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This post is part of a series I am writing alongside teaching a module on “Digital Societies”. These discuss issues which are broadly related to the themes of the module but not necessarily covered in teaching.

The coronavirus outbreak is having devastating consequences in China and increasingly around the world with deaths, illness and significant social disruption. The terrible impact of fast spreading and difficult to contain viruses like this can have are often exacerbated by the equally fast spreading of false information about these conditions. This is an issue which epidemiologist Adam Kucharski discussed in a recent article in The Guardian.

Kucharaski highlighted how various bits of misinformation have circulated about This outbreak of coronavirus including that it is a kind of “snake flu”, is connected to HIV, that it is secretly a bio weapon and that it passed into humans who were eating “bat soup”. In the article he articulates a seductive analogy between the spread of the virus itself and the misinformation about it. In the process he cites studies which have suggested that viruses spread at the same rate as “viral” stories –  a “reproduction rate of 2”. This means that each “infected” individual effects another two with the virus/story.

Consequently, Kucharaski proposes that the best method to deal with online misinformation of this kind is the same as that used with biological viruses – to identify and contain “super spreaders” or particular social interactions or structures which can become hotspots (in the case of coronavirus – schools and I suppose with misinformation – certain subreddits or similar). He also suggests that attempts at “vaccination” can be effective such as Google ensuring people see reliable information when searching on related topics.

But these kinds of analogies between the spreading of biological viruses and of knowledge, information or stories trouble me a bit. There are clearly some similarities (at least when looked at through particular lens) and I have no doubt that some of the tactics proposed above could be effective. but I find it a bit troubling to paint human beings as seemingly mindless receptors or spreaders of “diseased” information. Don’t we have agency, critical capacities, free will of some kind?at the very least it seems to position some uninformed, unreflective people as dangerous and infectious and others as rational, informed and “healing”.

Nevertheless this kind of model has gained in cultural traction in recent years with figures such as Nicholas Christakis suggesting that health issues such as obesity can be tackled through targeting particular influential “nodes” (or people) within networks in order to stop the spread of bad behaviours and increase the spread of the good.

Central to this approach is the idea that we can ‘use mathematical algorithms to identify key people, who if they improve their health practices, induce everyone else to copy them’ (Christakis, 2016: 5). Individuals are seen as largely reactive to the structure of the network and not suited to achieving ‘globally optimal’ outcomes and instead need to be “nudged” in the right direction (Shirado and Christakis, 2017).

This network model of influence and behaviour change is also closely connected to the “nudge” theory popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. and methods of habit management associated with which Charles Duhigg. these approaches to human thinking and subjectivity are similarly built around an assumption that behaviours and particularly our responses to our experiences are largely automatic, emotive and irrational. So it is the role of responsible managers, policymakers or public health officials to do the “thinking” for us and structure our experiences so we make the “right” decisions and spread the “healthy” information and behaviours.

I find these approaches to be problematic on a conceptual and ethical level which I’ve written about previously in an article and a book chapter. But they are also typical of attempts by well-meaning scholars from the “hard sciences” (or those enamoured of them) to make sense of social phenomena. That is, they seem to try to apply existing models, or analogies, to the social world.

It seems to me that there is an assumption that spreading information (and being receptive to this spreading) are seen as somehow evidence of deficiency or at least a lack of thought. But the turn of the 20th century sociologist Gabriel Tarde taught us that “innovation” and “imitation” are fundamental aspects of the social world. Indeed, we might suggest that our intelligence, thought processes and even our very subjectivity and consciousness are only possible because of our constant engagement in these processes. For Tarde the production of new ideas or behaviours is interconnected with our imitation (and therefore spreading) of existing ones. Human beings could never insulate (or inoculate) themselves from such influence.

Contemporary scholars such as Bruno Latour have shown how the Internet and social media demonstrate the value of Tarde’s theory by formalising and enabling the visualisation of these kinds of connections and influences which have always been there. But this doesn’t mean that there is no relationship between the spread of ideas and spread viruses. Tarde himself proposed that the basic social processes he characterised were present in all areas of existence (for him everything is a society). So, rather than seeing social influence through the lens of biological models perhaps we need to do the opposite.