face  mask on top of a  pile of clean face mask
PHOTO: De an Sun

Has the web helped or hindered in dealing with COVID-19? That sounds like a crazy question. Surely, unequivocally, the web has helped. Just like print opened up the world to new ideas, right?

“During the first century after Gutenberg’s invention, print did as much to perpetuate blatant errors as it did to spread enlightened truth,” Renato Rosaldo wrote in "The Cultural Impact of the Printed Word." “There is no evidence that, except in religion, printing hastened the spread of new ideas … In fact, the printing of medieval scientific texts may have delayed the acceptance of Copernicus,” Antonia McClean as quoted by Elizabeth Eisenstein in her book, "The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe."

For every piece of quality information on the web, there is another piece of misinformation. How much, for example, has the web contributed to the fact that about 30% of people in the US say they will not get a COVID-19 vaccination? For every page that’s up-to-date, there’s at least one more that’s out-of-date. In the early months of the pandemic, how many people, having lost their sense of smell, went to an approved health site and felt relieved that losing your sense of smell was not seen as a COVID-19 symptom?

If you go to reputable health websites you trust that the information is accurate. It’s not always the case. Many health organizations were simply too slow to adapt to new data about the virus. For example, evidence began to emerge quickly that the virus was airborne, whereas the accepted medical wisdom was that it was not. Knowing that the virus was airborne has huge implications. It would be a reason to mandate the use of face masks. Yet many of the most reputable health organizations were unable to accept this new information quickly enough. Thus the virus spread much faster than it would have had face masks and other physical distancing initiatives been more actively promoted and implemented. Lives were lost because minds and organizations were slow, were rigid, were unable to change when presented with new data.

Content is critical. I published a book with that title in 2001 because in my job as a web consultant I could not get the vast majority of organizations I worked with to take content seriously. Twenty years later, what has changed? There’s some great progress. Many of the health websites that I’ve worked with have truly professionalized their management of web content.

What was particularly positive to see in government health websites in Ireland, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, to name just a few, was the publication of clear, simple, useful information. There were no stupid images of people blowing their noses as there had been 10 years earlier during the swine flu outbreak. There was no stupid content from ministers welcoming you to the website and telling you how much the government cared and how much the government was doing. The coronavirus was called the coronavirus because that’s what people were searching for. I remember during the swine flu outbreak having huge problems with certain communications departments who demanded that it should be called H1N1.

So, there is a lot of great progress, but there is so much more progress needed if we are to get the maximum potential out of content and the web so as to “flatten the curve” and get our societies and economies up and running again.