Newspaper discourses of ‘touch’ in the age of COVID-19

Broadsheet newspapers across the socio-political spectrum play a role in creating, shaping and reflecting narratives of touch and social relations. Their construction of touch topics and sensitivities, amplified or dispersed in a variety of social, cultural and political contexts, inform and organise how we think about and experience touch. Likewise, media representations of emerging technologies matter. They create and assess contexts of use and, in the process, imbue them with social life, with possible norms, rules, relations and moralities.

This case study critically examined British newspaper discourses of touch and remote personal communication across the five years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic and the period of the first and second UK national lockdowns (March-Nov 2020). When touch newly came into focus through government social distancing regulations, British newspapers contributed to the discursive construction of this new tactile landscape. Although touch was not always made explicit in COVID-19 regulations – and the virus itself came to be associated with airborne transmission – touch was often implied and made relevant through social distancing rules.  It was the purpose of this case study to explore the place of emerging touch technologies in these discursive formations. 

In order to bound our search, we focused in on personal relationships as one context for touch technologies, specifically attending to the concept of ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ that had emerged as key to our case study on Imagining Remote Personal Communication. The following questions framed our searches and analysis:

  • With a focus on major broadsheet newspapers in the UK, what have been the discourses of touch and remote personal communication during COVID-19?
  • How have they developed from previously (2015-2020)? What kinds of touch are included or missing?
  • How is digital communication addressed in relation to remote personal relationships and touch, in the age of COVID?
  • How are emerging touch technologies situated within these discourses, with what impact on communication and social relationships?

Our search strategy via LEXIS/NEXIS and newspaper portals led us to identify a total of 280 articles across seven major UK broadsheets: The Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Sun, The Telegraph, The Times, The Independent and The Guardian. Of these 280 articles, 42 were published pre-2020 and 238 between March 2020 (the first national lockdown) and November 2020 (the end of the second national lockdown). 

In our thematic analysis of these news articles, not only did we see an intensification of pre-COVID discourses across broadsheets, such as the significance of social touch for health and wellbeing, fears of touch starvation, related feelings of loneliness, and digital technologies’ complex role as both enabler of social connection and as creating a digital disconnect. We also found that certain types of touch came to the forefront of public discourse. Specifically, the platonic hug became a symbol for the kind of touch most needed and denied in times of crisis. And a fascination with social distancing regulations’ effects on sexual intimacy saw touch (or the lack therof) implied in what became known as the ‘sex ban’, or ‘Boris’ bonking ban’. Within these discursive negotiations of touch, emerging touch technologies only featured tangentially as a possible but largely insufficient solution to the lack of physical touch. With touch in crisis, the narratives that form part of wider sociotechnical imaginaries provided a narrow view of what touch technology might achieve, falling short because it seeks to replace on the physical level, rather than honing in on emotion. 

An article detailing this case study is currently under review.