You may not have been exposed to the new coronavirus yet, but you’ve almost certainly been exposed to an adjacent contagion. Maybe you’ve even helped spread it.
It might be retweeting Australian complaints about supermarkets sold out of hand sanitizer. Liking Gwyneth Paltrow’s Instagram post of herself in a face mask. Scrolling agog through Facebook photos from a friend in Texas of long supermarket queues for water and paper towels.
Online platforms are taking social contagion to new heights, making it harder for people to know where the real risks lie or what the right precautions are to take. Panic-buying isn’t a new phenomenon. But instant knowledge of the ripple effects from the virus, whether justified or not, turbocharges the panic. It’s a phenomenon we’ve never quite experienced on this scale.
When the Spanish flu took hold a century ago, there was initially very little press coverage. Indeed, it was so named not because it originated in Spain, but because that’s where the impact of the virus was first widely reported. Censorship imposed during World War I meant the press in France, the U.K., U.S. 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 that ultimately claimed some 50 million lives globally.
In the era of COVID-19, the challenge is the inverse: Information and misinformation alike are spreading faster than the virus itself, amplified by the online news cycle and endless personal reactions and anecdotes shared far beyond one’s closest family and friends. In one attempt to cut through the noise, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Wednesday that the social network would give the World Health Organization free advertising for its response to the disease, and work to remove false claims and conspiracy theories about the virus. Credit the effort, at least.
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 actively 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 a general hysteria, which might keep crucial medical gear and service from those who need it more, but they want to avoid crying wolf by accident. 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 in general, 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.
In the decade since swine flu, the way we consume news has also changed. Facebook has grown from 360 million to 2.5 billion users. Multitudes of people are now rapidly sharing and re-sharing information, not always weighing beforehand how trustworthy or potentially frenzy-feeding it may be.
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 by association. 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 accentuate 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 really need to. The U.S. 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 behavior, 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, anger, amazement, laughter or crying emoji. All emotions you broadcast out to an array of people near and far, encouraging them to do the same.
Social networks are wired to “stir up emotional engagements and make them contagious,” according to Tony D. Sampson, a critical theorist and author of the upcoming “A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media.” It can be detrimental to a whole 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. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.