2 entries; scroll down to read each one
1.Dealing with information overload
Author: Andrea Friedmann Rozenbaum, MSc, Anthropologist, University of Amsterdam alumna
Field site: In isolation, on the north-coast of São Paulo (Brazil), in the hinterland of a sea-side town called Camburi. I consider my field site as being both the neighbourhood I am at and the people with whom I am interacting online.
I arrived on the outskirts of this little town when the lockdown guidance had just started being issued in São Paulo and some other Brazilian states. It is important to note that here, the lockdown is still viewed as a recommendation by governors and mayors since the Brazilian president doesn’t recognise the WHO’s authority when it comes to implementing these measures, as well as not considering the pandemic as a real menace. Despite that, I came to this town initially to spend a few days, but as everything happened so fast, I ended up settling here for an indeterminate amount of time.
When I previously conducted ethnographic research in the field of digital anthropology, I focused on understanding how people are affected by the way they relate through and with digital devices.[i] Now, finding myself in physical isolation with few opportunities to interact with others in person, I consider my fieldsite amplified by digital technology.
The examples and thoughts I am contributing here developed from conversations I had with people in the past few weeks – either by phone and video calls, or through online messaging, and group messages. Additionally, I have also gathered observations of online behaviour that I witnessed and participated in this period. The main tools used to collect these were Instant Messaging (IM) apps (mostly WhatsApp), video call apps (Zoom, Houseparty, Google Hangouts, Facetime, WhatsApp calls), and e-mails.
Collective sharing and personal discussions
The first aspect that my attention was drawn to is that most of the content sent – and forwarded – through online channels regarding the current situation is shared through instant messaging groups. It was rare for me to receive a ‘news’ link, a meme, or a video via a one-to-one message. When talking about this with others, they shared the same impression. So, why are people sharing this information on a more collective basis? Maybe because in this turbulent moment of uncertainty, many individuals are undergoing similar experiences, facing the same questions and insecurities about the future. As nobody feels they have a concrete answer or a way of dealing with this, perhaps this collective sharing has become a way of spreading information and supporting each other.
However, while a large amount of information is shared in groups, I rarely experienced a proper discussion arising from such contributions. One could comment “thanks for sharing”, or “yes, I read that, it is indeed important”, or “this reminded me of that”, followed by them sending another piece of content. While the frequency and volume of group dissemination of messages is rising, at the same time, the collective instant messaging chat does not seem like an appropriate arena for discussion. Sometimes, in groups I participate in, a topic first introduced through a message was later brought up on a video call gathering. However, it was also difficult to go in-depth. The only moments where I had such an opportunity was through one-to-one conversations. Other people also shared a similar reflection. For instance, a friend mentioned, “only when I talk to just one person at a time do I feel comfortable to really sharing and developing a thought”. Among the vast quantity of messages popping up in group chats, personal interaction is needed as a space for thorough discussions. This negotiation between the different media channels might be happening without people necessarily acknowledging it. The further implications of this could add to a broader understanding of the way humans interact with and through digital technology.
Discerning information and checking veracity
Moreover, with regards to the content shared online, I’ve noticed that the journalistic news gets mixed with other types of information. Among these are opinion articles, memes, cartoons, videos, advertising, guessing games, jokes. Since everything arrives through the same channel, and the message overload is only going up, on many occasions people don’t have the time to discern, or even to understand that there is discerning to be done. Thus, all the incoming content might end up being absorbed as ‘information’. How can one separate between material relevant to a topic, material worth reading and material that one can skip reading? How can one be selective in such turbulent times, when people also feel they must be well-informed at all moments of the day?
To give an example, I recently received a video in which an unknown person filmed a square full of people in São Paulo.[ii] Most of them were not following social distancing rules, and only a couple were wearing masks. On the same day, a relative told me she passed by the same square and also saw many people there. I crossreferenced both what I had watched and what I had been told, and I sent the video to some IM groups. Many people reacted sceptically, not believing that people were gathering despite the recommendations to undertake social isolation. However, a friend responded, saying, “do you know who filmed this? This could be fake news, and it could just be an old video”. Before I replied, other members manifested, “I saw it on the TV news earlier today, it’s true”. Having the TV as a “trustworthy source” that supports a fact brought a sense of relief to the group. I added that although I didn’t know who had created the video, I knew that the information was accurate, since a relative has confirmed it.
I interpreted my friend’s reaction as a way of encouraging the group to verify the credibility of the shared content. Somehow, she was acting as the moral police, giving citizens the responsibility of fact-checking. Even though it could be false information, since there was no way of tracing the source, by watching the whole video one could realize that it was not. There were a few people wearing masks in the video, a sight uncommon outside of a hospital in Brazil before the pandemic. In this case, looking for signs as reassurance was what viewers needed to trust the information they had been sent. In addition, checking the content in all its visual details before drawing conclusions is an important outcome when it comes to the way in which people are dealing with incoming ‘news’.
While it is still too early to draw conclusions, I would like to reflect on these observations and experiences.
- IM groups are – as perhaps they already were before – a channel through which people share information collectively. This might be a way in which individuals are dealing with collective struggles.
- While sharing content online works as a way of spreading information, it doesn’t seem to be an appropriate arena to develop in-depth discussions. Simultaneous and face-to-face encounters – through video or phone calls – appear to be a more suitable ground for that.
- It is possible that the amount of information circulating through online platforms is increasing at a pace which makes it difficult for people to make sense of that information. Thus, it is essential to remember to spend some time to taking into consideration different types of content, discerning between what is worth accessing, and what isn’t.
- Self-regulation among instant messaging group members with regards to what might be (or not) a safe source of information could work as a reminder for checking its veracity before sharing.
What I shared here were only some first impressions of what I’ve been able to observe and experience in these first weeks of physical isolation. I hope this information can inspire people to reflect on their own and other online interactions on the topic of finding and sharing information online.
[i] See Rozenbaum, A. F. (2020). “The Condition of Constant Connectivity: Dealing with reciprocity in a context of continuous expectations,” UvA Scripties, at https://scripties.uba.uva.nl/search?id=707875, accessed 18 April 2020.
[ii] This is the video that I sent: https://www.facebook.com/1222942028/posts/10222796250914516/?d=n
2. Social relations and the flow of “corona-news”
Author: Marina Frid, a postdoctoral researcher in Communication and Culture at UFRJ, Brazil.
Fieldsite: I am staying in touch with a group of informants who live and work in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and are quarantining in different parts of the city. From my home in Rio, I am interviewing them over the phone, Skype and WhatsApp video calls. I started by contacting five informants who in turn referred me to some of their co-workers, employees, friends and acquaintances.
Like getting punched in the face
On the 13th of March, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, ordered the temporary suspension of a series of public activities and gatherings in the entire state, including sports events, concerts, fairs, festivals, academic conferences, rallies and protests, to contain the spread of coronavirus. Cinemas and theatres were immediately closed, while schools and universities had to postpone classes or adopt distance learning. The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella, published a similar decree on that same day listing measures in response to the impending health crisis. In the following week, the mayor determined that almost every commercial establishment should close, except those considered “essential”, like supermarkets, bakeries and drugstores. Restaurants could work for home-delivery and takeout only. Though some of these measures have since been slightly loosened, Rio residents and workers are entering their sixth week of “social isolation”. Even the beach is off-limits, at least officially.
The COVID-19 crisis hit Brazil on Ash Wednesday when the first case was confirmed in São Paulo. Many of my informants recall there was already some concern about the risk of the virus being disseminated in the country during carnival due to the flow of tourists and the crowds partying in the streets. Mila, who lives in Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, had been following online news about the situation in China since at least December 2019, but did not really pay attention to the problem until February 2020. She remembers watching the news on television about cruise ships arriving in Rio for the carnival holiday and saying to her husband: “It’s going to get here”. At that point, however, Mila did not foresee that coronavirus would have such an impact in her daily life. She is a secretary at a fitness and rehabilitation clinic that had to close because of the pandemic. Her undergraduate course in management was transferred to online platforms as were her workout sessions. She went from spending over 12 hours a day out of the house to staying inside full-time.
Elis, a publicist at a government company, shared a message signed by her son’s paediatrician with me, a message that she received via a WhatsApp group for mums on a Sunday night, the 15th of March. The paediatrician recommended a “precautionary radicalisation” of measures to keep the outbreak from ramping up like it did in Italy. For instance, he advised parents to not take their kids to school, nor let them near their grandparents or anyone older than 60 for the next 15 days at least. Elis thought, “shit, this must be a lie”, and texted the paediatrician to confirm the message was really his. “It can’t be true. Are you really saying I can’t take Francisco to daycare tomorrow? What am I going to do?”, she asked the doctor. To which he replied, “That’s exactly it. It’s what we need to do right now.”
For Hugo, a capoeira master and postgraduate student in psychiatry, the major health concern during carnival was not coronavirus, but measles. A friend of his that works in the city’s health bureau had warned him and his wife about the threat of an outbreak of measles, and advised them to get the vaccine. A nationwide immunization campaign was underway in February, and public health agents even vaccinated people in subway stations in Rio during the holiday. While we were talking over the phone, Hugo searched his WhatsApp records and was surprised to find a message from 27 January with information about the “new coronavirus”. His father had sent him a link to a newsletter by the Brazilian Society of Infectious Diseases on the topic. His wife had also sent him something about the coronavirus on the 7th of February. News about the outbreak, however, did not catch his attention until early March.
Regardless of how much information was already available about the coronavirus, the side effects of protective measures against the spread of the disease caught my informants mostly by surprise. None of them were prepared for the drastic changes in their routines. I asked Mila, “how would you explain the coronavirus to someone who has never heard about it before?”. She replied, “the coronavirus was an unexpected punch in our face (…) no one was ready”.
An overload of “corona-news”
Gabriela had also been reading news about the coronavirus since it became an issue in China in January and later in Europe. “Do you remember? There were some Brazilians in Wuhan.”. She also has a friend that had to cancel his work trip to Wuhan around that time. But, it was only after carnival that Gabriela realized COVID-19 could affect her. Until carnival, the consequences of the virus were not clear to her. “Corona was still a joke, a costume, a Chinese thing” for most people in Rio during the holiday. She is a journalist working as product director of an online news platform. Therefore, she has been keeping up to date about the pandemic, its ramifications, possible medicines and so forth, through news, government data and scientific papers shared in WhatsApp journalist groups that she is in. She already had the habit of reading traditional Brazilian newspapers, like Estadão and Folha, online. Though she subscribes the print edition of O Globo, she has been reading its digital version since learning that contaminated paper could spread the virus.
Another informant, Joana, mentioned that no one gave much thought to the virus when it was still just in China. She remembers reading news on the internet about the coronavirus since January, but thinks that television began to focus on the outbreak only when it reached Brazil. On Facebook, Joana follows the pages of Estadão and Folha, besides BBC’s news coverage of the country. She lives with her mother, sister and brother-in-law in the neighbourhood of Santa Cruz. Lately, the TV set at their home spends the entire day tuned in on Globo, the major channel in Brazil, which has adapted its schedule to expand coverage of the coronavirus crisis. “I’m calling it corona-Globo because it’s only talking about coronavirus all day long.”.
Gabriela has been watching more news on cable TV channels (GloboNews and CNN) than usual, because she is staying at her parents’ house during the pandemic. But other informants mentioned they are trying not to read or watch too much news about the coronavirus during the day. They say the constant exposure to information about the pandemic on television and social media is tiring and tends to increase their anxiety. Also, they feel the news gets very repetitive. For instance, Diana, a personal trainer, tries to watch only one news show per day, the Jornal Nacional, which airs on Globo’s primetime. She follows “serious” institutions, like the World Health Organization (WHO), on Instagram as well. Though Diana downloaded the coronavirus app offered by the Brazilian health ministry, she never used it to consult information.
Pedro, a physical therapist and PhD student in biomedicine, notes that way too much stuff comes up on social media. “You can’t even take in all that information on a daily basis”. He tries to pick out just some of the news he receives on Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook to read and verifies if they are correct by consulting online publications by the Brazilian government, WHO and medical associations. His perception is that information shared in WhatsApp groups of research students is slightly more reliable than what comes from other groups, because participants tend to be better trained to discern information. He also mentioned using WHO’s service that sends situation reports via WhatsApp to anyone interested in the numbers of the pandemic worldwide.
“I don’t even open these things I receive in [WhatsApp] family groups”, says Gabriela. Her relatives often share things like supposedly leaked audios of specialists or politicians revealing shocking information that she does not even bother to listen. Usually, she only clicks on those links that she can identify the source. If she notices there is any shady news gaining traction in her family’s WhatsApp conversations, she resorts to fact-checking tools and posts the correct information in the groups.
Diana, a personal trainer, adopts a similar pattern of filtering down information about the pandemic based on who is sending it. She tends to disregard news sent by older relatives, like her mother-in-law, grandmother and aunts. She thinks they are less experienced in the “internet world” and, therefore, less likely to identify false information. “Anything they receive they think it’s true.”. They do not filter information before forwarding it – “especially now in this idle time, all they do is forward messages.”.
Social relations and the flow of information
As the analysis of interviews shows, social relations are crucial in the process of receiving, judging, selecting, discarding, understanding and sharing information. For instance, Marcus has been relying mostly on research articles and lectures by specialists that are available on the internet to learn about coronavirus. “I don’t watch GloboNews, to my wife’s annoyance”. He has been exchanging recent scientific articles on COVID-19 with colleagues and friends who are health practitioners or have a similar academic experience to his. He is impressed by the number of papers being published by the day on the topic. Joana, a gym instructor and master’s student in mental health, also mentioned that she has been reading papers published in scientific journals that are temporarily free to access due to the pandemic.
Like my other informants, Marcus receives a profusion of information via WhatsApp, not all of it to his liking. He thinks there are too many people making guesses based on their opinions. Moreover, he is tired of political views interfering in discussions about the pandemic. People’s impulse to defend their interests and candidates would be taking the focus away from the problem at hand, which is the spread of coronavirus and how to treat it. Since Bolsonaro’s election in 2018, political polarization has shaken his relations with some of his relatives, friends and workmates. Some relationships “will never be the same again”. Marcus’s political divergences and disappointment with certain people affect how he classifies information as reliable or disposable. He said,
“Yes, I’m selective. I consider not only who is sending [the information] but also the source. Based on previous experiences, there’re some names in WhatsApp groups that, if they post something, I don’t even check to see what it is. They may have posted extremely important and relevant information, but I won’t read it.”
Marcus explained to me he is “not a fan of conspiracy theories”, but sometimes tries to be more flexible and read things that come from those senders he finds unreliable. Later, he forwarded to me a 50-minute film about Xi Jinping, available on YouTube, as an example of the kind of information that he gets from his right-wing, non-specialist acquaintances via WhatsApp. Gabriela also disregards information sent by her friends that come from the “grey zone” of radicalisation, such as news and comments published in websites associated either to the far-right or the far-left.
The social positions people occupy shape the information they receive and their approach to them. Because Elis is a mother, she participates in WhatsApp “mum groups” and a lot of the information she gets and shares is related to children’s health and wellbeing during the pandemic. Pedro also told me that his friends and patients are seeking him for advice even though he is not a medical doctor. He is conscious of his responsibility as a health practitioner in providing accurate information and being reassuring to those who reach out to him regardless of his speciality.
It is particularly interesting to note the flow of information in hierarchical work relations, like from employers to their employees. Alex, a fitness instructor, mentioned his bosses in one of the places he works for were important in his process of learning about coronavirus. When I asked Mila who or what had been important in teaching her about the disease, she named her bosses at the clinic as well. Lisa is an autonomous manicurist who works in the South Zone of Rio and lives in the city of Nova Iguaçu, in the metropolitan area. She told me her clients send her a lot of information, especially links to videos available on YouTube, via WhatsApp. She checks out most of the things her clients send, except videos that are too long or that she has already watched. Though Lisa knows there is a lot of false and silly information circulating on the internet, she thinks her clients’ messages tend to be reliable. “My clients are very intelligent (…). So, I believe they won’t send me nonsense.”
I have changed the names of all informants to protect their privacy.