Voice

All pigs are men: why we need to learn to manage infodemics, too...

Swine flu! World Health Organization at alert level 4! Markets rocked by sell-offs! Howie Mandel was right! Never shake hands! Bathe in Purell! See if you can borrow a face mask from Michael Jackson! Or hold your breath whenever you are near a ham sandwich! Armies of pigs in uniform marching on Washington! Orwell was right: the animals have turned on us, become more dangerous than us! Four legs bad, two legs good! Head for the hills!

Once again, the media is reacting to a potential threat with its usual calm, responsibly recognizing that sensational coverage of diseases can have far worse consequences than the diseases themselves. Or not.

Remember SARS? Fewer people died of SARS than choked to death in the United States on small objects that year. But estimates of global economic losses exceeded $40 billion. Back then, I wrote an article called "The Buzz Bites Back" for the Washington Post about this phenomenon dubbing it an "infodemic." And it was clear at the time that the progress of the information revolution was amplifying the impact of these information epidemics and accelerating their spread. Yet, still hysteria reigns again.

This is not to say that the WHO response has not been appropriate. It has. It is not to say that there isn't a vital public health role to be played by the media. It is critical that the media offer information about symptoms, precautions, and the spread of potential epidemics. But whereas health officials practice how to manage these crises, not only do the vast majority of media never think such matters through, newer "viral" media are all emotion all the time. 

One particularly fascinating element of the infodemic phenomenon is that the spread of rumors or news throughout society looks exactly like the spread of diseases; they are communicated in the same ways and patterns. (You'll note that in both the SARS case and the current instance, it was the infection of Americans that kicked mainstream media into gear and elevated the story into a code-one frenzy.)

The nature of the spread of such infodemics also, by the way, offers useful tools to epidemiologists trying to use modern media to identify potential medical risks and contain them. I know this was discussed in the Net Effects blog here at FP the other day and I would just like to offer one anecdotal insight that suggests to me that perhaps the skepticism about the value of using such tools expressed in the post has been overtaken by events. Back in the months before the SARS outbreak became public, I ran a company called Intellibridge which tracked "open source" intelligence for a variety of clients. In other words, we looked at what was available on the Net in many languages to see what it might offer government or business clients in the way of insights. 

One of our analysts spotted a small item in a newspaper in Guangdong province stating roughly that people should not panic due to rumors of an outbreak of a disease. When the Chinese government says do not panic, our analysts were trained to be skeptical and indeed, when we dug into the issue we found that word was spreading throughout southern China, largely by means of cell phone messaging, concerning this new outbreak of disease. In fact, we became so concerned that we called the Center for Disease Control...who proceeded to brush us off saying that they did not accept information of this source from the public. Ten weeks or so later the World Health Organization acknowledged the outbreak of the disease. 

The punch line: modern information technologies offer important tools for both containing and amplifying threats such as those posed by the global spread of epidemics. Considerable work remains to be done however, in understanding how to use these tools and to limit their abuse...and new media like Twitter and social networking sites do not make this task any easier. (Although figuring out how to manage this in the context of a free society is an especially important challenge for governments worldwide, arguably much more important than popular media-policy intersections like "public diplomacy.")      

ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

The axis of stability

At my summer camp in Maine -- which was really the equivalent of that South Pacific manhood ritual where they attach vines to a teenaged boy's testicles and throw him off a tree -- on the very first day they would gather all the new campers around and teach them the camp song. It was entitled "Oh, Camp We Love" and, as the budding concentration camp guards they called counselors used to point out, "it's sung to the same tune as the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada.'" Naturally, this generated confusion and blank stares from all the boys present because the comment was roughly as helpful as suggesting the camp talent show utilize the same narrative technique as The Tale of Genji. I mean, for goodness sake, we were from New Jersey. We knew Canada was up there somewhere between Boston and the North Pole and that they played hockey there, but beyond that, details were scarce.

Since then, throughout my life, I have always found that when giving a talk, a reference to Canada is reliably good for a laugh. Making fun of Canada seldom offends any American and Canadians tend to be too polite to object. And it it's funny because Canada is so darned unthreatening, bland enough to make your average bowl of tapioca seem muy caliente. (The only thing more boring than Canada? Coldplay. "Viva la vida?!" Seriously. Viva la sominex.) Of course, I'm not the only one who has gone after Canada. Take for example the greatest song ever written about international relations, "Blame Canada." (Which song clearly kicks the ass of anything Coldplay has ever written. Of course, so too does anything ever done by that immortal Canadian-Egyptian-Armenian, Raffi.)

It's all a bit unfair actually. A lot unfair. And I was thinking this as I was watching President Obama's press conference with Prime Minister Harper. Harper's year has been as politically star-crossed as Obama's has been seemingly guided by a lucky star. But together yesterday, these two were the picture of what good allies should be. They were polite, respectful, at times deferential, honest about areas of concern and seemingly sincere in their desire to work through potential trouble spots whether they be sclerotic border crossings or the potential for turbulence on trade. Both were gracious, articulate, and statesmanlike.

The U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue they announced was an excellent step to strengthen an already rock-solid relationship by collaborating on an issue where common interests abound.

During the news conference held by Harper and Obama, each of the men warmly characterized the state of the relationship between the two countries. Framing his remarks in the context of Obama's ascendancy to office, Harper said:

His election to the presidency launches a new chapter in the rich history of Canada-U.S. relations. It is a relationship between allies, partners, neighbors, and the closest of friends; a relationship built on our shared values -- freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity epitomized by the President himself."

Obama, speaking next said:

I came to Canada on my first trip as President to underscore the closeness and importance of the relationship between our two nations, and to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our time. As neighbors, we are so closely linked that sometimes we may have a tendency to take our relationship for granted, but the very success of our friendship throughout history demands that we renew and deepen our cooperation here in the 21st century.

"We're joined together," he continued, "by the world's largest trading relationship and countless daily interactions that keep our borders open and secure. We share core democratic values and a commitment to work on behalf of peace, prosperity, and human rights around the world."

Usually such words exchanged between political leaders are empty rhetoric. But, in the case of the U.S. and Canada, even with the ups and downs the relationship has been through, they ring true.

It underscored a reality that doesn't earn magazine covers in the way problems such as those highlighted in FP's Axis of Upheaval do. It is natural to focus on problems and threats. But throughout human history and especially in the current era, instability and failed states are really "dog bites man." 

What is rare, exceptional really, are the cases of the special relationships, the alliances that transcend treaties and become true and enduring partnerships. In many of the most important elements of life and foreign policy, boring is good. Boring is the foundation that allows us to stand the upheaval. Boring is constant in an inconstant world and as such is indispensable and invaluable. (The very best marriages for similar reasons, are sometimes perceived as boring. My wife for example, likes both Canada and Coldplay very much. Come to think of it, I'd probably better move on to the next thought...)

I would go further, it may well be that among the relationships of neighboring states, particularly among comparatively powerful neighbors, the U.S.-Canada relationship may be unique in history.  Oh sure, once, long ago, we had that little "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" issue, but that was with the British and frankly with all that manifest destiny testosterone pulsing through our then adolescent veins we were bound to get into trouble with anyone we encountered.

To put it into context, go through history in your mind. Pick two neighbors anywhere. Now find a pair that have gotten along better, avoided war (save for the conflicts depicted in "Canadian Bacon" and that in the aforementioned classic "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.")

Go further, in the vein of my post last week on America's worst alliances, make a list of America's best alliances. Canada tops the list so easily that it is hard to find anyone else that is close. There's the United Kingdom, of course, but we did get off to a bit of a rocky start with them and there was that pesky War of 1812 and they were, despite being officially neutral, not entirely constructive during the Civil War.

And then the next best ally? Ah, while the choices are few they are so tempting. Readership-baiting is so gratifying. (Really, you guys are so easy to toy with. It's like having a dog that always goes after the stick.) I guess the next best ally we have had is Israel. (There, I've said it. Come on all you "realists" time to line up and give it your best shot. I'll even provide your first line for you: "Some of my best friends are Jews, but...") Or, offering the kind of paradox that makes such analyses so much fun (and explains everything about our relationship with the French) perhaps number three is actually France. Ah, this really is too enjoyable.

I think I will stop writing and just warmly contemplate your reactions out there in Wonkavia, land of the Foreign Policy geeks. (And congratulate myself for having gotten through an entire piece about Canada without a single joke about Celine Dion.)

DAVID BOILY/AFP/Getty Images