million persons (National Bureau of Statistics 2018, 11). Most are young adults of 18–35. The popularity of the Internet and use of social media are high among these demographics. As Ibraheem (2014, 411) observed, with the growing penetration of Internet and telephone technology, the electorate embraced the social media platforms increasingly popular around the world. Statistics shows that more than 90 million Nigerians own mobile phones and millions more have access to the Internet. Citing Zuckerberg, Vaidhyanathan (2018, 2) stated that just as TV became the primary medium for civic communication in the 1960s, social media is becoming so in the twenty-first century. As a result of their dynamic and versatile nature, views on social media platforms are widely discussed and coalesce with divergent views from participants with different political and ethnic interests. As Auwal and Adamu (2018, 190) note, social media platforms have served as effective tools by individuals or members of social groups, to express support for or grievances against some issues of national interest. Citing McQuail (2010), Jimada (2019, 4) noted that the new media provides political information that makes room for the establishment of unlimited access to different voices and feedback between leaders and followers. Social media provides space for citizens who belong to different groups and cultures to participate in national discourse. Citing Xu (2018), Abdulrauf-Salau and Tanko (2019, 383) observed that social media is used to influence government decision making and shape its relationship with various political and social actors. The two authors further observed that social media helps social actors communicate, organize, and share information among one another. Users of social media air their views among members of the same community who may amplify such views and post them to other communities and platforms to which they belong. Further, Bosch (2017) in Abdulrauf-Salau and Tanko (2019, 385) stated that social media plays a central role in political activism, thereby providing opportunities for a networked citizen-centered perspective that connects the private sphere of autonomous political identity to a multitude of political spaces. Social media platforms have therefore assumed special roles in political discourse in Nigeria, as they are used for political campaigns. Most public office holders appoint social media managers who function to interact and evaluate responses to issues of national interest. In this discourse we see social media used for the spreading of pandemic communication.


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Cartoons as Communicative Media As in other parts of the world, cartoons are an integral part of newspapers and magazines in Nigeria. As Onakpa (2014, 33) observed, “a panoramic observation would reveal that most daily newspapers and weekly magazines publish various cartoons and comic strips on social, political and economic affairs of the country or as illustrations of some editorial matter.” Cartoons are drawings used to explain and depict thematic situations deemed fit by the cartoonist. According to Bartlett (2015, 215), cartoons are a ubiquitous form of visual communication. They offer a window into the world depicted, and from a socio-cultural perspective, cartoons and their inherent humor play important roles in popular and academic culture. They explain situations in a lighthearted, satirical, comical, and humorous manner and mostly use sharp wit to deride or ridicule the object of the cartoon. As Momoniat (2018) explains, court jesters have been around since the time of the pharaohs, but now we also have professional comedians and cartoonists—as well as those unwitting comedians, politicians. Cartoons, which often ridicule this latter species, are, by definition, funny. Cartoons mostly make use of caricature and exaggerate the physical features of leaders and elites. Caricature reduces the authority of the power monger, stripping him (more often male) of legitimacy and reducing him to the realm of the ordinary (Momoniat 2018). The role of the caricature in the cartoon is almost indispensable and immediately recognized by the audience. Issues for which caricatures are created or known for are juxtaposed ludicrously to magnify and create better understanding, albeit, in a lighthearted manner. Cartoons provide light relief from the written word, and they also illustrate and open debate about serious or sensitive issues (Bartlett 2015, 216). Growth and popularity of cartoons continued with its emergence in the nineteenth century, gaining prominence ever since. In Nigeria, from 1960 onward the trend in most Nigerian newspapers and magazines has been a combination of both comics and serious political cartoons (Onakpa 2014, 36). Versatility of the Internet led to online platforms by print publications, blogs, and social media platforms increased channels through which cartoonists could express their thoughts on socio-political issues pictorially.

Use of Cartoons as Political Tools Cartoons  serve as tools to achieve political objectives. According to Okoro and Shaibu (2016, 3) political cartoons are usually seen as an effective means for cartoonists to express their thoughts and ideas about prevalent political issues or events in a particular period using humor. Cartoons are used to editorialize or create agenda concerning political developments within specific societies. Citing Nze (1989, 21), Onakpa (2014, 35) stated that the importance of cartoons as instrument of political

6  Textual Analysis of Cartoons on Nigerian Politicians’ Reactions to COVID-19…


and social commentary was not confined to Europe alone. In Nigeria, the use of political cartoons became prominent with the struggle against colonialism in the early part of the twentieth century. They were used mainly by the nationalist press to express anti-colonial messages and expose perceived wrongdoings of the colonial government. The political cartoon is mostly satirical and criticizes social misdeeds, sayings, views, or events that concern highly placed personalities or political elites. Citing Jonathan (2000), Nnanyelugo and Shaibu (2016, 5) observed that political cartoons are vivid primary sources offering intriguing and entertaining insights into the public mood, the underlying cultural assumptions of an age, and attitudes toward key events or trends. Through cartoons, societal ills are exposed, and depicted in a satirical manner exposing the perceived offender to ridicule and place him in an unsavory light. The cartoonist’s strength is derived from humor, sarcasm, and irony, while elites and politicians are usually objects of ridicule. In corroboration, Nnanyelugo and Shaibu (2016, 7) surmised that “Nigerian cartoonists manipulated aggressive humor styles purposely to construct criticisms pointed to political leaders and comment on current socio-political issues of the moment in order to initiate social and political reforms.” With migration of audience members to social networking platforms, content creators post cartoons of trending political issues online to generate mirth, information, and to initiate conversations on issues raised. Little wonder that cartoons that caricature Nigerian politicians’ seeming helplessness against COVID-19 pandemic attacks were regularly posted online.

Theoretical Framework Public sphere theory did not stem from critical theory, though its popularity is drawn from Jurgen Habermas’s influential work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. But public sphere theory does relate to familiar terms of openness, publicity, the public, and publicness. Principles guiding a public sphere perspective suggest that modes and forms of communication are central to political and public life. The public sphere concept is indispensable in understanding the political commitment and the moral vision of communication theory (Cho 2009, 814). The “self” in public sphere perspectives is abstracted from interpersonal discourse—indeed personal, private, and inner feelings are removed from public discourse. Dialogue is recognized as the privileged form of communication that is carried out face-to-face in different settings in public sphere theory. Characteristics of public sphere theory in face-to-face conversation are replicable in new media where virtual communities of diverse people in different geographic and time settings hold technologically mediated conversations in different formats like texts, illustrations, pictures, cartoons, and memes among themselves.


G. O. Okiyi

Uses and gratification theory expects that people rely on and use media through which they are gratified. It predicted that an audience relies on the media to gratify specific needs, thereafter, leading to its dependence on such media. In his analysis, Pearce (2009, 978) observes that the more an individual depends on a specific medium to fulfill needs, the more important the medium will become for the person. Postulated by Katz, Blumer, and Gurevitch in the 1970s, uses and gratification theory dwelt extensively on audience uses of media content. Palmgreen expanded the theory with works of Karl Rosengren and Martin Fishbein’s expectancy-value theory of beliefs and attitudes for the theory’s expansion in 1984 with which Palmgreen explained the phenomenon that a media user’s gratifications will be achieved through beliefs held in his evaluation of the utility of the medium he uses. However, other variables play roles in media consumed by an audience, such as culture, social institutions, media access opportunities, circumstances, personal traits, needs, beliefs, and values. Availability of social media platforms has made them popular among Nigerians, especially their convergence features, versatility, and flexibility with which users can manipulate pictures, encrypt messages, and post them across communities with which they are linked in the cyber sphere.

Methodology The paper adopted a qualitative approach through description and interpretation of information from text, illustrations, language, and symbolic representation of connotations. As a form of visual communication, the cartoon has a viable role to play in qualitative research (Bartlett 2015, 224). The data analyzed are pictorial in nature and were interpreted on the basis of meanings derived within the socio-cultural contexts they were presented. A population of 11 cartoons collected between March and April 2020 from Facebook and WhatsApp were identified for use in this study, however five cartoons were considered pertinent. They dealt with the theme of elite or government responsibility for addressing the risk and prevalence of COVID-19. This cartoon sample was collected at the peak of the initial pandemic, when the Federal Government had ordered lockdowns in key commercial areas in Nigeria as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Textual analysis method was used to examine, interpret, and explain different meanings of the cartoons.

Analysis This cartoon (Fig.  6.1) was posted when media reports of Nigerians who tested positive gained prominence in the country. Also, news was replete regarding some members of the House of Representatives who just returned overseas but evaded being tested at the airport. This cartoon ridiculed and lampooned Nigerian

6  Textual Analysis of Cartoons on Nigerian Politicians’ Reactions to COVID-19…


Fig. 6.1  General Hospital. (Source:, March 25, 2020)

politicians who the citizenry perceived as corrupt, and who had carried out poor quality projects despite huge sums allocated for them. The text is ironic in nature. The character carried on a pallet, looked scared as he protested that he is a politician and should not be taken into a dilapidated mud hut, described as “General Hospital,” which represented the weak health infrastructure in Nigeria. To his protests, one of his bearers retorted, “But it’s your project sir!” This cartoon represented the hypocrisy and insensitivity of Nigerian politicians who pay lip service to infrastructural development projects but engage in medical trips overseas. The outbreak of the corona virus pandemic stopped such travels and forced the politicians to seek treatment in the ill-equipped hospitals they had built. The cartoon mocked their plight and helpless situations. This cartoon (Fig. 6.2) also dealt with the theme of politicians who engage in mindless travels, but cannot because of travel bans, and the outbreak of the virus from China. A female character, in nurse’s uniform standing over the politician, complained of his lack of recovery from an unknown illness, and sought to know if he should be transferred to his favorite hospital in China. The term “Honorable” is commonly used to address politicians in Nigeria. The pictorial representation is symbolic as it shows the politician naked, deflated, and powerless, and being addressed by a female. Nigeria is a patrilineal society that views the man as superior to the woman. The phrase, “tell your village people …” is commonly used in Nigeria to suggest that the supernatural is negatively affecting the subject of the remark. It further indicates that politicians are scared of rural settings as they carry out few development programs in such places, risking possible retributions from rural dwellers.


G. O. Okiyi

Fig. 6.2  Honorable Sir! (Source: Giftedart drawing and illustration, https://www.facebook. com/2292722631002641/posts/2685493305058903/?app=fbl, March 14, 2020)

This cartoon (Fig. 6.3) is Afrocentric in nature and played on issues of migration prominently featuring constant attempts by African migrants to sail to Western Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. Economic and other deprivations have continuously lured illegal African migrants to seek “greener pasture” in Europe, and they are mostly stopped by border patrols of western countries. The cartoon is split into two segments. The first part shows poverty designed like a virus chasing Africans (immigrants) to Europe, but they are stopped at the shores by a caricature of a European with a “do not cross” sign. The second is the reverse, as Europeans with face masks fleeing from corona virus in Europe were barred from entering Africa. This is ironic, and symbolizes the importance of mutual cooperation, understanding, and tolerance, especially in the face of different pandemics like coronavirus and hunger that kill people in great numbers.

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Fig. 6.3  Stay on your continent! (Source: Richard Kato., March 23, 2020, courtesy, The Observer, Uganda, mobile app)

Figure 6.4 dealt with allegations of corrupt practices in the management of funds designated for the management of the spread of COVID-19, by the Ministry of Finance and Presidential Task Force (PTF) committee established to monitor and execute programs to stop the infection’s spread. Creators of the cartoon are from an arm of the major opposition party in Nigeria, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which uses social media for different campaigns. The main objective of the cartoon is to expose corrupt practices in Nigeria, despite perceived accomplishments. The cartoon shows a busload of coronavirus departing Nigeria in anger at being used to enrich people. A banner bearing World Tour is on the bus, tagged Corona Express. The top text reads, “In Nigeria, people are using me to make money” while the lower text reads, “Bye bye Nigeria.” This cartoon ironically suggests that coronavirus was leaving Nigeria because politicians corruptly enriched themselves with funds that were allocated to fight the pandemic. Interestingly, the title “Nigeria don pass my power” in Nigerian pidgin English means that the corrupt actions of


G. O. Okiyi

Fig. 6.4  Nigeria don pass my power. (Source: PDP Patriot FORUM, https://www.facebook. com/1990761347849252/posts/2616118508646863/?app=fbl, April 10, 2020)

Nigerian politicians are more potent than coronavirus. The aim of the cartoon is to ridicule governments’ efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.

Discussions The importance of cartoons in enriching national discourse and creating better understanding of knotty issues cannot be overemphasized. In this study, themes covering a range of topics were done. While mocking the president’s inability to address national issues promptly, sarcasm and humor were used to drive the message home. Further, corrupt practices of politicians preventing them from building effective national infrastructure including a good health system were exposed as the politicians’ frailties and fears were mocked. Their helplessness was reveled in situations they could neither control nor avoid. These cartoons ridiculed them through debasing and exaggerated drawings and texts used to define the situations. Diplomatic differences between Europe and Africa were aligned with the outbreak and spread of the corona virus pandemic.

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Humor was used to personify coronavirus as engendering anger, with politicians and policymakers using the excuse of combating the virus while embezzling targeted funds and donations. As a communication form, cartoons were effective as they reached different communities of social media users online. Such cartoons were posted on different platforms online, but Facebook and WhatsApp were the main ones used. Despite the seriousness of COVID-19, social media users were entertained, amused, and informed through cartoons that dealt with how the virus impacted corrupt politicians in Nigeria. It can be argued that through the use of cartoons on social media, pandemic literacy increased among communities on social platforms in Nigeria.

Conclusion The popularity of cartoons continued as they migrated to social media platforms and became channels through which national conversations were humorously expressed. Cartoons are easily posted across platforms and are not restricted in any way. The language of most sampled cartoons is mainly Nigerian Standard English, and a variety of pidgin English spoken and understood by Nigerians ensuring ease of understanding. Themes treated are situational, including caricatures of people. Despite the growth and extension of media types, messages should still be communicated through cartoons as they enhance understanding and enable members of social media communities to express their opinions and views visually. Bloggers and online publications should continue to engage through this genre as cartoons can be used to strengthen editorial comments. Given its versatility, connectedness, popularity, and reach, social media networks can employ cartoons effectively, through their particular nature to entertain, amuse, and inform.

References Abdulrauf-Salau A, Tanko SB (2019) Hashtag activism on Twittersphere in Nigeria: a social capital perspective. In: Adeyanju AM, Jimoh I, Suleiman HM (eds) Mass Media in Nigeria: research, theories and practice. National Institute Press, Kuru, pp 383–397 Adegboye I (2015) Impact of Social Media in Nigeria – PR2J3C4 – Nigeria @ Her Best – The 234 Project, May 02, 2020. Auwal MA, Adamu A (2018) Conceptualising the access, control and intricacies of the social media in Nigeria. Nasarawa J Multimedia Commun Stud 2:187–199 Bartlett RL (2015) Playing with meaning: using cartoons to disseminate research findings. https://, 214–227. Accessed 7 May 2020. https://doi. org/10.1177/1468794112451037, Cho CY (2009) Public sphere. In: Littlejohn SW, Foss K (eds) Encyclopedia of communication theory. SAGE Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, pp 813–816 Daily Trust (2020) Cartoon 250320, “CORONAVIRUS”, n.d. Accessed 20 Apr 2020


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Danladi K, Malam MN (2019) A historical analysis of social protests and social media in Nigeria. In: Adeyanju AM, Jimoh I, Suleiman HM (eds) Mass media in Nigeria: research, theories and practice. National Institute Press, Kuru, pp 370–382 Enahire O (2020, February 28) First Case of Corona Virus Disease Confirmed in Nigeria. Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. Accessed 5 May 2020 Giftedart drawing and illustration (2020, March 14) Honourable Sir, Cartoon. Accessed 30 Apr 2020 Ibenegbu G (2019) Statistics of social media users in Nigeria. Media Limited. https:// Accessed 02 May 2020 Ibraheem AI (2014) Media and politics: a study of Nigerian 2011 general elections. In: Oso L, Olatunji R, Owens-Ibie N (eds) Journalism and Media in Nigeria: context, issues and practice. Canada University Press, Ontario, pp 410–427 Jimada U (2019) Social Media in the Public Sphere of Accountability in Nigeria. Glob Media J 17(32):1–9 Momoniat Y (2018, December 6) Africa: what are cartoons meant to do? stories/201812070673.html. Accessed 7 May 2020 National Bureau of Statistics (2018) Report on the nutrition and health situation of Nigeria, Abuja Nnanyelugo O, Shaibu MO (2016) Students’ perception of newspaper cartoons as tools for political communication: a study of the three universities in Kogi State, Nigeria. Novena J Commun 2:1–18 Onakpa M (2014) Cartoons, Cartoonists and effective communication in the Nigeria Print Media. African Res Rev 8(1):32–41. Accessed 7 May 2020, PDP Patriot FORUM (2020, April 20) Nigeria don pass my power, Cartoon. Accessed 21 Apr 2020 Pearce KJ (2009) Uses, gratifications, and dependency. In: Littlejohn SW, Foss K (eds) Encyclopedia of communication theory. SAGE Publications, Inc., Los Angeles, pp 978–980 Rai N (2018) Discourse analysis: How Bhutanese Issues are Discussed Online? Media Watch 9(2):194–202. Accessed 30 Apr 2020 Sklar RL, Onwudiwe E, Kew D (2006) Nigeria: completing Obasanjo’s legacy. J Democr 17(3):100–115 The Cable (2020, March 24) Abba Kyari tests positive for coronavirus after foreign trip. https:// Accessed 05 May 2020 The Observer (2020, March 23) Stay on your continent! Accessed 21 May 2020 Twachtman G (2020, March 11) WHO declares COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Medscape. Accessed 21 May 2020 Vaidhyanathan S (2018) Anti-social media: how Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy. Oxford University Press, New York WHO (2020) Coronavirus (COVID-19) events as they happen. Accessed 22 May 2020

Part II

Visual Discourse: Pandemic Information Distribution

Chapter 7

The Rhetoric of Visual Representations: Visualizing the COVID-19 Pandemic in Polish Media Karolina Glowka

The interrelation of seeing practices with forms of instrumentalization confirms that visual communication is a basic mode of interaction in contemporary culture. Visually based procedures are gaining importance in many branches of science, used for observation measurement and modeling, or identification and analysis of social trends. Data visualizations are at the core of visual communication, as they allow us to transform complex information into graphic symbols. Integrated in a visual form, data are easily digestible, facilitating comprehension and information memorizing (Childers and Houston 1984; Larsen 2008, 74–75; Medina 2008). Plausibly, creating specific representations of portrayed issues, visual data help to get a particular point across. Importantly, by simplifying intricate concepts and relations, visual data are inevitably biased by distortion processes like selection or generalization (Cairo 2019; Tufte 2001). Therefore, visualization techniques direct ways of interpreting content, serving as an effective tool for producing, organizing, and distributing knowledge. In turn, data visualization techniques are a useful rhetoric tool, as the aim of rhetoric is to convince an audience to adopt a certain value by its appropriate presentation (Ehninger 1972, 3; Prelli 2006, 8–9). The rhetorical nature of visual data is therefore a significant field for research. News media shape information by giving it a particular structure. Moreover, media tend to exaggerate events that are potentially attention-grabbing and emotionally intense, ignoring at the same time those less dramatic (Kahneman 2011; Slovic 1986). Data regarding biological threats presented by news media seem especially alarming, as they have the capacity to induce fear for one’s health and life. Consequently, topics of health are frequently portrayed in news media in terms of risk (Renn 1992; Berry et al. 2007). Particularly in a complex risk situation, when K. Glowka (*) University of Lincoln, Lincoln, UK e-mail: [email protected] © The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2023 D. A. Vakoch et al. (eds.), COVID Communication,



K. Glowka

the public has no direct experience with a given hazard, it tends to rely on information provided by news media (Berry et  al. 2007; Slovic 1986). News regarding uncertain situations seems to be considered particularly attentively by audiences in order to evaluate risks and choose the most appropriate reactions (Slovic 1992; Witte 1992). Previous studies on the topic of health emergencies in media have considered the accuracy of information and how media’s biased coverage affects adequate evaluation of potential risk, indicating that imprecise and distorted information hindered this process (Chung and Gi 2013; Fung et al. 2011; Roche and Muskavitch 2003; Rossmann et  al. 2018; Witte 1992). Despite the increasing significance of visual data in news reports, there is little research investigating the possible role of visual information in forming risk perception in uncertain health situations. Thus, the purpose of this study is to analyze the impact of visinfo on public reaction to epidemic disease by conducting a content analysis of visual data used in Polish news articles around the topic of the COVID-19 outbreak. Furthermore, COVID-19 communication analysis provides the means to reveal construction of visual information presented in COVID-19 epidemic news.

Literature Review Studies in visual literacy indicate the importance of a frame that allows us to emphasize certain aspects of a problem, influencing its possible interpretation (Messaris and Abraham 2001; Prelli 2006; Zillman et  al. 2001). Framing theory (Goffman 1974) provides a theoretical foundation for understanding how a communication source can define a social issue (a problem) and bias its perception. The term “frame” relates to the process of forming content to convey intended meaning in a message. Importantly, audiences exposed to the news may understand social problems through the lens of the frame (Entman 1993). Moreover, rhetoricity manifests itself in the depiction of displays directing receiver’s attention toward certain meanings, which in turn reinforces particular values and ideas. As Prelli (2006, 11) notes, whatever is displayed conveys particular assertions about presented subject matter. For this reason, the process of displaying is never neutral. A mere visual form has persuasive potential as it can reinforce perceived relevance of displayed issues (Zillman et al. 2001). Regarding data visualizations, it should be noted that the final form of the representation is preceded by a series of author choices, from simplification of statistical details to the stylistic character of a display and annotation usage. Furthermore, particular visual elements gain importance through different compositional effects, like contrast or color (Messaris 1997; van Leeuwen 2005). Even the provenance of data can be critical for the final interpretation because knowledge about the process of producing data may change its understanding (Kosara et al. 2015). All these steps are rhetorical in their nature, affecting ways of understanding data by an audience, and constraining some

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of their possible interpretations. Thus, structural arrangement of visual data can determine the way in which information is understood. Additionally, visual data displays are attention-grabbing and function as proof, indicating the truth of presented information (Jamieson 1992; Messaris 1997). Experiments testing the manner of processing pictures indicate that the process is partially automatic and holistic, allowing for simultaneous understanding of the visual message. It is therefore plausible that the content of pictures is analyzed consciously, although formal aspects are, at least partially, processed automatically. This automatic and holistic evidence suggests some stylistic features are spontaneously used to evaluate data (Goossens 2003; Nordhielm 2002). Visual displays are powerful tools. Thus, as Zillmann et al. (1999) point out, it might be implied that an impact equal to that evoked by images could not be an effect of even the most vivid descriptions of portrayed events. Dual-coding theory explains why perception of an issue presented in text-image admixture is dominated by image information as a consequence of image property retention, especially its concreteness (Paivio 1991). Probably different manners of coding visual and verbal information enable us to spend less time on understanding a visual message than a verbal one. Visual messages are coded faster than verbal ones and, in consequence, are interpreted and recalled more quickly (Feiereisen et al. 2008). Experiments also indicate that an arrangement of picture content allows for its immediate visual data fragmentation on a stage of coding, which results in reinforcement of a memory trait (Childers and Houston 1984). Accordingly, information in a visual form is better recalled than it is in verbal form (McQuarrie and Mick 2003). Thus, skillful arrangement of information on the structural level of a picture can serve rhetorical acts. Importantly, image information, especially emotionally stimulating, can distort problem perception accordingly to the direction suggested by a visual image (Grimes and Drechsel 1996; Gibson and Zillmann 2000). Moreover, threatening images were found to influence risk perception (Gibson and Zillmann 2000). Gibson and Zillmann (2000) showed that presenting threatening visual images in the news contributed to perceiving the probability of threatening situation occurrence as higher. Furthermore, photographs signaling a threat are able to amplify attention devoted to the text. Events that are adaptively significant are emotionally valid, as they serve as a source of information regarding an individual’s safety (LeDoux 1992; Shoemaker 1996). Images potentially inducing curiosity in a Gibson and Zillmann (2000) experiment fostered information acquisition conveyed in a text form. It thus seems that visual content is incorporated into a story created by a reader and, in consequence, can direct the interpretation of presented information in a suggested manner. This effect can be especially noticeable with regard to information about threatening situations, when personal apprehension about safety is acquired. As Wachinger et al. (2010) notice, collection, selection, and interpretation of signals regarding possible consequences of uncertain events contribute to risk perception. Mass media serving as a source of information about global threats can be considered a factor moderating risk perception (Slovic 1987; Griffin et  al. 1999).


K. Glowka

News media seem to be especially effective in contributing to risk perception of worldwide hazards, as they aim to portray the whole spectrum of issues regarding described crisis situations. Thus, the more available information regarding a particular danger, and the more numerous frames attributing different meanings to the crisis, the higher its occurrence is assumed to be (Tversky and Kahneman 1974; Kahneman 2011). Frames used by news media, which attribute different meanings to a portrayed crisis, may influence the public’s risk perception. It seems that media attention in crisis situations focuses mainly on risk magnitude, its future impact, and reassuring information concerning the crisis. Not only written text but also visual data accompanying news articles enable media to disseminate detailed information in an intelligible form, conveying at the same time a partial perspective on a subject matter. Particularly data visualizations, which are popular tools used by journalists, may affect attitudes toward a crisis. Therefore, this study analyzes the role of Polish media coverage of COVID-19 in shaping risk perception, especially when it portrays a personally relevant and emotionally driven crisis. This research enhances an understanding of how visual data in news articles are used to communicate risk and reinforce a formulated standpoint on pandemic outbreak. COVID-19 communication analysis also gives insight into the reliability of news articles. Developing a deeper understanding of frames employed in data visualizations could help increase awareness among readers of the rhetorical potential of visinfo.

Methods Quantitative visual content analysis was conducted to examine risk communication strategies regarding COVID-19 in news articles and their effects on viewers’ risk perception. A sample of 232 data visualizations, published between May 1, 2020, and June 1, 2020, was chosen from three main online news outlets:,, and The rationale for focusing on Internet articles was the high exposure of the Polish population to online news media. Nearly 85% of Polish residents have access to the Internet, with approximately three quarters (28.1 million people) engaging in its use. Articles were identified through terms “COVID-19” and “coronavirus,” and then examined to determine their main topic. All visual data accompanying news articles dealing with COVID-19 were included in the analysis. Based on the literature review, three distinguishable frames covering critical observations on portraying techniques of epidemic outbreaks were chosen to code sample material: risk magnitude, self-efficacy, and future orientation (Dudo et al. 2007; Saxon et al. 2019; Ungar 1998). The risk magnitude frame captured visual data describing the level of threat, specifically in relation to the extent of the pandemic, vaccine, and treatment, as well as an individual’s likelihood of infection, illness, and death (Dudo et  al. 2007; Saxon et  al. 2019). The self-efficacy frame covered visual data regarding symptoms and protective actions that can be taken by an individual to prevent contraction or support treatment (Dudo et al. 2007; Saxon et  al. 2019). Finally, the future orientation frame was used for visual data that

7  The Rhetoric of Visual Representations: Visualizing the COVID-19 Pandemic…


emphasized the consequences of COVID-19 and predicted future changes due to the outbreak. Visual data representations were retrieved from news articles and coded according to the frame category they were representing.

Intercoder Reliability Two researchers coded data visualizations retrieved from selected websites. To assess intercoder reliability, two researchers independently coded the same 58 visual data displays from three online news websites, which constituted approximately 25% of all data visualizations analyzed in the study. The intercoder reliability for the raters was found to be a satisfactory based on the Kappa statistic (κ = 0.84; p