Question One: How do people find and share information online during a global pandemic?
‘Anthropological Responses to COVID-19’ will comprise six questions, each lasting a fortnight. These are posted on a website created by University College London’s Centre for Digital Anthropology.
What have anthropological observations taught us about how people use online channels for information and communication with respect to COVID-19? The 17 posts we have received so far cover wide-ranging topics from trust in the government to fake news, but there is one clear message. The processes of how people find and share information digitally are rarely individual – they are social and linked to the development of local norms and standards, which are often facilitated by social media. By gathering these observations, the project shows how people form the opinions that will determine their behaviour.
The responses to the first suggested topic, ‘finding and sharing information online’ can be found by clicking on the map here.
Some of the key points and themes emerging from these posts are as follows:
1) Given the uncertainty of news items in circulation, which can present discrepancies, people turn to other people they already know and trust for confirmation of their veracity.
2) Memes are important both as uplifting humour but also as ‘the moral police of the internet’, helping to create consensus about how people should behave.
3) Although the question was about the use of online channels, the continued importance of traditional media such as newspapers, radio and TV cannot be ignored and may be critical for those who are digitally excluded. In some settings people may use these to verify information circulating online, creating a sort of media hierarchy.
4) People don’t want to be just passive recipients of information – they need places to vent frustrations and express opinions and complaint.
5) The sheer quantity of news and sense that there is nothing to talk about other than Covid-19 leads in some cases to depression and anxiety. These add to anxieties around lockdown conditions which vary from childcare to going hungry.
6) A commonly found pattern of news consumption across different countries is the trajectory from initially disregarding the story as confined to China, followed by the huge interest in Covid-19 news when the virus spread, but now there is a sense of overload and repetition.
What are individual contributions telling us about how people find and share information about the pandemic locally?
Argentina (1) – Victoria Irisarri argues that in a country where 70% of the population still listens to the radio for several hours a day, this remains an important source of information. With the rise of disputes over trustworthy information, radio stations are trying to make shows and workshops relevant to life under quarantine. The radio is seen as a relatively reliable source of information, though complemented by social media.
Argentina (2) – Ximena Díaz Alarcón discusses the use of Whatsapp among women in middle and upper socioeconomic brackets living in Buenos Aires. A key concern in these groups is childcare and disrupted routines. The massive weight of information about Covid-19 is itself making people more anxious and stressed. People respond with memes such as Barbie gaining weight under quarantine or ‘I don’t like this episode of Black Mirror’ using humour to release the tension.
Brazil (1) – Andrea Friedmann Rozenbaum shows how individuals tend to share information in groups rather than in one to one messages, although the former rarely produces sustained in-depth discussions, as most people tend to keep their opinions for more personal interactions. Although there is a feeling of information overload, Andrea’s participants see the role of the citizen as taking responsibility for fact-checking. The speed of information makes it difficult for people to make sense of what is going on.
Brazil (2) – Marina Frid notes how despite all the initial new, the actual impact of lockdown took people by surprise. It felt like getting an unexpected punch in the face – no one was ready. There is clearly a difference between watching the news and letting its implication impinge upon consciousness. The other side of this coin is when the news is too extensive to be absorbed and needs to be filtered. News also reflects hierarchical relations where people have authority as an employer or instructor.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo – Katrien Pype reports that the government has created a TV channel aimed at informing the population about the virus, but Pype’s participants had not seen this. There is, however, considerable attention to whatever the president says about the crisis. People seek information on how to protect themselves from police violence, an issue with a long history in the country. They use WhatsApp and the diaspora population to try and work out the truth behind official figures given the discrepancies in public announcements and lack of trust.
Ecuador – Andrea Bravo Diaz talks about the indigenous people of Amazonia, who are especially anxious because of their experience of the devastation past epidemics have caused in their community. As a result, older people have fled into the deep forest. Faced with the problem of not knowing what social media content to believe, they tend to look to each other as the basis for confirmation.
Hungary – A survey by Erika Patho suggests that virus-related news was generally disregarded when the disease was confined mainly to China. This was gradually replaced by a sense of urgency and trying to be ahead of the news as the virus arrived into Europe. Many individuals wanting to continually re-evaluate the situation has led to overconsumption of news, much of which feels repetitive.
Guatemala – Mayari Hengstermann gives the story of 76-year-old Lara, who is falling into depression as more and more of her friends experience panic attacks due to the virus having taken over their conversations. Having grown up in a world where news was only read in newspapers or seen on TV, she now she faces the inconsistencies and discrepancies of ‘news’ being circulated while it is still being formed. She also discusses the very different levels of health literacy and the search for more accessible information such as on YouTube.
Japan 1 – Laura Haapio-Kirk talks about the public’s reaction to the government’s response, which is perceived as poor, although the expectations of many have already been lowered after their experience of previous disasters like the 2011 earthquake and recent tsunami and nuclear meltdown. The smartphone is a place for finding news but also where people can vent their frustration. and express complaints about the ongoing situation.
Japan 2 – Julia Nagai found that elderly people may be denied access to information if they do not use the internet and other new media. When faced with discrepant information they turn to people they already know for confirmation. They tend to listen to politicians rather than health experts, even though they think the government is covering things up.
In our first post from Ireland, Pauline Garvey found that there had been a general increase in the use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp. These are used for uplifting humour and establishing new routines, but can also provide a sense of participation and conversation to replace face-to-face conversation. Much of this communication is more about staying in touch with others than actual content, with many using messaging apps to express emotions they would find hard to express otherwise.
Ireland (2) – Daniel Miller suggests that memes should be understood as ‘the moral police of the internet’. When conditions are changing very rapidly, they are employed to develop social consensus about what is appropriate behaviour. They allow people to act as good citizens patrolling behaviour. For this purpose, they employ humour but also imaginative visualisations combined with text.
The Netherlands – Rebekha Adriana examines how the Indonesian diaspora share information through Facebook, filtered by administrators who can remove posts. A lot of information is focused on local community initiatives. People check WhatsApp groups for confirmation about news but also use social media to try and filter and control information overload, which can be stressful in itself.
Poland – Magdalena Goralska focuses on health advice groups on Facebook for alternative and mainstream medicine. These tend to be question-centred and include moderators, activists and the lay public. They are seen as more reliable, being based on personal experience and mutual sharing. People look for varied sources as the basis for confirmation and are confused by Facebook’s own policies around fake news which seem inconsistent.
Serbia – Mladen Stajic, Marko Pisev and Bojan Zikic document the way news about the virus have evolved over time, noting the importance of the comments section on news sites. A collective Facebook group has been an important resource for sharing creative ideas and helping organise initiatives. Social networks share humour but also establish norms through sympathy or condemnation and can also be used to promote fake cures.
South Africa – Phefumula Nyoni reflects on the context of history and class, including an initial rumour that this virus would not affect Africans. It is often when faced with early examples of preventive measures such as mask-wearing that the more general public try and develop opinions and responses to the new norms. Institutions with established communications infrastructure such as universities and the government were at an advantage, as were those who were already used to the digital world, but everyone has had to adapt to this new dominance of online sociality.
Uganda – Charlotte Hawkins finds that the primary concern in a low-income settlement in central Kampala is the effect of lockdown, which threatens serious hunger and starvation as people are prevented from working. Friends share information on WhatsApp but many can’t afford data and rely on government media and the church for information, while at the same time recognising that much of what is circulating may be false. Some participants are therefore trying to circulate information about local initiatives such as the funding of five places where people can wash hands, themselves.
Tanzania – “Rebekah Ciribassi, remaining in her fieldsites in Tanzania, argues that we first have to understand the specific local history and politics of the media, to then appreciate how people deal with issues of trust. Where there has been tight political control, social media, as well as private media criticising the government become simultaneously, important alternatives that may confirm doubts about official information, but can also be major sources of rapidly shared misinformation and rumours. Citizens often negotiate between the two to decide what course of action they will take as the virus unfolds.”
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