Wednesday 29 April 2020 9:33 am

Coronavirus: Fake news that an elderly lockdown is remainer revenge could spread

Paul Ormerod is an economist at Volterra Partners LLP, a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at UCL, and author of Against the Grain: Insights of an Economic Contrarian, published by the IEA in conjunction with City A.M.

The attention of policy makers has been focused on the science of how viruses either spread or are contained in social networks.  

Just as crucial in the current circumstances is the spread of beliefs and behaviour. Will people continue to observe social distancing once the lockdown is eased, or will they revert to pre-lockdown patterns of behaviour?

For all their sophistication, epidemic models are a product of 20th century science.  Understanding how patterns of behaviour evolve requires the 21st century science of network theory.

Read more: 5G attacks criticised by politicians and regulators

Much remains to be discovered in this innovative scientific field. But much is already known.

For example, a recent major study in the top journal Science established that fake news seems to have more novelty and attraction than real news. Fake news tweets typically show a much higher level of emotion in their overall content.

A piece of fake news is not certain to spread and be believed. Most stories just fade away. But fakes have a better chance than true of getting traction.

A recent example is the idea that coronavirus is spread by 5G technology. Fortunately, belief in this seems to have been contained to a relatively small group.But 5G phone masts continue to be attacked. 

In parts of the Whitehall machine the idea of keeping the over-70s under lockdown appears to be attractive.

Imagine, however, if a story were to be put about that this was simply driven by Remainer Revenge.  This generation both delivered Brexit and voted overwhelmingly for Boris Johnson in the last election.

It would be false. But it would have an inherent attraction for some.

This would be reinforced by the fact that such a lockdown has only weak support in what ministers keep calling “the science”.

When lockdown was imposed, we only had data from China. This did show that deaths were concentrated in older age groups.

We now have much more evidence. Across the West, well over 90 per cent of deaths from the virus are of people with an underlying health condition. A fit 70 year old is at far less risk of death than a grossly obese 35 year old.

If a substantial proportion of the 9 million over 70s were to believe they were the target of Remainer Revenge, the police would be totally powerless in the face of widespread disobedience.

The police themselves understand this only too well.  In essence, the phrase “policing by consent” means that the vast majority of people have to hold the belief that the police can be trusted to act reasonably.

Their fear is that this could easily crumble. One idea being floated is that family “bubbles” would be created for social mixing. The former Chief Constable of Greater Manchester made it clear over the weekend that the police would basically not want to be involved in its enforcement.

These are just a few examples of the importance of network science, a discipline which involves mathematicians, computer scientists and social scientists. This must become a key part of “the science” on which the government relies.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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