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Cultural factors are behind disinformation pandemic: why this matters

To contain and mitigate the virus of misinformation needs multi-levelled, socio-cultural approaches. GettyImages

The prevalence of disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic has prompted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) to warn that:

We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.

The infodemic is defined as an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, during an epidemic. It makes it hard for people to know which sources are trustworthy and reliable. Part of the problem is the widespread occurrence of misinformation.

To fight this infodemic, we need to understand how misinformation spreads in particular host environments. This requires a study of culture, context and lived experience of media users.

To contain and mitigate the virus of misinformation we need multi-levelled, socio-cultural approaches and methods.

One such tool of analysis available in the media and cultural literature is the classic concept of the “circuit of culture”. This model explains the complex, interrelated moments and processes involved in the development of socio-cultural phenomena. It can help explain how misinformation travels, is consumed, and amplified or restrained in relation to a range of factors.

In addition to the political and economic contexts within which misinformation is produced and consumed, it is also important to also consider cultural aspects. When we understand how these different moments in the circuit of culture are interlinked, we can design more appropriate interventions. There are the five moments in the circuit of culture that are useful to keep in mind.

Five moments in the circuit of culture

Representation: Texts are sites of struggle, where meanings are contested and counter-meanings produced. Messages are encoded and decoded in relation to their environments. If information, say about the wearing of masks, is coded by health authorities in a technical manner, to explain how they prevent the spread of the virus, but decoded by audiences as an attack on their liberty, a slippage of meaning has occurred.

It is in these slippages that misinformation can easily insert itself. Cultural studies can help us understand how misinformation is constructed in ways so as to appeal to people’s everyday emotions, fears and anxieties and which political discourses resonate with them.

Identity: How does consuming and sharing misinformation give people a sense of belonging and community? Previous studies have shown that political affiliation, age demographic and similar identity positions might make people more likely to share misinformation.

Production: The digital media ecology has blurred the lines between production and consumption of information. Parody, rumour, memes and jokes have become a lingua franca. Users can find confirmation of their personal biases and beliefs – from conspiracy theories about 5G-towers as a cause of the virus to pseudo-scientific remedies - in “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles”. The implications of this shift in media production are important to grasp when dealing with the infodemic.

Consumption: Cultural studies sees media users as active participants in the making of meaning, not passive recipients. Media users don’t merely receive misinformation, but shape it, curate it and share it. A high percentage of African social media users admit to sharing a news story that they knew was made up.

Why is this the case?

We can only answer that question from the perspective of the users’ lived experience and context. A lack of trust in official sources of information may lead people to imbue alternative sources of information with more authority.

Read more: Laughter in the time of a pandemic: why South Africans are joking about coronavirus

The legacy of state-owned media in Africa has for a long time turned people to the informal circuits of gossip, jokes and humour to undermine illegitimate sources of authority. Although there has been a global surge in news media consumption during the Covid-19 pandemic, overall levels of trust globally now seem to be at their lowest point ever. Fewer than four in ten (38%) of people surveyed by the Reuters Institute say they trust most news most of the time.

Information overload and “noise” have also led to the erosion of trust and the inability to make informed decisions. The same study found that 56% of people still did not know what online information was real or fake.

In Africa, people who report higher levels of exposure to disinformation also report lower levels of media trust.

Contradictory and speculative reports about treatments and vaccines, or confusing guidance about the use of masks, for example, may have intensified these trends.

Skepticism in official narratives may make people more susceptible to misinformation. A study in the US suggests that the ongoing and systemic failure of the public health system for black people, has made this community

skeptical of government interventions and medical authorities.

This, the study suggests, means these communities might rely instead on community knowledge for their survival. This could also expose them to dangerous misinformation.

Regulation: Attempts by some countries (like South Africa and Brazil) to criminalise disinformation about Covid-19 have met with strong resistance from human rights and free speech watchdogs because of the fear that it would stifle free expression and political accountability.

When we have a better sense of why people do not trust mainstream media, or what their motivations may be for sharing misinformation, we can consider more appropriate interventions. Some motivations suggested in the literature are: financial or political gain, to express one’s feelings, cope with uncertainty, build relationships or to mobilise against a political order.

No panacea

A focus group research by my colleagues and I in six African countries show some additional motivations. The most common reason for our respondents to share misinformation was to raise awareness out of a (misplaced) sense of civic duty. The second most common reason was to make others aware of misinformation.

Thirdly, media users in sub-Saharan countries said they shared misinformation “for fun”. Humour, gossip and satire seems to be a refuge for media users overwhelmed by serious or depressing news, to create conviviality and community.

It is these contextual, social and cultural differences that emphasise the importance of considering misinformation practices as socio-cultural phenomena. From that perspective we can evaluate what type of responses may be most appropriate for particular contexts, rather than attempting to administer a panacea.

This article is based on a keynote address given to the World Health Organization’s frist global infodemiology conference held virtually from 30 June to 21 July. The address can be viewed here.

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