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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

To Fight Covid-19, Curb the Spread of Germs—and Rumors

“If you’re not going to give me information,” one of my students said during class, “I’m going to take what I have and run with it. Even if something is just a possibility, I’m still going to share it. I want people to know.”

The class was discussing Covid-19, specifically how little we know about who’s been exposed and what might happen next. Of particular concern was whether Syracuse University’s campus would close. This student wasn’t directing her frustration at me, exactly, though it was true that I couldn’t tell her very much. Instead, she was referring to leadership within the Trump administration and at Syracuse. She also wasn’t making a first-person argument. Rather, she was channeling what she’s been seeing in her networks: the instinct to pool information resources when official answers are in short supply. Maybe those answers are missing (or limited, or contradictory) because of wild institutional dissembling. Maybe they’re missing because the answers simply aren’t available. In any case, this student’s point was that, for many people, sharing something is better than sharing nothing at all.

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Whether or not that’s true depends entirely on what’s being shared. It’s helpful to share information from the CDC, federal travel advisories, and official reports of confirmed cases—all these are critical to remaining informed. That’s not the only kind of sharing there is, however, and it’s not what my student was describing. She meant the breakneck community spread of Covid-19 rumors and conspiracy theories. This kind of sharing—which has been wreaking havoc around the globe—tends to be more intimate. People may still post public messages not directed at anyone in particular (“To whom it may concern on the internet”), but the most problematic information about the crisis is often locally-focused, spreading through group chat or texting or email between friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

Drawing from the sociology of disaster, Kate Starbird describes this as “collective sensemaking”; in this crisis and others, sharing what we’ve heard is how we process traumatic events. It’s also a way to help those around us—at least, it’s a way to feel like we’re helping. Problems arise when what we’re sharing is unconfirmed. It may be that some of the information turns out to be true. Some, however, may turn out to be false. Not knowing which is which, yet sharing anyway, risks sending people into panic mode or shut-down mode or some combination of the two. It has the additional unfortunate effect of undermining—or simply drowning out—official information, increasing the likelihood, as Starbird explains, that people will make decisions that endanger themselves or others.

In the coming days and weeks, how we respond to the Covid-19 outbreak will be critical. To navigate the crisis, whatever form it takes, we need to approach information about the virus in the same way we approach the virus itself: with a communitarian focus.

As an ethical framework, communitarianism foregrounds reciprocity, interdependence, and shared responsibility, and seeks to secure equal freedoms for everyone within a collective. (An excellent articulation of the theory can be found here.) Communitarianism contrasts with the individualistic focus of liberalism, which enshrines personal freedoms and autonomy, as well as freedoms from outside encroachment. Communitarianism still values the individuals that make up a society. But it recognizes that the whole must be nurtured so that its individual parts can thrive equally.

In her reflections on the natural world, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer emphasizes how collective and individual benefits overlap. Plants and animals share. They share resources, they share nutrients, they share sources of energy. (Kimmerer explains the sharing between corn, beans, and squash here.) It might seem odd that nature would share so much, as evolution favors the most robust individuals. But as Kimmerer explains, “we make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.”

Public health efforts are fundamentally communitarian. The health of individuals is paramount, of course; but the best way to keep individuals healthy is to keep the community healthy. Handwashing is one example. Washing your hands (correctly) is an effective way to avoid coming into contact with Covid-19. It also means you’re less likely to spread the virus to others—a particular concern for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. (I explained this principle to my students as I Cloroxed the hell out of my classroom keyboard and mouse. The concern isn’t just the germs I might pick up; it’s the germs I might leave behind.) The same goes for staying home when you’re feeling sick (for those lucky enough to have that option). We recover faster when we’re rested. By isolating ourselves, we also minimize the risk of infecting the most vulnerable members of the population. This, in turn, minimizes the risk of overburdening hospitals and endangering frontline health care workers, and maximizing the likelihood that the most critical patients will get the care they need.

Although it’s baked into the very premise of public health, communitarianism is not how people tend to approach public discourse—certainly not in the US. When we’re speaking about speech, the focus, instead, is on the individual. It’s what’s best for me, not what’s best for us. This includes the belief that we have the right to be amplified, not just to speak. Communitarianism flips that script. Of course individual speech matters, just like individual health matters. But the focus is what happens downstream to other people and communities—and the impact something has on the overall health of the collective.


When considering downstream consequences, a sharer’s motives matter very little. Much more important are the consequences of all that sharing. In the case of Covid-19, those consequences often trigger acute panic. For example, as my students rattled off all the rumors they’d heard about the impending closure of Syracuse’s campus, they dovetailed into fears—as well as other rumors—about what that would mean for graduation, for their parents’ security deposits on hotel rooms, for their apartment leases. The university’s numerous emails explaining that there were no immediate plans to close, but that classes would shift online as necessary, were no match for the deluge of scuttlebutt to the contrary. Maybe those official messages never broke through because there were too many other messages to process. Maybe the disconnect between what the university was saying and what the students were hearing positioned the university as a conspiratorial adversary. In either case, the truth—which is that the university is in a holding pattern—failed to register.

The community spread of rumors about Covid-19 is, of course, very different than the community spread of Covid-19 itself. But the structural impact is similar. Just as frontline health care workers can handle a normal influx of patients, public officials and journalists and educators can handle a normal influx of rumors and conspiracy theories. Problems arise when there’s a sudden flurry of polluted information, particularly when it spreads privately and can’t be searched for or monitored. It can be impossible to know where or when the debunking should even begin. It can be just as tricky to know whether those debunks will be effective, especially if you’re speaking on behalf of an institution that people mistrust. This dynamic poses unique risks to those on the informational frontlines, whether they’re university professors or health care professionals. When you’re standing in front of a classroom full of panicking students, and you can’t reassure them because you don’t have any answers yourself, that panic can be contagious. Maybe not a panic over Covid-19, but over how to contain the informational threat.

That’s where public health and public discourse fuse. Polluted information is a mental health issue; not knowing what’s really happening or whom to trust creates an enormous cognitive burden. “The coronavirus is too stressful,” one of my students said near the end of our discussion. “Can we go back to talking about the election?” He was joking—honestly it’s one of the best 2020 jokes I’ve heard—but his point was well taken: Covid-19 is far from the only global crisis that we face. The relentlessly chaotic, infuriating, mind-melting backdrop of the present moment makes it stressful just to wake up in the morning. And guess what happens when we’re that stressed out? Our immune systems suffer.

Rumors and conspiracy theories can seem to offer a sliver of stability. When we share what our neighbor heard when she ran into so-and-so, or something a friend of a friend said about the university closing, or the latest confirmed Covid-19 case according to a screencap someone sent in a text thread, we’re offering those in freefall—ourselves included—a ledge on which to stand. That’s a well-intentioned gesture. It also has unseen communitarian consequences. Just as we need to keep our communities as healthy as possible, we need to keep our information networks as clear as possible. That way, when we finally have the information we need, we can more effectively triage the most dangerous misinformation. A less clogged information landscape will also help free up emotional space, so we’re better able to care for others and ourselves. As Covid-19 runs its course, what exactly this will look like remains unknown. But whatever ends up happening, we must remember, as Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, that “all flourishing is mutual.”

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