The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged human society in 2019, with tens of millions dying due to infectious coronavirus disease (World Health Organization 2022). The world has reached a complete standstill due to the health pandemic’s tremendous loss of human life, food supply, and jobs.
The risk posed by the COVID-19 disease can only be mitigated by “social distance,” “wearing of marks,” “sanitisation,” and other prophylactic measures that must be practised by people everywhere.
Our society has seen a significant transformation due to the epidemic, which has exacerbated human pain, anxiety, and fear while also affecting social interactions, income prospects, and the basic precepts of human well-being.
In light of this context, it is essential to research how societies manage risk, such as COVID-19. Ulrich Beck, a sociologist, defined “risk societies” as a mechanism for society to deal with challenges, hazards, and insecurities induced by the project of modernity (Beck 1992).
The “conflicts of accountability” over how the “consequences of risk” are attributed to, regulated for, and legitimised sustain the centrality of the risk society (Bulkeley 2001).
Ulrich Beck’s risk society thesis offers a critical starting point for discussing new forms of risks and the ways societies tackle them. This paper examines the relevance of Beck’s formulation of risk society in the covid-19 pandemic. This paper evaluates how social media has played an essential role in forming a risk society during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first section of this paper considers a significant scholarship on Ulrich Beck’s risk society and its interconnection with globalisation. The second section deals with forming a world risk society as a risk mechanism to tackle the challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The third section deals with social media’s role in creating a risk society.
This paper focuses on Twitter as a case study to analyse how risk societies are formed and make a case for “social interdependence” in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. In the concluding section, I seek to challenge the universality/cosmopolitan characteristic of a risk society. This section also provides new directions for further research into risk in international politics.
The analytical discussion in this paper has been supported by secondary literature, including—but not limited to—books, Twitter timelines, interviews, expert comments, and research articles.
What does Ulrich Beck Mean by Risk Society?
Writing against the backdrop of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ulrich Beck first published Risikogesellschaft in Germany in 1986. The book’s English translation, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, was released in 1992. The book is centred around two concepts: the notion of “reflexive modernisation” and “the issue of risk” (Beck 1992, 4).
Risks are defined as the probability of harm and not the harm itself. It is the probability that matters. Since the risk is seen as the “scientific realism” that needs to be studied in laboratories by scientists with their naïve understanding of the lived realities, it has been primarily left to the scientific community to define agendas and impose risk-aversive discourses.
However, Beck’s reflexive modernisation attempts to dispute this classification—risk as something professionals can handle. Beck seeks to bridge the gap between the public and the scientific community to address risk in this work.
He describes reflexive modernisation as “accommodating” the innate propensity for “tension between human indeterminacy” and the modernist leaning for “objectification and naturalisation of the institutional and cultural production” (Beck 1992: 5). It is the human’s ability to reflect upon their past experiences and knowledge to deal with the challenges posed by the future.
For Ulrich Beck, a risk society is “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself” (Beck 1992: 13). Anthony Giddens, a fellow sociologist and a contemporary of Ulrich Beck, wrote that a risk society is “a society increasingly preoccupied with the future, which generates the notion of risk” (Pierson and Giddens 1998).
Harriot Bulckeley has noted, “in a risk society, risks arise not from a lack of modernity, as hazards associated with poverty and underdevelopment might be conceived, but rather as the side-effects of modernisation” (Bulkeley 2001: 432). Therefore, for Beck, society needs to work together and become “risk aware” to tackle the challenges posed by modernisation—more generally, by globalisation.
These risks include climate change, health pandemics, natural calamities, technological dangers, use and abuse of nuclear energy, chemical plants, and processed food supplies.
Premodern societies ascribed such hazards to God or divine force, whereas in today’s world, we consider such disturbances in nature as a scientific phenomenon with a particular cause and effect. In this regard, Beck cautions us that humanity must either “cooperate or fail”. Beck argues that we must shed our distinctions of “us” and “them”, as the global risks require “enforced cosmopolitanization”.
Since global issues affect people worldwide, Beck’s imperative is either “cooperate or fail”. In his book World At Risk, Beck notes that we must stage the reality to think of risk as an “anticipated catastrophe” that needs real solutions (Beck 2009). Beck notes that “globalisation; individualisation; gender revolution; underemployment; and global risks (e.g., ecological crisis and the crash of global financial markets)” are the products of modern society, which have placed individuals at more significant exposure to risk (Jarvis 2007). Beck writes,
A fate of endangerment has arisen in modernity, a counter-modernity that transcends all our concepts of space, time, and social differentiation. What yesterday was still far away will be found today and, in the future, at the front door.(Tooze 2020)
As an offshoot of modernity, globalisation aims to unite people globally while obliterating nation-states’ geopolitical borders and fostering greater interstate collaboration. Since the late 1980s, globalisation has increased economic output and made it easier for people to move around the world. The process of globalisation brings several challenges of its own.
It increases inequality between the affluent and the weak, climate change, pollution, technological inequalities, and massive unemployment. The widespread industrialisation and mechanisation of social life have brought newer risks unknown to humankind. These risks are global, not limited to a specific social cluster, like a nation-state.
For instance, increased globalisation also results in climate change and global warming. The impact of climate change is felt in our everyday lives in the form of natural disasters, infections, rising sea levels, melting of glaciers, etc., irrespective of where we live across the globe.
To tackle such risks, the world must come together to face them. These risks are dealt with at the global level by global cooperation. At the international level, these challenges create a risk society in the form of conventions on climate change, among other things. In the cosmopolitan view, the societies—and the members—come together to deal with such challenges, forming risk societies.
We are by-products of globalisation. It has created an interdependent system among nation-states. It can be argued that a risk society is both an offshoot of globalisation and challenges risks that globalisation brings to the fore. In this context, we can propose that COVID-19 has caused the formation of a risk society in dealing with the risk the health pandemic posed.
In the next section, I deal with how COVID-19 has caused the formation of a world risk society in mitigating the risk of COVID-19.
How Do We Create a World Risk Society in the face of COVID-19?
Globalisation has altered our way of life and our means of sustenance. Consequently, people may now travel quickly between different places and have access to all global marketplaces. Trade and travel, two essential elements of globalisation, have increased the possibility of deadly contagious diseases spreading around the world (Shrestha et al. 2020).
The coronavirus disease, first identified in the Chinese province of Wuhan, spread erratically over many months (Wang et al. 2020). The coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets that scatter when we sneeze, cough or speak. Therefore, the spread of the virus can only be contained with proper social distancing, wearing masks, travelling less, and self-isolating after travel. Due to the pandemic, the countries halted international and domestic air travel, imposed lockdowns, and increased surveillance of people’s journeys from one place to another.
To fight COVID-19, society had to come together while also distancing oneself from others—just so there was no spread of COVID-19. The coronavirus has exposed the neoliberal institutional economic order based on the interconnectedness of state and capital. Therefore, COVID-19 has been a unique challenge to world society.
It needed global solidarity while also temporarily halting worldwide trade and travel. The emergence of COVID-19 and the initial uncertainties about the vaccines had created a world risk society based on social distancing, wearing of masks, and sanitisation practices.
Beck proposes the “world risk society” as a mechanism to deal with risks tearing down “national boundaries” and jumbling together “the native with the foreign” (Beck 2006: 331). Since risk can take three forms: denial, apathy and transformation, Beck highlights the need for a “transformation” to lead to a cosmopolitan moment.
The theory of world risk society, Beck notes, maintains that “new kinds of risks shape modern societies, that the global anticipation of global catastrophes shakes their foundations” (Beck 2006: 333). Beck proposes the three features of global risk: de-localisation, incalculableness, and non-compensability.
First, de-localisation means risk is not limited to a specific space or a geographical location. They are omnipresent. Even as COVID-19 was first detected in China, it spread worldwide. It caused deaths and destruction to the lives of millions of people, irrespective of their place, race, class, gender, etc. Against this backdrop, we can consider that COVID-19 was de-localised.
Second, incalculableness refers to the uncomprehensive, hypothetical risk whose effect on society cannot be known. During COVID-19, millions of people lost their near-and-dear ones. The whole society was brought to a standstill. Medical equipment was inadequate. The economic losses to the lower income people and vulnerable. And the socio-psychological impact of COVID-19 on human society is still to be known. A case can be made that these aftereffects of COVID-19 will certainly be incalculable.
Third, non-compensability is very much an element of risk. When a risk occurs as a hazard, it is non-compensable. COVID-19, as a health hazard, has caused irreplaceable changes in our society. It has come closer to challenging the Aristotelian notion that “man is by nature a social animal”. The pandemic has caused the “wearing of masks” as a new normal. Many thriving democracies have fallen into the autocratic trap using the surveillance mechanism.
It created a “life-or-economy” dilemma that shook the world economy while causing more significant upheaval in the social and psychological space. Social distancing itself caused individuals to isolate themselves from society, causing people to take their lives into their hands. The implications of COVID-19 are non-compensable. In this respect, COVID-19 allows for forming a world-risk society.
Global risks, such as COVID-19, cannot be addressed by national politics but can only be resolved through global interdependence. This inevitably leads to the work risk society formation. It is an underlying condition allowing people to debate, prevent and manage risks that societies produced in the first place (Hussain 2022: 42).
It is this new normal, what Beck calls the “cosmopolitan moment” of risk society. This risk society would be based on “enforced communication” across multiple channels and borders (Beck 2006: 339). During the pandemic, people collaborated to sponsor and crowdfund medical personnel with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits to help fight COVID-19 (Alauddin et al. 2020). To combat the virus, people stayed back in their homes and reduced mobility to public spaces.
Risk connects us across borders, who otherwise do not have any business with each other. Risk compels us to cooperate. And that social media can be used to communicate such risks in recent times. Social media is a useful tool for spreading information around the globe. Therefore, it is instructive to research how social media contributes to developing a global risk society.
The next section of this paper will study the case of Twitter in understanding the risk society formation. For that purpose, I will use online essays, personal blogs, Twitter timelines, and expert comments to make sense of the formation of the world risk society.
Mitigating Risk in the Age of Social Media
We heavily rely on expert knowledge to deal with the risks of today. In the process, we have separated ourselves from our subjective reality in favour of various mathematical operations, technological advancements in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and governmental recommendations.
But as Beck points out, the more we rely on scientific knowledge, the more likely we will become disconnected from actuality. A modern risk of COVID-19 would transmit disease and frequently result in fatalities for people.
With a lack of masks, ventilators, oxygen supplies, and personal protective equipment kits, among many other things, society was unavoidably experiencing a health crisis. Against this backdrop, social media, an invention of modernisation, has created a risk society.
Social media virtually connects people across space and time. These virtual sites are among the most widely used sources of information globally. They help communicate with near and dear ones about the threats of risk (González-Padilla and Tortolero-Blanco 2020: 120).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media became a tool for disseminating information, (mis)information, causing panic and anxiety, etc. It became a virtual space for people to connect while the whole world was under lockdown. At the same time, it became a place for perpetuating fear and anxiety.
While social media was beneficial in spreading information, it was also detrimental in spreading too much (unverified and often erroneous) information. Using the discourse analysis method, this paper makes a case for four ways the risk society was formed on Twitter in the backdrop of COVID-19.
Here we discuss risk society as disseminating information, combating misinformation, and creating solidarities through Twitter.
Risk Society as a Site for Disseminating Information
As mentioned, social media platforms played a significant role in the COVID-19 pandemic regarding information dissemination. Never before has it been so simple and pervasive to broadcast information about pandemics and raise public awareness of them. Such virtual networking sites can enable society to quickly and responsively disseminate information about the coronavirus disease risk.
This includes sharing information about relevant scientific findings, diagnostic and treatment behaviours of patients, and various new mechanisms to deal with covid-related care. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was chaos in the healthcare system with shortages in ventilators, PPE kits, tablets, and hospital beds.
Risk society, through Twitter, was able to disseminate information about where, how, and in what parts (of the world) the resources exist.
People came together to help each other through Twitter communities. The people created groups to share information about vaccine slots, hospital beds, and oxygen cylinders. Twitter also enabled people to share home remedies surrounding COVID-19, which were people’s lived experiences and knowledge.
For instance, ayurvedic products became a source of immunity-boosting tools in households in several parts of India (Deccan Herald 2020). However, there is no scientific evidence for ayurvedic treatment for COVID-19. This is a classic case of reflexive modernity, resistance to healthcare professionals’ power/knowledge nexus.
Risk society as a tool for disseminating information around the pandemic enabled people to access shared realities surrounding the precarity of COVID-19. It was also a place for governments to share information surrounding appropriate pandemic behaviour. Risk society on Twitter was formed to disseminate shared knowledge that was not captured in the laboratory but from lived experiences of individuals.
People could discuss the threat of not following the social distancing norms and causing spread through reckless behaviour. This behaviour was moderated and regulated via Twitter discussions. For instance, if someone were to have the COVID-19 virus, they would share the information via Twitter to inform their connections.
Additionally, they would ask their contacts to isolate themselves. This mechanism was the easiest way for people to control the spread of the virus. In other instances, we find that the people would share information about tablets, hospital beds, norms of behaviour at hospitals, and blood donation information.
This rapid dissemination of information was impossible without forming a risk society through Twitter. However, with the rapid dissemination of information, people couldn’t check what was to be trusted and what was not to be trusted. This rapid increase in the amount of information being shared daily needs to be filtered. This paper notes that a risk society formed—but this time to combat misinformation.
Risk Society as Combating Misinformation
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a significant challenge to the current scientific understanding of diseases. It caused panic among the masses. Additionally, it allowed individuals to spread false and misleading information regarding the virus. This phenomenon has been connoted by “infodemic”—a reference to the trove of information that one had to tread through daily regarding the pandemic.
It caused the emergence of conspiracy theories, rhetoric, rumours, otherisation and xenophobic tendencies. These aftereffects of the infodemic had caused a significant risk of harm to society. As Twitter highlights, such information may include,
[C]ontent that may mislead people about the nature of the COVID-19 virus; the efficacy and/or safety of preventive measures, treatments, or other precautions to mitigate or treat the disease; official regulations, restrictions, or exemptions pertaining to health advisories; or prevalence of the virus or risk of information or death associated with COVID-19.(Twitter 2021)
Certain racial groups were accused of spreading the coronavirus, COVID-19 was a fraud, vaccines were ineffective, they were harmful, they had adverse effects on women, and they altered genetic coding, among other things (Twitter 2021). In the case of fighting misinformation, we find the emergence of two distinct kinds of risk societies.
First, we see that a few fact-checking websites, fake-news detection websites, and myth-busting websites also experienced growth during this time. Private individuals—like you and I—crowdfunded them. They were designed to identify fake news and further assist people in being cautious of it.
For instance, covid19factcheck.com, a website set up by medical students at the University of California San Francisco, is one example of how private individuals came together to fight COVID-19. In the website’s about section, they mention their goal “to create reliable and easy-to-understand information about coronavirus in multiple languages with the intent to better fight against this pandemic together” (“COVID-19 Fact Check” 2021).
Information spread across social media was refiltered to ensure its integrity before being re-dispersed to Twitter and other social networks. People might freely believe information verified as authentic by fact-checking websites.
During the health crisis, disinformation became a major problem in India. We see the growth of fact-checking websites like Alt News, founded by Mohammed Zubair and Pratik Sinha, as a way to counteract misinformation.
Second, we see a collaboration between the private individuals (Twitter users) and the private platform (Twitter) in combating misinformation.
For instance, Twitter enabled users to alert a tweet as spam or abuse, and then Twitter would check the claim and flag the tweet/or remove it (Wagner 2021). This will also enable Twitter to study the flow of misinformation surrounding a risk as grave as COVID-19. With the help of allowing users to report misinformation to the platform, Twitter has provided a platform to combat misinformation every day.
This feature itself enabled a new form of risk society of individuals who would fact-check the Tweets and flag them if they were found fake and inauthentic. Several twitter groups/profiles by health professionals and fact-checking agencies also enabled a space for professionals to tweet accurate covid-related information.
Therefore, a case can be made that risk societies formed on Twitter would inevitably lead to combating misinformation (Carey et al. 2022).
Risk Society as a Mechanism for Creating Solidarities
Researchers have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent nationwide lockdowns have caused widespread panic, anxiety and depression among large masses of the population (Arora et al. 2021). There was an increase in loneliness, insomnia, and screen time, altering their everyday life.
Bhattacharya et al. argue that the information epidemic (infodemic) on social media has caused the “rise of panic and fear over time in India” among the users (Bhattacharya, Banerjee, and Rao 2020: 1). The economic slowdown, joblessness, lockdown uncertainties, travel restrictions, and widespread deaths have affected people’s mental health. As a risk society, Twitter became a space for people to connect with each other and create solidarities. Solidarity refers to an individual’s ability to empathise with the other.
Twitter’s discussion forum enabled people to connect with others, sharing music, food recipes, tv-series opinions, video games, and virtual dates. For instance, during the epidemic’s early stages, people either enjoyed or experimented with cooking as a leisure activity.
Similarly, many people played games like PUBG, LUDO, WORDLE, and others while remaining anonymous to one another outside of Twitter or other social media platforms. Several TV personalities performed stand-up comedy on Twitter and YouTube to demonstrate their support for the general public and streamed virtual music.
Twitter users from different nations expressed their support for one another when the number of instances rose in one country by using #hashtags. For example, Pakistani internet users made the hashtag #PakistanStandsWithIndia trending when India battled an unprecedented second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic to show their support for the people of India (News18 2021).
Twitter banded together to address the mental health challenges plaguing academia during the pandemic (Lobo 2020). A discussion about care ethics during research—an activity intended for fieldwork, for being “out there” in the field—also began (Anumol 2021). Using a set of over 270k Twitter media posts, Alexandra Ils et al. show us the resilience of European solidarity during the COVID-19 pandemic (Ils et al. 2021).
It can be argued that social solidarity through Twitter provided space for individuals to express themselves and empathise with one another. It has created a normative bond between individuals and society. Therefore, Twitter, as a risk society, enabled mechanisms for creating solidarities.
One Risk Society? or Multiple?
This paper makes a case for social media as a space for forming a world-risk society. Using Beck’s formulation of reflexive modernity, this paper moves away from perceiving risk as an expert’s arena devoid of human experiences. This paper argues that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a risk society on Twitter in three forms: a site for disseminating information, battling misinformation, and forming solidarities.
Throughout this paper, risk society was treated as an elite endeavour—with the luxury of social media and internet access.
If so, is the formation of a world risk society limited to elites?
Or can we imagine multiple forms of risk societies?
For instance, in Asian and African societies, rural and tribal communities do not have access to basic amenities, including a good healthcare system. Did these societies not form risk societies based on their shared knowledge? These questions, however, are beyond the scope of this research. But these questions may provide an excellent extension to the study of risk societies.
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This paper was written as a part of my PhD coursework requirement at the Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
To cite this:
Adarsh Badri. March 2023. “Juxtaposing Risk Society, Social Media, and COVID-19”. Adarsh Badri. URL: http://adarshbadri.me/ulrich-beck-risk-society-covid-19/
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