Misinformation and emotive posts shared and reshared online have exaggerated the threat of the coronavirus and have made it difficult to gauge the real risk, says Alex Webb.
YOU may not have been exposed to the new coronavirus yet, but you’ve probably been exposed to an adjacent contagion.
Maybe you’ve even spread it: by retweeting complaints in Australia about supermarkets sold out of hand sanitiser; by liking Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram post of herself in a face mask; by scrolling agog through Facebook photos of long supermarket queues for water and paper towels in Texas.
Online platforms are amplifying social contagion, making it harder for people to know the real risks or the appropriate precautions.
Panic-buying isn’t a new phenomenon. But instant knowledge of the ripple effects of the virus, whether justified or not, turbocharges the panic. It’s new on this scale.
When the Spanish flu took hold a century ago, there was, initially, very little press coverage. It was so named not because it originated in Spain, but because that’s where the virus’s impact was first widely reported.
Censorship imposed during World War I meant that the press in France, Britain, the US, and Germany barely covered the disease until late 1918, when millions were already infected.
Spain was a non-combatant, so newspapers were free to report on the illness, which killed 50m people globally.
In the era of Covid-19, the challenge is the inverse: information and misinformation are spreading faster than the virus, accelerated by the online news cycle and endless personal reactions and anecdotes shared far beyond one’s closest family and friends.
Last week, in an attempt to cut through the noise, Facebook chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, said that the social network would give the World Health Organisation free advertising for its response to the disease, and work to remove false claims and conspiracy theories about thevirus.
Back in 1918, support for censoring Spanish flu reports stemmed from the medical establishment’s view that there was a direct link between a person’s emotional state and their physical well-being, historian Mark Honigsbaum has written.
Spreading negativity, it was feared, would not just undermine public morale, but also make the general population more likely to contract and succumb to the malady.
These days, medical authorities have different reasons to be circumspect in their public statements. Not only do they want to avoid provoking hysteria — which might keep crucial medical gear and service from those who need it more — but they want to avoid crying wolf.
In the midst of the swine flu outbreak of 2009, England’s chief medical officer warned there could be 65,000 fatalities. In the end, 214 people died.
That has added to “an erosion of trust and deference” not only toward experts, but expertise, according to Honigsbaum, author of The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris. That may result in people being less likely to seek salient expert advice.
The fire hose of information has made it harder to know what to trust. It’s not necessarily that people are inclined to believe ‘fake news,’ but, because untrustworthy sources are presented in the same way as credible ones, the latter are devalued.
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 57% of Americans expect news they see on social media to be “largely inaccurate.” People like and share away irrespective.
Facebook and Twitter are trying to crack down on misinformation — and to ensure the most trusted information surfaces first for those who search for it — but that’s only part of the equation. The viral nature of real personal experiences or opinions also accentuates panic. The social networks aren’t going to block a photo from a friend, nor should they. But the post could still make you consider rushing out to the supermarket to stock up on toilet paper, whether or not you need to.
The US surgeon general even took to Twitter to urge people to stop buying masks, to ensure there are enough for health-care professionals.
There’s a strand of social thought called contagion theory, which looks at how ideas, and, at times, irrational behaviour, are spread in a group. Social networks play on this by generating emotional reactions to content — Facebook invites you to respond to a post with a ‘like,’ ‘love,’ angry,’ ‘amazed,’ ‘laughing,’ or ‘crying’ emoji. All these emotions are broadcast out to an array of people, near and far, encouraging them to feel and do the same.
Social networks are wired to “stir up emotional engagements and make them contagious,” says Tony D Sampson, a critical theorist and author of the upcoming, A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media.
It can be detrimental to a range of things, from politics to health, he says, because “what spreads tends to be on a rapid visceral register of communication, rather than reasoned thinking.”
The irony is that, as the epidemic progresses, those advertising their efforts to combat the real-world virus are also perpetuating the digital contagion. Platforms and health authorities will need to keep playing catch up.
Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe’s technology, media, and communications industries