Today's news production cycle is measured not in days, hours or minutes, but in seconds. The lag between an event and its coverage has almost disappeared, making news instantaneous. That's a radical, intoxicating advance: we take it for granted that someone sitting in Dublin can watch a protest in Daraa, Syria, in real time. It can also be put to disturbing use, as we saw this week, when a video of the horrific murders at two mosques in New Zealand, recorded by the right-wing conspiracy theorist who carried out the massacre, spread around the world faster than social networks could remove it.
But like most technologies, the digital tools we use to spread information faster do two things simultaneously: they empower us in new ways, but they also submit to broader, existing limitations.
Some of the these limitations are technological: a truly interconnected world depends on everyone being connected, whereas, in reality, about half the world's population has no internet access, according to the United Nations. Moreover, the idea of a global digital community is itself largely an illusion: people online tend to cluster in self-selecting groups defined in familiar ways – by their shared languages or interests, for example, or by nationality. Other limitations are simply human: even with better, faster information, people deploy their curiosity selectively.
About five days passed before news of the devastation made major headlines around the world
The calamity that struck southeast Africa in the past 10 days helps make the point. On the night of Thursday, March 14th, a powerful cyclone hit Mozambique's port city of Beira with winds of up to 170km/h, before sweeping inland to Malawi and Zimbabwe. The destruction it left in its wake was stunning: an area of 394sq km was flooded, and footage filmed from the air showed what resembled a sludge-coloured ocean where towns and villages once stood.
Homes were lost, bridges collapsed and whole communities were left marooned. Beira, a city of half a million people, was "completely destroyed", the Red Cross reported. Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi, who described watching bodies float in the water as he flew over affected areas in a helicopter, said the eventual death toll from the cyclone and ensuing floods could rise to more than 1,000, which would make it one of the worst weather-related disasters ever in the southern hemisphere.
About five days passed before news of the devastation made major headlines around the world or prompted foreign governments into action, and even then the scale of the disaster did not seem to fully register. Lots of factors no doubt contributed to that, including the remoteness of some of the worst affected areas, Mozambique’s low internet penetration (about 5 per cent), a lack of infrastructure and the fact that governments and aid agencies seemed taken by surprise by the violence of the cyclone.
The disaster zone is not particularly well-served by the international news wire agencies that the world – including African countries themselves – rely on for news from the continent (a lack of resident foreign correspondents in the field also explains the patchy coverage of recent momentous events in Algeria in the Anglophone press).
Some Western outlets focused only on Western victims and, in one case, identified the site of the crash simply as 'Africa'
Reflecting on the relatively muted international response, the Washington Post posited another explanation. It recalled the work of Jamil Zaki, a Stanford University psychologist, who has written about "a troubling quirk in human empathy: people tend to care more about the suffering of single individuals, and less about the pain of many people".
For all that, however, it's surely also true that the news from Mozambique was slow to penetrate western consciousness because it happened in sub-Saharan Africa. In the West, a cold snap in Chicago in January drew more commentary.
The idea that double standards apply to Africa is hardly new, but it had also surfaced the previous week in the aftermath of the Boeing plane crash outside the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Writing on "the erasure of African tragedy" in the Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis argued that many Western outlets reported the news with "unevenly rationed compassion" – some stoking unfounded suspicions about the calibre of Ethiopian Airlines, others focusing exclusively on western victims and, in one case, identifying the site of the crash simply as "Africa" (as Giorgos noted, with dark irony, the victims of the plane crash included the Nigerian writer Pius Adesanmi, author of You're Not a Country, Africa).
In this Giorgis was echoing a previous warning from the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the "danger of a single story" – the absurd reductionism that imposes a single narrative frame on a continent of more than a billion people and 54 countries and the jumble of histories, experiences and stories they encompass. "If black people are innately violent, if Africans live on an inherently backwards continent with fundamentally shoddy airlines, then their deaths are not tragedies," Giorgis writes. "They are eventualities. They are facts, not stories."