Managing the constant influx of information during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Author: Erika Pathó is a medical anthropologist and an alumna of the University of Heidelberg. She can be contacted at erika.patho@gmail.com.

Fieldsite: The input for this article is based on survey responses from a questionnaire sent out to 15 informants, living and working across Europe. The research
portrays perspectives from multiple countries (Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France,
Germany, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia) and depicts the diversity of reactions and attitudes concerning
the use, consumption and the perceived impact of online information in the early stages of the
Coronavirus outbreak.

I am very grateful to all my respondents for their trust and for the depth of
information they provided. In accordance with the ethical guidelines for ethnographic research, all names provided in this article are pseudonyms.

Initial news coverage of  COVID-19

With the outbreak of the virus in China, the coverage of Coronavirus-related information in the media quickly started going up. Based on my own observations, since the end of January 2020
news about COVID-19, though with different levels of magnitude, the virus gradually invaded most of the headlines in traditional as well as digital media. An average news consumer who aimed to merely acquaint themselves with current affairs could not refrain from paying closer attention to how events in China, and soon in South Korea and Iran, unfolded. Soon, online media sources started to collect
Coronavirus-related articles in designated dossiers, enabling the interested reader to dive into an
endless array of news items bringing them the latest facts about the virus. Yet, at this time, a serious outbreak in Europe seemed unthinkable and the virus was regarded as a distant reality, affecting “others, who were far away”.

My respondents acknowledged that before the appearance of COVID-19 in their close
proximity, they tended to rather disregard information about the virus. As its potential dissemination
became more likely, all of a sudden the virus attained more prominent attention and started to be
considered with a sense of seriousness.

As Thomas (Bosnia & Herzegovina) explained: “When it was in China, it seemed to be far away, caused by some strange Chinese food. When it arrived into Italy, our neighbourhood, it became serious.” (…) “Before the outbreak in my hometown, it was just a piece of information as any other and I did not pay particular attention to it.”

As soon as the number of infections in Italy started rising rapidly and the first cases appeared across
Germany, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, the disturbing developments urged my respondents to
observe news sources more intensively and to start studying “all kinds of information” about the virus.
They began to follow facts and figures, political and economic analyses, interviews with politicians,
scientific discussions with doctors, epidemiologists and researchers. Most of my respondents
acknowledged that in an instant, their habits concerning the volume of online browsing, the kind of
information they searched for, as well as the frequency of this “online searching habit” had changed
substantially. Monitoring regional and global developments, keeping track of the statistics related to the
infections had emerged as usual activities, gaining a prominent place within one’s daily routine, often
taking several hours. This sense of urgency was driven by a sudden need to be attentive, an urge to stay
well-informed or even being informed “well ahead” of others, given that the outbreak, as well as the approaches and reactive measures in response to it unfolding at a different pace and under a distinct socio-political framework in each country.

Being an “early and conscious responder” to the outbreak proved to be an imperative attitude for many.
By monitoring other countries’ cases, observing advice and information provided by different
governments and by analyzing various scenarios one could warn family and friends living in a distant
country or in a far-away hometown to pay better attention and to become prepared. News monitoring
was also carried out with the aim of understanding the reasoning behind current affairs, obtaining a
wider and more trustworthy picture by cross-checking information and with the aim of attempting to
make any predictions and planning. Nevertheless, learning about the scientific explanations, such as the
routes of transmission of the virus and getting up-to-date information about the specific dos and don’ts
about this new phenomenon were crucial as well. For many of my informants, being in a position
where one is able to continuously re-evaluate one’s situation, actions and relationships based on the
recent facts seemed to be the best way to protect oneself and those in one’s direct surroundings.

By the end of March, the virus has penetrated almost all aspects of life for many citizens in Europe.
Among others, everyday realities in regard to how social contact was understood and enacted, changed.
Given the unusual limitations experienced in social isolation, communicating and sharing information
online, as well as following the guidelines provided by the media has become even more compelling.
Although my respondents managed to keep their health in good condition and none of them contracted
the virus physically, COVID-19 has undoubtedly permeated their minds, thoughts and behaviours.

As Tina (a Hungarian research participant) observed:
“It is somehow natural that under the current situation of this pandemic people share all kinds of
information about the virus among each other. The virus is their everyday reality, it influences their
day-to-day life and functioning. This [the virus] is what you see if you go out on the street, this is what
you notice when you go grocery shopping…it is evident that this thought occupies people’s minds in a
crucial way.”

Reaching the overconsumption stage

The era of digital technologies has enabled the delivery of rapid information from any part of the globe,
providing the reader with a broad spectrum of perspectives, reflecting on actions, reactions and
multiple approaches in different countries. Moreover, digital platforms bring individual opinions,
moods and impressions to one’s doorstep in real-time. The involvement of social media and the overall
role played by the digital platforms in mediating this pandemic is certainly a new and unprecedented
phenomenon. Driven by the urge of staying up-to-date with the recent findings, sorting through the
volume of information disseminated can easily backfire. As most of my respondents confirmed, after
several weeks of intense exposure to news and facts about the virus, they reached a point of
overconsumption.

In some cases, this manifested as feelings of anxiety, worry, fear and even panic.

As Lena (a Slovak research participant) explained:
When the virus outbreak started, I read a lot, monitored the news and I also searched for any
information concerning the virus. The virus was everywhere! However, I took note of how it impacted
my mood, I became sad and started to panic. So I reduced the amount of information by now.”

Others claimed that with time, their focus and interest in the information provided has diminished.
Their previous habit of reading lengthy analyses and monitoring extensive details across countries has
been replaced by paying more focused attention to any potential changes in restrictive or protective
measures in their close proximity.

As described by Myriam (a Hungarian research participant living in Austria):
When this whole virus misery started, I followed news from three different countries, I was listening
to the news on the radio while driving, I watched TV every day and followed online articles. (…) As the
days and weeks went by, my interest in following the topic so closely has changed, my attention has
died down. Now I only scroll down through the online pages, or I listen to sections of a press
conference.”

Some of my respondents argued that they had started to feel there was “not much more to know about the virus”, thus, their online attention in the meantime was exclusively focused on “checking specific information that might have been recently discovered.” Others claimed that particularly on social
media, there has been “excessive talking” about the issue, bringing a wide array of judgements and
inputs based on false expertise. As time has elapsed, such disturbing behaviours provoked a sort of
“allergy” to the topic concerning the virus for some.

After being in lockdown approximately four weeks, still practising strict measures of social distancing,
being restrictive in our daily activities, work and social life, we still regard online platforms and digital
media as our primary source of connection and communication with the external world. Yet, the
intensity of the online experience, the alertness, preparedness, as well as the continuous preoccupation
with the virus seems to be fading. Is it due to the fact that most of us have already taken our firm positions and have discovered “our truths” about the current realities? Or, are we simply tired and annoyed by the continuous influx of information we have been bombarded with? Perhaps as the saying goes, every miracle lasts only three days.

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