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Has the Pandemic Made Sharing Information into a Health Ritual?

On March 18th, just before lockdown was announced in the UK, I received a long (600 words or so) text from a family member. I have no idea where they had got it  from, and I suspect they hadn’t read it; they certainly hadn’t read it carefully.

The text was titled: “Internal email for staff at St. George’s Hospital” (a generic-sounding name for a hospital in the UK: vague enough to be hard to check, but official-sounding enough to instil confidence in the reader). Reading it, the impression one had was of something posing as information leaked by people working on the front lines. Said information straddled the line between perfectly reasonable public health advice – “Disinfect things touched often: cellphone, keyboard, mouse, car steering wheel, door handles, etc,” “Washing your hands is essential” – and clearly made-up nonsense:

“Ensure that your mouth and throat are always wet, never DRY. You should drink a sip of water at least every 15 minutes. WHY? Even when the virus enters water or other liquids through the mouth, it will get flushed through the oesophagus directly into the stomach where gastric acids destroy the virus. If there is not enough water, the virus can pass into the trachea and from there to the lungs, where it is very dangerous.”

Other sections clearly aimed to boost credibility by including a peppering of scientific jargon, albeit alongside oddly contradictory conclusions:

“The Coronavirus has a large size (diameter of 400-500 nanometers) so face masks can stop it, no special face masks are needed in daily life.”

If a person were to observe all of the advice proffered in this text for detection and prevention of COVID-19, their life might well be taken over by a series of rituals – the unknown author recommended sunbathing as often as possible, sipping “infusions,” hand washing, doing a complex series of breathing exercises each morning, and perhaps most disturbingly, gargling with hydrogen peroxide. Some rituals of course are perfectly good, either genuinely boosting the chances of disease prevention, or simply comforting the person performing them, and perhaps inducing a placebo effect. Other ones, like gargling with hydrogen peroxide - which is a bleach solution commonly used in household cleaning - are straightforwardly dangerous.

This message itself, however, exemplifies another kind of ritual designed to keep the coronavirus at bay: passing information. I asked the person who sent me the text, and they had no memory of where it came from, but felt that it was worth sharing because some of it seemed accurate. This kind of ritual information sharing – regardless of how good or reliable the information is – has become a key feature in the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same way we have become accustomed to performing a calculation weighing up the risks versus the benefits of meeting a friend in the park, or going to the shop for a less-than-essential item, we also calculate the values of information sharing, and most often it seems that people are willing to share something that may potentially contain bad information, if there’s a chance that it could be genuinely helpful. In short, they are deciding if the benefits outweigh the risk, and when the stakes are high, most people are more concerned about missing a chance to share what might be life-saving information, than they are about sharing something potentially dangerous.

The instinct to ritually share information can clearly have positive effects. But the problem arises when people consider information to be necessarily good - sharing it indiscriminately as part of their new circumstances of living through a pandemic. As one might routinely perform the rituals of washing hands or disinfecting surfaces, we have learned to treat information as if it is a disinfectant. But just as disinfectants have huge benefits, they can also be poisonous if applied incorrectly. The Ancient Greek word ‘pharmakon’ captures this tension neatly, meaning both poison and cure. We saw this most clearly in a White House Press Conference at the end of April, when, minutes after watching a presentation including advice about the effectiveness of household disinfectant against COVID-19, President Trump took it upon himself to suggest to the nation that injecting household disinfectant ought to be considered as a cure. The same sharing instinct had taken over the President, I think. After learning about the power of disinfectant, Trump felt compelled immediately to speculate further, hoping that the potential medical uses of bleach had simply never been considered. Without stopping to assess the context or the content of what he was saying, Trump calculated that the possible benefit of his suggestion outweighed the cost if he was wrong. The ritual impulse is what tips the scales here, and we end up with a decision that has been weighted towards the desire to compulsively share information, in order to reap the attendant benefits, including the comfort of having performed the ritual.

We have known for a while that people share things without reading them, a 2016 study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute found that 59% of links shared on social media had been forwarded on before the user had even opened them; that is to say, for any given piece of information shared, it was more likely that the user had not read it than that they had. In 2018, the satirical website ‘The Science Post’ made this point in a more tongue-in-cheek way, when they published an article with the headline: “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.” The text of the article consisted of a repetition of the information in the headline, followed by several paragraphs of lorem ipsum placeholder text. To date the article has netted 175,000 shares.

Ritual information sharing was already embedded into the fabric of our society before the pandemic hit. People share things for lots of reasons: to signal that they are part of a group as well as to inform or entertain. When the pandemic hit however, and the stakes attached to our every action skyrocketed, the ritual response intensified, and became more explicitly a health ritual. As the potential benefits (i.e. maybe I will share advice that saves someone’s life) have increased, so has the potential for harm. In an interview with Logically, former CIA agent turned disinformation expert Cindy Otis indicated exactly this: “A huge portion of the false information that is circulating on social media, based on my analysis, is from people who do not know that what they are sharing is false, so we would categorize that as misinformation, rather than disinformation, which is maliciously spread. The pandemic has triggered people’s fight or flight mode and often they are rapid sharing any and all information to try to protect the people around them.” Smartphone technology has integrated information consumption and sharing so deeply into our lives, that the stress and uncertainty of a pandemic has caused many people to simply intensify that behavior in order to try to ward against harm. As the saying goes, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Some academics have argued that the ancient healing rituals have had actual health benefits through triggering a placebo effect. Certainly it seems that information consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic have shared information in order to make themselves feel better: to feel safer and more protected from the virus. There’s a fine line here though, and clearly more information is not the answer, anymore than it would be for us all to drown in disinfectant. Maybe we can keep the ritual information sharing, but it’s essential that critical evaluation of the information itself must be integrated into the ritual too, for it to have any chance of keeping us truly safe.

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