Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Calculating risk in a world overrun by Twitter threads

Is common ground a place too far-fetched in the divisive world we live in

Photo by Richard Asinof

Hope High School on the the eve of reopening of schools.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 9/14/20
The arguments and threads taking place on Twitter have redefined the way stories get told and arguments are fleshed out, in the absence of face-to-face conversations.
What will happen if there is a need to pull back from reopening schools because of renewed spread of the coronavirus? What are the opportunities to find common ground in our politics, instead of divisions? How many people will have to die before wearing of masks is an accepted way to protect oneself? What needs to change in the ways that we are fighting the plague of drug overdoses?
One of the takeaways in the training in consensus decision-making, as I recall from my nonviolence training, is to have opposing sides state the arguments of the other side, so it becomes clear that each side is being heard and there is a “consensus” about what the differences are in the argument. It doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t solve fundamental disagreements, but it does create common ground about what you are arguing about.

PROVIDENCE – These days, whole novellas seem to pass swiftly before our eyes in Twitter threads, amidst a world where much of our waking time is taken up, it seems, with Zoom meeting after endless Zoom meeting. The text message, “I’ll call you as soon as I’m done with the meeting” perhaps has replaced “The check is in the mail” as one of the most frequently told untruths in 2020.

Yes, Twitter serves as a magnifying lens for passionate arguments, debates, and discussions that once occurred at the family dinner table, in classrooms, or in bars. It has become the dominant river of our political world, the Big Muddy into which all tributaries flow, filled with the polluted sediments of self-promotion and distortion as well as truth.

Last week, one of the biggest ongoing back-and-forth Twitter threads involved Gov. Gina Raimondo and her team, who are locked in an arm-twisting struggle to frame the relative safety and risks of reopening schools in Rhode Island. Monday, Sept. 14, is the official re-opening day for public schools in Rhode Island.

Raimondo and her team have been busy saying to trust in the science and data and evidence, dismissing any arguments from teachers, union officials, school committees and parents that disagree with her position. [What students have to say, for the most part, has been left out of the conversation, for now.]

How safe is it to reopen schools in Rhode Island? The answer, of course, will become self-evident in three-to-four weeks’ time, when there will be charts galore to measure how the spread of the coronavirus in Rhode Island has been affected by the reopening policies. More likely, the “evidence” will provide further fuel for opposing Twitter threads.

Indeed, a recent story published by The Boston Globe framed the issue with asking a question and then answering with a definitive maybe: “Should you send your child back to school? The expert consensus leans toward ‘yes’ with caveats.”

The bully’s pulpit
The Governor may be adept at controlling the airwaves and using her bully pulpit to promote her messaging, through her news conferences where she controls the media feed and reporters never appear on screen, and through selected media interviews with news anchors such as WPRO’s Gene Valicenti.

In response, the teachers have mounted what appears to be a successful counter-offensive, reframing the conversation on Twitter – and capturing the eyes and ears of the news media, who have picked up on some of the inconsistencies with the Governor’s messaging. Is it an “inspection” or a “walk-through?”

“Our social media campaign is strong, folks,” Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, wrote in an email to her members on Saturday night, Sept. 13. “Parents are seeing it, other teachers, the media, and it is getting under their skin.”

Calabro encouraged her members to be respectful and to post “whatever you feel the need to [to talk] about the reopening, as long as it is accurate and truthful.”

Further, Calabro praised “the class, grace, grit and professionalism that you have shown during this 'reopening' is beyond anything that anyone should have expected you all to have endured.”

At issue have been the apparent lack of guidance provided by school administrators in Providence around class size, class rosters, the lack of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, and the lack of transparency about the current building conditions about what was “uncovered” in the walk-through of classrooms before reopening. Stay tuned.

The plastic footprint forever
Another powerful Twitter thread last week, much under the radar screen, was provided by Rebecca Altman, promoting a story in Orion Magazine by David Farrier, entitled “Hand in Glove: The false promises of plastics,” with some haunting prose.

“Plastic breaks its promise to seal us off from the messiness of life from the very start, dipping our hands in the sumps of oil wells and leaving a trail of chemical fingerprints, but so are its prints all over us,” Farrier wrote. The story is illustrated with plastic gloves that have been discarded as trash during the pandemic, captured by photographer Dan Giannopoulos. Remember the line from the 1967 movie, “The Graduate”: “I have one word for you, son. Plastics.”

Asking the right questions
Of course, The Atlantic’s story by editor Jeffrey Goldberg that accused Trump of calling fallen U.S. soldiers “losers” and “suckers,” which was followed by Bob Woodward’s book, Rage,  detailing how Trump purposely misled the American public about the coronavirus thread, have dominated much of the social media commentary and traffic flow.

A powerful Twitter thread was provided by Syracuse sociologist Shannon Monnat, director of the Lerner Center, who previewed her recent talk, “Social Determinants of Opioid Use: Establishing a Research Agenda,” at an NIH conference.

“Our problem is bigger than #opioids. It’s bigger than drugs altogether. An over focus on specific drugs risks that we’ll impose #policies that target specific substances rather than the #underlyingcauses of use,” Monnat wrote.

“We regularly hear that #addiction is a #braindisease. But it’s more than that. Addiction is a social disease,” Monnat continued in her thread.

“The U.S. #addiction and #overdose crisis represents a perfect storm of underlying vulnerabilities combined with exposure to highly addictive and lethal substances. And both these factors were driven by breakdowns in our economic, social, and political systems,” Monnat wrote.

Further, she wrote: “3. We know a lot about individual risk factors for #addiction, & seem to understand that #addiction is an outcome of #lifecourse experiences. But places also have life courses, & contexts of many places have changed over the past 4 decades. Drug overdose rates vary across U.S.”

Monnat argued: “The idea that context matters for addiction is not new. @sandrogalea wrote an article on contextual determinants of drug use risk 17 years ago. Yet, most of our interventions target individual behaviors rather than broader social, economic, and political contexts.”

“Most efforts focus on increasing access to treatment & Narcan. To be sure, these efforts save lives, but they’re tourniquets. They don’t prevent addiction. It is inefficient & inhumane to continue relying on tourniquets to solve our problem. We can't Narcan our way out of this!”

Monnat’s thread continued: “I suspect that the main reason we default to individual-level #downstream interventions is because they are much easier to implement, and they can be accomplished more quickly than focusing #upstream. But another big reason is because it’s difficult to do causal research on upstream drivers – especially the causes of the causes of the causes.”

Further, Monnat said: “4. Yet, we can learn a lot from #descriptive research. So I’m asking that we do not lose the forest for the trees by always treating #causal research as the holy grail.”

Monnat then makes a forceful connection between drug overdose trends and economic restructuring: “We can’t randomize 40 years of economic restructuring. And yet there is suggestive evidence that these long-term processes really matter when it comes to drug overdose trends.”

Monnat concludes: “By privileging #causal research, we are hamstringing ourselves from advocating for truly transformative #upstream solutions.”

Death be not proud
Monnat’s thread had an uncanny, prescient way of introducing yet another Twitter thread, particular to Rhode Island and the current epidemic of drug overdoses.

Last week, Annajane Yolken, who works on drug policy reform, tweeted out on Thursday, Sept. 10, an emotional plea: “As a data person, I understand the importance of talking about overdose death trends. But can we please commit to at least having a little bit of emotion in our voice when we talk about *people* *dying* of a totally *preventable* cause that we have solutions for?”

Yolken was following up an earlier tweet in which she wrote: “If I’m on another giant Zoom call where people talk about overdose death trends in an apathetic voice, I’m going to unmute myself and scream. Numbers can be people, too. It’s nothing personal: we need less describing and more doing.”

The context for Yolken’s tweets are the dramatic projected increases in the number of projected overdose deaths in Rhode Island for 2020, which at the current pace, could reach nearly 400 deaths, a potential 20 percent leap from the former highest total, 336 deaths in 2016.

Beginning in December of 2019, through May of 2020, there have been more than 30 deaths a month from overdoses, the highest totals since the R.I. Department of Health began tracking the monthly overdose death rate. [There is a delay in posting full results by about three months.]

Yolken’s emotional plea on Twitter reflects in part how numb we have become in talking about death tolls, given that the current death toll from the coronavirus pandemic reached 198,520 on Sunday, Sept. 14, with more than 6.7 million cases nationwide. In Rhode Island, there have been some 1,100 cumulative deaths from COVID-19.

Despite President Donald Trump’s proclaiming that the U.S. has “turned the corner” in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the numbers, with an average of more than 1,000 deaths a day, tell a much different story. Turning the corner, it seems, is more like finding yourself stuck while driving on a rotary, with no apparent exit.


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