Virus and virality

Virus and virality

A few weeks after the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic in China, the outbreak of bad information – and misinformation – was already beginning to spread among us, long before the real virus crossed the threshold of our country.


Advertising message As more and more disturbing images and news filled the newspapers, in parallel misleading rumors about hypothetical conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus began to meander among us, giving rise to the escalation of false news that still circulates indiscriminately today on the Web. It is thus, on these fast and tumultuous channels of disinformation, that the panic epidemic has managed to travel faster than the coronavirus. It was a real infodemy that overwhelmed our safety and triggered our worst fears like a bomb, drawing scenes of social brutality that we all unfortunately had to witness. From beating attempts on oriental residents, to the wild and uncontrolled assault of supermarkets.

Never like this time, we have witnessed such a clear coincidence between virology and virality, where disinformation has managed to make the wave of fear grow, riding on the thrust and flooding the pages of social networks.

In recent years the use of the internet in the healthcare sector is becoming one of the main global trends. Millions of citizens continually and obsessively search for online health information and share information on their public profiles for dissemination purposes.

For every true expert who tries to share correct scientific information and every leader who tries to transmit objective data, there are thousands of users who create and circulate false and scandalous news, for the sole purpose of obtaining as many clicks as possible to their posts. . Usually it is the same algorithms that structure social networks to promote news that create more involvement, attracting more interest in shocking and sensationalistic content and thus fueling its diffusion. The term that best describes this type of social phenomenon is the English “rumors”, which can be translated into Italian in different ways: rumors, chatter, gossip, indiscretions. The “urban legends”, as we tend to call them, they have always accompanied every type of historical event that had a certain relevance. Already in Roman mythology the Goddess Fama was present, a divinity announcer and messenger of Jupiter. Fama was imagined as a woman always on the move, constantly shouting good and bad news everywhere, was young and impetuous with wings scattered with eyes, mouths and tongues, and in the act of playing a trumpet or two, one for the truth, the other for lies (Crescimbene, La Longa, Lanza., 2012).

The academic literature in this sense has deepened considerably the mechanisms of onset and propagation of the rumors phenomenon. In this regard, Allport and Postman (1947) defined rumors as propositions of faith on specific (or current) topics that pass from person to person, usually by word of mouth, without any proof of their truth. Although rumors are usually communicated from person to person through word of mouth, the media nowadays also play a key role in their dissemination.

More specifically, the phenomenon of unfounded rumors was also observed during the outbreak of previous epidemics. For example, during the Ebola epidemic that hit West Africa in 2014, an article in the British journal of Medical found that most of the messages concerning the epidemic contained false news and that these were the ones that attracted the most attention and that they were mostly shared on social networks (Oyeyemi, Gabarron, Wynn., 2014). Social networks in this case helped to spread rumors about fake treatments, then becoming general news.

Another study analyzed the spread of unfounded rumors during the 2003 SARS epidemic that hit some regions of China. Most of these rumors, mostly mystical or supernatural in nature, had started spreading by word of mouth, and then gained some popularity through digital communication channels. Often the content of these false reports concerned the possible supernatural aetiology of the disease or magical-religious therapeutic remedies that in some rural areas had found ample space for diffusion and proliferation (Zixue, Tao., 2011).

A different phenomenon, but in some ways similar, had already been noticed even during the infamous Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The American newspapers of the time had the fundamental role of sounding the sound of individual fears, amplifying panic with sensationalist headlines that spread among the population. (Hume., 2000)

Advertising message If in the early 1900s the desperate and hidden individual fears found space only in the headlines, now the news, false or true, travel at the same speed as the mind that thinks about it. In fact, a few minutes pass, from when an unfounded voice starts to circulate, to when the screens of our mobile phones illuminate our faces, leaving us the choice to continue feeding the swirling mechanism of the useless clamor.

All of us should understand that contributing to disinformation in such delicate moments as what we are experiencing, is not the same as doing harmless gossip. The miraculous intuitions that offer false treatments, the unconscious propaganda aimed at underestimating the seriousness of the epidemic or the superficial campaigns of fame, are not just gossip. The outbreak can be as dangerous as the pandemic.

By sharing senseless news, we take responsibility for being the link in a chain of ignorance, which in the long run ends up tightening our lives in a grip of confusion and panic. Therefore if we believe it is necessary to share information, it is important to make sure that the origin is reliable and to accept that the person or body from which it should come has issued an official declaration.

At a time when we do not have great tools to fight Covid -19 if not to stay at home, we must use the social media megaphone to improve the adherence of the population to quarantine procedures, reduce unfounded fears, clarify uncertainties and build confidence in our public health that is fighting an unprecedented battle.

There is a viral infection to be stopped and unfortunately it is not only what is transmitted by air. To prevent the infection of stupidity from sending our minds to mush, it takes very little. An instant of logic and rationality. Simple … like a click.