The first global pandemic in the age of social media reveals the role of information in regulating planetary metabolism.
On March 12, almost three months after a new virus manifested itself in the Chinese province of Wuhan, the WHO officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.
As the news started spreading fast around the globe, the initial reactions to coronavirus-related content spanned between panic, irony, and dismissal, gradually shifting to suspicion and fear and finally to the dry awareness that the crisis would sooner or later affect millions of people.
The coronavirus outbreak is the first pandemic to happen in the age of social networking platforms, which have had a profound impact on the way we consume and circulate information and contributed to the progressive erosion of public trust in the media and institutions.
Over the past ten years, we have witnessed an unprecedented acceleration of the information flow, to the point that the carbon footprint of social media traffic alone has been calculated to have a massive impact on climate change—if we consider the complex ecosystem of soft and hard infrastructure that the internet is made of.
The speed of mediation creates the crisis as it surpasses what happens on the ground, reduces it, encapsulates it, and sells it as pills of panic to the public: an “infodemic” has been growing and spreading in parallel with the viral pandemic.
As an excessive amount of information concerning a problem can undermine the possibility to solve that problem, how can we distinguish the noise from the signal?
How can designers identify areas of intervention to improve the health of the planetary metabolism that depends on information for its regulation?
The weak nodes of the planetary metabolism
Throughout its exponential ramifications, the virus has mapped strategic areas of intervention to improve the health of the planetary metabolism, making increasingly visible the connections among the well-being of humans, other living things, and entire ecosystems.
A virus is a genetic parasite. It injects its genetic code into its host’s cells and hijacks them, turning them to its own purpose, which is to multiply at an exponential scale. The behavior of the virus transforms the DNA of live organisms; it is an agent that transforms matter through information.
As the RNA code of SARS-CoV-2 hacks our cells, it starts a domino effect of consequences, altering not only the movement of people, but affecting planetary cycles of energy production, consumption, and waste. This is the ecological principle of trophic cascade, by which the agency of one form of life sets in motion a chain of events at different scales.
Throughout its exponential ramifications, the virus has physically mapped the planetary networks of interdependence of infrastructure, raw materials, transportation, and energy.
The planetary metabolism operates at multiple levels: when the virus spreads across bodies and geographies, when the viral information generates panic affecting human behavior, and when supply chains are disrupted by the state of emergency created by the virus itself, the human reaction to it, and the informational overload, in a recursive feedback loop.
The vulnerable nodes of the planetary metabolism become immediately visible when we can’t find an item that had always been available and fully stocked in supermarkets, as shortages occur because supplies are highly calibrated according to the information available to the public.
Information has always worked as a regulatory tool within the economy represented by the financial markets and the pricing mechanisms regulating the production. While the capitalist model with its claims of a self-regulated market tells us that the shelves in the stores will never be empty, the fast speed of information circulation interferes with the process.
Emergency situations highlight the connection between the speed of dissemination of information and the fluctuation of supply and demand in different metabolic flows such as food supply chains or oil on a global scale.
For example, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, India—the world’s second-largest producer of eggs and fourth-largest of chicken meat—is facing the worst crisis of the poultry industry in decades. And it was caused by fake news.
It started with one YouTube video linking poultry consumption to the coronavirus contagion, that in a matter of days went viral all over the country through WhatsApp, dramatically affecting the demand for poultry and its prices. Many farmers had to cull thousands of chickens, unable to sell them or feed them. The overall damage to the industry is estimated at about US$3 billion.
Such harm was caused both due to the uncontrollable spread of fake news over the flawed WhatsApp system, but also because of how this particular piece of information targeted an already sensitive industry. There are a lot of local cultural taboos regarding meat in general, and especially chicken perceived as “polluted,” which are supported by real issues with hygiene and sanitation standards in the industry. The structure of the supply chain itself played a crucial role, as traditionally most of the meat is acquired fresh from wet markets and farmers have no option to stock the meat by freezing to keep it until demand restores. Ripple effects also reached the ecosystem of services for farming and agriculture, like producers of equipment and soybeans for feeding.
This level of damage caused by misinformation is of extraordinary scale even for this emergency, but it’s not a single case of how the information is affecting the flows of goods nowadays.
In most countries, we could observe the situation with food supply escalating from panic buying to export bans within a month. This is especially evident with the growth of demand for pasta and flour and eventual export blocks of wheat by several countries.
The UN recently warned that disinformation about COVID-19 is putting lives at risk. Panic can escalate much faster via social media and online news, and “when disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth ends up having only a marginal impact.”
But it’s not only about food supply. Misinformation about the virus itself also accelerates its spread. It applies both to the lack of certainty of scientific data regarding its distribution and valid measures to take (wear masks, don’t wear masks, now you should wear again, etc.) as well as to the further interpretations of it by political and other public actors, as well as deliberate disinformation.
“Normalcy bias” can explain responses such as that of President Donald Trump seemingly not taking the situation seriously or trying to avoid panic among the public, with terrifying results.
Containment of the official numbers of infected and deceased by some governments prevents the proper assessment and modeling of the virus and poses danger for the whole of humanity.
Rumors about various substances helping to heal the virus in most cases just drive their deficit and lead to skyrocketing prices (like that of ginger in Russia), but in some cases cost the lives of hundreds, as it happened in the case of Iran with the viral spread of fake news about the beneficial properties of lethal methanol.
These two levels of impact—the supply chain and the spread of the virus itself—demonstrate how information becomes not only an ideological and political tool, but most importantly a structural component of the planetary metabolism altering its flows.
When we are confronted with new information, we need time to process and act upon it, but emergencies push us to make decisions very quickly, often leaving no time for fact-checking. Are there better ways to regulate the regulator?
More resilience for future emergencies
When a virus enters an organism for the first time, it triggers an immunological response.
Antibodies start to develop and, with time, learn how to attack the intruder and multiply to fight the infectious cells.
Learning from the current emergency, an epidemiological response is urgently needed to contrast the viral spread at both the real and virtual level, to mitigate the ensuing trophic cascades that are destabilizing the planetary ecosystems and accelerating the climate emergency itself.
All the crises of this planet are interconnected: inequality, health, climate, biodiversity, and so on. A pandemic is triggered by the effects of accelerated human activities, similarly to climate change, and the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the importance of coordination and collaboration at the planetary scale, as all information exchange is ultimately based on trust.
Information, like a virus, doesn’t replicate in a vacuum: it needs interaction with the unpredictable behavior and movement of humans. Significant initiatives have emerged on a transnational and global scale to limit the spread of misinformation.
An epidemiological model applied to information helps us understand the concept of “health” on the scale of planetary metabolism. What would a planetary institution responsible for the maintenance of the extended ecosystem of humans, nature, and information look like?
What kinds of organizations would ensure cooperation and shared protocols of trust?
Just as testing human bodies to verify the probability of being a transmission vector helps to identify clusters of containment, the same can be applied to content and its originating sources. Fact-checking is crucial to detect the quality and accuracy of the information and track the spread of hoaxes.
Different organizations have attempted to create common databases of fake content to help people recognize it: one of the first initiatives is led by AFP Factcheck, which eventually was almost reproduced by the WHO Myth Busters page as the UN started recognizing the role of information in the spread of the virus.
Shortly before Trump’s announcement to withdraw US funding to the WHO, its risk communication team launched a new information platform called the WHO Information Network for Epidemics (EPI-WIN), with the aim of using a series of amplifiers to share tailored information with specific target groups. However, trust in the accuracy of the WHO’s guidelines has been wavering ever since the organization hastily reported on the harmlessness of the novel coronavirus as late as mid-January, pressured by Chinese officials.
No matter how many “initiatives” and no matter how strongly international institutions commit to tackling the problem, the infodemics are unlikely to go away until the current economic model incentivizes replication and multiplication by design.
Until the economic model continues to reward traffic-driven proliferation of content and maximization of human attention as its goal, it will be difficult to mitigate the effects of the information overload, both in terms of infodemic and climate emergencies.
A significant number of bottom-up, distributed attempts have also appeared, but how can their effectiveness be improved? Can we imagine tracking “infected” receivers and addressing them with informational antidotes?
Vaccination and immunization
Not all people are susceptible to the influence of disinformation in the same way. It highly depends on their cultural beliefs and biases, educational level and critical thinking skills, and access to other sources of information that, in general, can be defined as digital/information literacy. In a way, it can be perceived as an analog to people having a stronger immune system to fight the virus or being vaccinated and having the antibodies ready to defeat it. The issue of trust is crucial in this regard, considering how certain sources can deceive people’s alertness just as it happens with the immune system being tricked by an autoimmune response.
How can we apply that to the level of information? What could be a vaccine for misinformation, or the way to improve immunity to it?
Containment aka “flattening the curve”
As most of the world’s population is locked indoors and with freedom of movement highly restricted, digital media becomes the only point of contact with the outer world. In order for social media platforms to be able to catch up with the accelerated rhythm of information exchange and align their fact-checking capacity with the spread of COVID-19, the now infamous curve of contagion needs to be flattened together with the viral spread of fake news. A certain mode of “social media distancing” is required: WhatsApp, for example, has recently introduced a limit to the number of messages that can be forwarded, to discourage the diffusion of viral hoaxes about the outbreak and unverified protective measures. In case of emergency, the speed of response is crucial, and social networks can be vital to reacting to a crisis promptly and effectively.
Can we imagine an extreme scenario of internet lockdown? And how would it be implemented while still performing its essential functions?
Just as the healthcare sphere in most countries will need to adjust its strategy regarding its overall capacity to react flexibly and timely to the growing demand in extreme cases of emergency, the same should be applied to supply chains and information infrastructure. Redundancy of the physical infrastructure to support the increasing demand for bandwidth is one aspect, as well as the development of protocols to ensure a prompt response and a better interpretation of the initial weak signals in case of an emergency.
Can a better sensing layer recognize catastrophic patterns early enough so as to prevent them? Can AI assist in this task, and which kind of trade-offs will be in place? What data will have to be produced so as to enable this predictive analysis, and how should it be different from the over-individualized model of social networks used now?
The disruption of the information infrastructure and its decentralized nature highlights geopolitical issues of internet sovereignty and the emerging need for a coordinated effort to stop the spread of pathological information.
The gap in time (the incubation period) between the transmission of the news and its “digestion” (acknowledgment) in the planetary metabolism creates a strategic vulnerability for misinformation to enter and affect the system exponentially. In other words, a “just in time” supply chain is what we have, but not what we need.
While it is unrealistic to rely solely on the good faith and the goodwill of platforms and institutions whose goals and functions by design chase whatever strategy will maximize their profit (by encouraging excessive consumption, sharing, and resharing), it is possible, with combined efforts and time, to improve the level of trust in information.
A plurality of institutional, top-down and bottom-up, decentralized combined regulatory systems and practices could guarantee a minimum threshold of “health” level to verify information before it can be shared on a planetary scale, slowing down the viral spread of infodemics and the deadly spirals they ignite.