Sleepwalker Contagion Theory on Bloomberg

SLEEPWALKER_COVERYour Instagram Exposes You to Coronavirus Contagion. With the spreading outbreak, social media is taking social contagion to new extremes

See orginal text on Bloomberg here:

(Bloomberg Opinion) — You may not have been exposed to the
new coronavirus yet, but you’ve almost certainly been exposed to
an adjacent contagion. Maybe you’ve even helped spread it.
It might be retweeting Australian complaints about
supermarkets sold out of hand sanitizer. Liking Gwyneth
Paltrow’s Instagram post of herself in a face mask. Scrolling
agog through Facebook photos from a friend in Texas of long
supermarket queues for water and paper towels.
Online platforms are taking social contagion to new
heights, making it harder for people to know where the real
risks lie or what the right precautions are to take. Panic-
buying isn’t a new phenomenon. But instant knowledge of the
ripple effects from the virus, whether justified or not,
turbocharges the panic. It’s a phenomenon we’ve never quite
experienced on this scale.

When the Spanish flu took hold a century ago, there was
initially very little press coverage. Indeed, it was so named
not because it originated in Spain, but because that’s where the
virus’s impact was first widely reported. Censorship imposed
during World War I meant the press in France, the U.K., U.S. and
Germany barely covered the disease until late 1918, when
millions were already infected. Spain was a non-combatant, so
newspapers were free to report on the illness that ultimately
claimed some 50 million lives globally.

In the era of Covid-19, the challenge is the inverse:
information and misinformation alike are spreading faster than
the virus itself, amplified by the online news cycle and endless
personal reactions and anecdotes shared far beyond one’s closest
family and friends. In one attempt to cut through the noise,
Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said on
Wednesday that the social network would give the World Health
Organization free advertising for its response to the disease,
and work to remove false claims and conspiracy theories about
the virus. Credit the effort, at least.
Back in 1918, support for censoring Spanish flu reports
stemmed from the medical establishment’s view that there was a
direct link between a person’s emotional state and their
physical well-being, historian Mark Honigsbaum has written.
Spreading negativity, it was feared, would not just undermine
public morale, but also actively make the general population
more likely to contract and succumb to the malady.
These days, medical authorities have different reasons to
be circumspect in their public statements. Not only do they want
to avoid provoking a general hysteria, which might keep crucial
medical gear and service from those who need it more, but they
want to avoid crying wolf by accident. In the midst of the swine
flu outbreak of 2009, England’s chief medical officer warned
there could be 65,000 fatalities. In the end, 214 people died.
That has added to “an erosion of trust and deference” not
only toward experts, but expertise in general, according to
Honigsbaum, author of “The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years
of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris.” That may result in people being
less likely to seek salient expert advice.
In the decade since swine flu, the way we consume news has
also changed. Facebook has grown from 360 million to 2.5 billion
users. Multitudes of people are now rapidly sharing and re-
sharing information, not always weighing beforehand how
trustworthy or potentially frenzy-feeding it may be.
The fire hose of information has made it harder to know
what to trust. It’s not necessarily that people are inclined to
believe “fake news,” but, because untrustworthy sources are
presented in the same way as credible ones, the latter are
devalued by association. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found
that 57% of Americans expect news they see on social media to be
“largely inaccurate.” People like and share away irrespective.
Facebook and Twitter Inc. are trying to crack down on
misinformation — and to ensure the most trusted information
surfaces first for those who search for it — but that’s only
part of the equation. The viral nature of real personal
experiences or opinions also accentuate panic. The social
networks aren’t going to block a photo from a friend, nor should
they. But the post could still make you consider rushing out to
the supermarket to stock up on toilet paper whether or not you
really need to. The U.S. surgeon general even took to Twitter to
urge people to stop buying masks, to ensure there are enough for
health care professionals.
There’s a strand of social thought called contagion theory,
which looks at how ideas, and at times irrational behavior, are
spread in a group. Social networks play on this by generating
emotional reactions to content — Facebook invites you to respond
to a post with a like, love, anger, amazement, laughter or
crying emoji. All emotions you broadcast out to an array of
people near and far, encouraging them to do the same.
Social networks are wired to “stir up emotional engagements
and make them contagious,” according to Tony D. Sampson, a
critical theorist and author of the upcoming “A Sleepwalker’s
Guide to Social Media.” It can be detrimental to a whole range
of things from politics to health, he says, because “what
spreads tends to be on a rapid visceral register of
communication rather than reasoned thinking.”

The irony is that, as the epidemic progresses, those
advertising their efforts to combat the real-world virus are
also perpetuating the digital contagion. Platforms and health
authorities will need to keep playing catch up.

To contact the author of this story:
Alex Webb at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Melissa Pozsgay at


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