The WHO has said, "we are not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous." President Biden stretched the analogy even further when he said that social media was ‘killing people’ by not taking down vaccine misinformation.
A recent paper by two Oxford academics, Felix Simon and Chico Camargo, trace the origins and use of the ‘infodemic’ metaphor and “examine the blind spots inherent in this seemingly intuitive term”. This is more than quibbling over semantics. There is a risk of what sociologist Philippe Corcuff has termed ‘bulldozer concepts’: concepts that are so all-encompassing that they flatten out and homogenise all complexity in the search for policy solutions.
Dissecting the metaphor
The authors acknowledge the value in using an epidemiology metaphor for the spread of misinformation on social media:
“the term [infodemic] is easy to grasp because its metaphorical character transmits meaning from an area most people intuitively understand from their own lived experience (the spread of contagious, communicable diseases) to an area that is for many more abstract (information and communication). ..‘infodemic’ possesses a specific allure, because it helped to create a ‘trading zone’.”
But the authors argue that an epidemiology metaphor is flawed for the following reasons.
The first problem is identifying what information constitutes the ‘virus’ – social media commentary may be false, true or partially true, and if false, disinformation vs misinformation. As the authors point out:
“from a biological point of view real epidemics have a single, well-defined cause – a virus whose strains can be sequenced, identified and traced back to their origins. The spread of information, on the contrary, often involves independent sources, unclear origins of ideas and information, varied content quality, fuzzy boundaries and plenty of context-dependent interpretation”.
The second problem revolves around the idea of information being ‘infectious’, which carries connotations of a susceptible public becoming ‘hosts’, often unknowingly, and spreading the disease, usually unwittingly, to other ‘innocent’ victims. While a person does not usually intend to spread disease, the spread of false information online is intentional. There are also ‘graduations’ of intention: disinformation being shared with the intent and knowledge that it causes harm, with misinformation lacking this feature and being shared for other, diverse reasons.
An epidemiology metaphor also can understate the agency of the person receiving misinformation not to become ‘infected’. The authors point out that the metaphor “not only ignores cognitive mechanisms of information uptake and sharing which counter such claims, but a large body of research that demonstrates audience’s active decision-making in what to consume, what to believe and whom to share it with.” Twitter, for example, now has a ‘read before you retweet’ prompt.
The third problem is that an epidemiology metaphor obscures the very different, and varied, distributions speeds and pathways for information on social media. Diseases spread on their own, at their own speed, although human behaviour (such as social distancing) has some effect. The authors argue that in an online environment, the speed and spread of information will be determined by the social rules around viewing and using it:
“..while sharing a funny cat video is an almost effortless task, recording a video of pouring a bucket of ice on one’s head and then nominating close friends to do the same involves a higher individual effort, as well as a potential social cost for those who do not respond to the nomination.”
Lastly, the authors argue that the ‘infodemic’ metaphor is based on the premise that an overabundance of information can obscure the ‘true’ information. An overabundance of information is "a common feature in modern high-choice digital media environments." The authors point to preliminary studies which suggest that many people had a fairly good idea of where to look for reliable information around COVID, and that the coronavirus crisis had substantially increased news consumption for mainstream media.
Do bad metaphors have bad consequences?
Besides being inapt, the authors argue that the uncritical use of epidemiology metaphors “could also have political implications, if only by entrenching unhelpful imaginaries, which end up shaping policy with work based on questionable premises.”
First, back to the ‘bulldozer’ concept:by ‘flattening out’ the nuances, the metaphor invites too simplistic solutions. As noted above, the disease metaphor atributes too much agency in the misinformation itself and too little in ourselves: we propagate misinformation, not the misinformation all by itself. The metaphor is also over-simplistic because it assumes there are regulatory and policy measures which can be an antidote against the spread of misinformation, whereas intervention might be better directed at increasing our own agency in managing online information.
Second, colourful metaphors can stoke ‘moral panic’, which potentially provides cover for political leaders keen to exploit a situation. The authors point out that “18 governments around the world have added countermeasures in response to ‘the infodemic’ via decrees and emergency legislation, some of them with the potential to act as a tool to stifle media freedom, criticism of authorities and the healthiness of the public arena.” This is not just a risk in autocratic or ‘illiberal’ democracies, but in the UK a joint report from the Royal Society and British Academy published in October 2020 explicitly suggested the enforcement of criminal prosecutions for spreading misinformation. The risk is that these measures restricting free speech will remain in place once the panic abates.
This paper, in criticising the use of metaphors of pandemic to describe the spread of misinformation on social media, could be read as advocating a libertarian, ‘let it rip’ approach to the internet. That would miss its real point. While the authors acknowledge the pandemic metaphors do graphically illustrate the urgency of the problem of disinformation and misinformation on social media, their point is that metaphors shift the focus away from the underlying structural issues and contextual factors, can actually understate the seriousness of the problem by missing its real causes, and result in "ineffective policies at best and harmful policies at worst".
So look before you metaphor!
Rear more: Autopsy of a metaphor: The origins, use and blind spots of the ‘infodemic’