Social relations and the flow of “corona-news”

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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.