Corona bigwig José van Dijck: ‘Technology is not a miracle cure for corona’

José van Dijck, the intelligent lockdown has been in place for almost three months now. How does your work as professor of media and digital society at Utrecht University relate to corona issues?
“I was supposed to be in Italy now. As a visiting professor, I was supposed to give lectures at the University of Siena. That, of course, has been postponed. Then I thought I’d have a lot of time to write articles, but to be honest, I’ve been exceedingly busy with the corona crisis. I mostly comment, give advice and information about the role of technology and social media in the current corona debate.

“Last week, for instance. Newspaper De Volkskrant and TV show Nieuwsuur asked me to comment on Trump and the Twitter war. He’d spoken out again – this time tweeting that elections by mail-in ballots would lead to fraud – but Twitter had indicated that his tweet contained misleading information. As a media scientist, I’m then asked to explain these instances.”

And you were busy working on the corona app…
“Indeed. With a large group of scientists, we wrote a letter to the prime minister on April 13 in which we voiced our concerns about the corona app. You can’t just randomly create an app that has so much impact on society, if you don’t involve legal experts, media scientists, ethicists, and behavioural scientists in the decision-making process. So little was known about the context of the app, everything was too unclear, and that wasn’t a good foundation for the development of an app. That’s what we wanted to say, and we succeeded in doing so.

“Then, a few colleagues and I were invited to visit the parliament and explain what an app like that can and can’t do, and what its influence on society would be. Our contribution was well-received, which was nice, and I think the government learnt from it and used it in the debate with the ministers later that afternoon. Since then, they’ve reached the conclusion that it’s not a good idea to just start developing an app. That had also become clear from the failed appathon, in which all seven potential corona apps were rejected.”

So that app’s not going to happen?
“Oh, I think it will, but in a much more specific context. It will mostly be to support the public health service in its contact investigations. Technology is a tool that can work in a supporting way, but it’s not a miracle cure that will offer all solutions. That’s how it had been presented by the government initially, but they’ve since refined that idea. And legal experts, media scientists, ethicists, and behavioural scientists are now all consulting on the decision-making process.”

Why is it so important to involve experts from different disciplines in the development of the app? What, for example, would a behavioural scientist have to say about a tracing app?
“If no one downloads the app or uses it the right way, it’ll be useless. Using it well is the condition for its effectiveness. And this is what these experts can advise on.

“In the early days of the corona outbreak, people mostly listened to medics, which makes complete sense – of course, it was a medical issue. But slowly but surely, other questions are arising, such as how to get out of this lockdown. That’s when you need to consult experts from other disciplines. The societal disruption is enormous, not just medically.”

Does the government pay enough attention to the effect these measures have on people? 
“Opinions vary on this. The government constantly has to adapt to the different voices and interests. When the measures were announced, 80 to 90 percent of society immediately obeyed. That’s astounding, really. But at the cost of what? What is all this allowed to cost in terms of money and people’s lives? That’s what you’re hearing more and more complaints about: everyone has different interests. Why can the schools reopen, but gyms can’t, for instance. As government, you constantly have to motivate and explain these types of choices.

“Some groups, like entrepreneurs, can join together and form a strong lobby and make themselves be heard in The Hague. But the nursing homes and the elderly are not as capable of this. How did the distribution of face masks go there, for instance, shouldn’t that have been done differently? Corona hit the nursing homes so hard, but still, they were the last to receive face masks. As a politician, it’s crucial to consider which voices are heard less, or not at all, in The Hague. You have to keep an eye on everything, and that’s not easy. And you’ve got to wonder every time what you can learn from it.”

You’re a media scientist, among other things. How do you think the media did during this crisis?
“I think the Dutch mass media responded properly. The NOS, for instance, quickly created a number of additional broadcasts called Facts and Fables, to counter the wave of fake news. That was a clever move; so much misinformation was circulating on social media. Think of the hydroxychloroquine thing, for instance, the 5G towers, and all kinds of other dangerous nonsense. The NOS, with help of experts, explained what the facts and the uncertainties were, and thereby positioned itself as an institute that’s responsible for nuanced reporting, especially in times of crisis.

“An important aspect of social media is to transmit emotion and engagement, especially of people who personally had to deal with corona, such as patients, nurses, and doctors. Facebook is the proper medium to communicate these things; that doesn’t fit in an NOS news bulletin. But a few days after the start of the lockdown, the public service broadcaster started to air ‘Frontberichten’ (Messages from the front lines), sort of a series of videos created by experience experts at the intensive care units. This was about emotion, a sense of groups and community. That way, it fulfilled the desire people had for engagement, and that ‘group feeling’ Facebook has was copied on TV a little bit.

“And finally, gradually, the mass media had more attention to other experts, like economics and sociologists. There was room for this in talk shows especially, although I should say it wasn’t always done well. Talk shows often rely on their usual, well-known guests. So they’ll invite a famous person to talk about face masks simply because he’s famous. I personally think they should let the ‘regular people’ come and talk, which would be a lot of more original. It’s also journalists’ job to make a good selection, not just to let the most obvious person speak.”

But it’s also journalists’ job to be the watchdogs of democracy. One way this is done is via the Wet Openbaar Bestuur (WOB - Public Governance Law, like a freedom of information act), which journalists can use to request public government documents. In April, minister De Jonge decided that all WOB requests about corona will all be disregarded.
“Yes, I hate that. It doesn’t obstruct journalists in doing their jobs – the WOB is only a small piece of the puzzle – but still. Minister De Jonge claims it would be too much work for public servants, but that should never be an argument.”

Recently, RTL disregarded an exclusive scoop about the closure of restaurants and cafés; the news article was only published after the news was announced in the official press conference. What do you think about that?
​​​​​​​“I think it’s good that editorial boards reflect carefully about these things. They were worried that there’d be a run on restaurants and such, like what had happened before with people hoarding toilet paper. Medialogica devoted a beautiful broadcast to this. As editor-in-chief, you’ve got the responsibility of considering all different interests, and it’s important to talk about this in public. You can derive from that – and that’s the beauty of it – that they take their responsibility seriously. Not just for the democratic right to information, but also for whether something could potentially be dangerous. That consideration of interests, that’s exactly what the media’s job is.”

José van Dijck…

Is distinguished professor of Media & Digital Society
Was president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences until 2018
Wrote 10 books
Does research on media, social media, and media technology
Studied Literary Science and Dutch at Utrecht University
Obtained her PhD at the University of California in 1992
Received an honorary doctorate from the University of Lund in Sweden last year