The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

During epidemics, media (and now social media) have always helped people to connect

In a devastating 1793 epidemic people transformed their newspaper into something like today’s social media.

A woman in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, uses social media to chat with a friend on April 5. (Yen Duong/Reuters)

Schoolchildren and their teachers sharing lessons on Canvas. College students scattered worldwide attending classes on Zoom. Self-isolating friends watching movies together on Netflix Party. Grandmothers reading bedtime stories on FaceTime. Preachers live-streaming church services on Facebook. Comedians and musicians on YouTube. Doctors on Twitter and TikTok. Scammers and hucksters on … well, just about every medium. And everyone watching and reading the news. Surely there has never been another time of quarantine, isolation and social distancing so thoroughly drenched in communication.

But although the communication milieu of the coronavirus pandemic is astonishing, it is not entirely new. For several hundred years, people have used media — reading, writing and print — to maintain human contact and community in times of epidemic disease, when physical contact becomes suddenly taboo. A striking example happened during the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793. During that crisis, people wrote countless letters, notes and diary entries. They also turned to print, especially the Federal Gazette, the only local newspaper that continued to publish daily during the epidemic.

As a fierce debate broke out about whether the job of newspapers was to amplify the voices of authority or to share the voices of everyone in a virtual open forum, the yellow fever epidemic revealed something that still holds true today: Communication forums, despite their many flaws, nourish real community in moments of lockdown.

Yellow fever emerged in Philadelphia in late summer 1793. The epidemic was swift and devastating. Within three months, more than 4,000 of the city’s 50,000 inhabitants were dead. As one resident wrote in October to an out-of-town friend, “Their burying grounds are like plowed fields.” How yellow fever spread was unknown then, but it was believed to be highly contagious. So Philadelphians quickly began to practice extreme social distancing, as we call it today. If they could leave town, they did. If they could not leave, they hunkered down in their houses. If they had to go out, they avoided contact with strangers and even with friends.

But no physical contact did not mean no communication. Philadelphians turned to virtual communication — writing and print. For them, the newspaper was vital.

In September, for example, a man who was holed up in his house was awakened by the cry of “Fire!” In an 18th-century city, this call required shoulder-to-shoulder civic participation. The man was extremely reluctant to venture out to join the bucket brigades, but he did. “I prepared myself,” he wrote. “I bathed my temples and forehead with the proper vinegar, took some in my mouth, and went forward.” At dawn, the man staggered home, exhausted. But before eating breakfast, he wrote an account of his overnight ordeal for the Federal Gazette.

Day after day, the Federal Gazette brimmed with letters, notes and announcements sent in by public officials, doctors and ordinary people who were isolated and afraid. Everyone agreed that this one surviving newspaper was an essential nexus of community life. But what was the purpose of this outpouring of communication in the newspaper? On that, Philadelphians disagreed.

City officials, doctors and other elites wanted the newspaper to print “authentic intelligence” — provided by them. In private letters and in print, they decried “the hundred tongues of rumor.” To refute rumor, they turned to the newspaper. Mayor Matthew Clarkson set up a special crisis task force to help govern the city and to shape the news. Meanwhile, the city’s doctors peppered the paper with yellow fever information and advice.

But while the elites agreed that it was their voices that should appear in the paper, they could not agree on what counted as “authentic intelligence.” Local government officials disagreed on what should be done about the epidemic; the doctors disagreed even more. Although they said they desired to calm the anxious citizenry, the doctors instead fell into acrimonious debate about the best treatments for yellow fever.

Their rancor rose with the death toll. Soon doctors were warning that other doctors’ treatments “cannot fail of being certain death.” The city’s most famous doctor, Benjamin Rush, believed that some of his colleagues were killing people by the hundreds. “I was contending,” he wrote later, “with the most criminal ignorance.”

The doctors’ ugly — and sometimes political — debate about “authentic intelligence” filled the Federal Gazette, leaving ordinary readers dismayed and terrified, unsure of which group was right.

So they sent to the newspaper their own suggested remedies, personal narratives and random musings. To treat the disease, they recommended vinegar, camphor, garlic, rue, wormwood, lavender, pennyroyal and other remedies from the classic folk pharmacopeia. They recommended earth bathing, smoke and tar. One writer thought molasses was the thing. He drank two quarts over three days, which produced “very great discharges of wind.” And it worked, he said.

Ordinary readers also posted prayers, meditations, words of criticism, words of thanks and even humorous anecdotes, which they hoped might relieve the anxiety. They agreed that authentic intelligence was important; but just as important was what one writer called “every observation on the present prevailing disorder.” Communication itself was life.

One thread in the newspaper letters was the defense of Philadelphia against the attacks of outsiders, who seemed to blame Philadelphians for their own misery. “Let New York, Trenton, and Baltimore resolve and re-resolve that we may all perish together,” one reader wrote in the Federal Gazette. “We are resolving under Providence to live, despite all their cruel resolves.” Another summed up the sentiments of many Philadelphians: “Let us, my fellow citizens, bear in mind that we are members of one common family; that, as such, we ought by no means to desert one another in the moment of our suffering.”

Two years before the yellow fever crisis, Andrew Brown, the editor of the Federal Gazette, published an essay about the public purpose of a newspaper. While the first American political party system was emerging in that era, Brown’s main concern, he asserted, was not party politics. It was the welfare of the Philadelphia community. His newspaper was to be a community forum, open to all writers on all questions.

His vision was what we would call a virtual community. Through newspapers, Brown declared, “we keep company with the absent; we are, by their means, made acquainted with strangers — we feel, in solitude, a sympathy with mankind.”

Of course, Brown’s vision was overly optimistic — and self-serving, too. Newspapers, including his Federal Gazette, have never been as neutral or as open to everyone as their proprietors have routinely professed. Still, the business imperatives of newspapers, even in the 18th century, have nudged them to seek a wide range of readers and advertisers. To achieve that goal, both “authentic intelligence” and “every observation” have long been part of the package.

In our current crisis, we — like the Philadelphians of 1793 — certainly need authentic intelligence. As then, however, what counts as “authentic” is much in dispute. But perhaps even more important, we need one another. We need what communications media have always provided: sympathy in solitude.

Despite the many flaws of the social media that are now part of daily life — including security breaches, the spread of misinformation and even the promotion of hate and violence — we need to remember the importance of everything from Zoom to Facebook to Twitter.

Americans stuck at home yearn to re-create connection and community on social media. Like the Federal Gazette of 1793, these online forums allow for everything from celebration to mourning to simply feeling less lonely. While we should be cautious of the weaknesses of social media and should push platforms to address hate and misinformation, we should not forget their very real strengths in our moment of social distancing.