Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am working at home this week and curious if my smartphone is part of the panic. From home my co-workers communicate over Slack and email. But I see them on social media more often too. Should I continue to use emails or just ‘slack’ off’ ?! Or, is something else going on? Jamie, San Francisco
Dear Jamie: Since you are at home, you might try a cross-word puzzle or Scrabble, and the key word is Infodemic. Infodemic, nine letters down or across, is coined by political scientist, thought-leader and professor David Rothkog. In an opinion piece during the SARS epidemic in 2003 he observes, “a few facts, mixed with fear, speculation, and rumor, amplified and relayed swiftly worldwide by modern information technologies, have affected national and international economics, politics and even security in way that are utterly disproportionate with the root realities.“
In a nutshell, the word “infodemic” is a metaphor for an over- adundance of information- some accurate, some not- that has the capacity to spread virally.
It is not the first time this has happened. But back in the time of the SARS epidemic we barely had smartphones, and we used them in different ways. Our national habit of consuming media was about to change, but still tipped towards television. In 2020 we have shifted time spent on media and are collectively immersed “in” social media. Social media is unruly, a wild-wild West, with little editorial control.
Publically, we know little about the reliability and veracity of individual messages, but individually we are prone to respond quickly and emotionally. The net effect is to augment and spread information which is not fully corroborated. The impact is not always negative: sometimes it accerates ‘facts’ that needs to bubble up.
But, back to David Rothkog’s nine letter word: He viewed strong similarities between the way a disease spreads through a population and the way an idea ‘goes viral’ on the Net. Here I re-quote Rothkopf from a Wall St Journal column by Ben Zimmer, “the infodemic impacted more people that the underlying epidemic that triggered it.”
So here is the concern: if you and your colleagues are free from the office, but spending more time on social media then you are being exposed to lots of rumors about the corona virus. This rumor mill is particularly virulent here because it’s hard to parse fact from fiction. The medical community does not trust the numbers reported by their government, presumably those originating in China.
Pooled Info & Global Tides
I used to teach the two-step model of communications, a cornerstone theory. Today, Slack and Email are often the preferred channel where families, neighbors, and office workers chew over the news of the day and check-in with each other. We coalesce opinions and judgement by sharing with people like us, hence familiarity (or filter bubbles) through Facebook.
But most of us are also immersed in the larger media and swimming upstream. Twice a day, at the least, we are washed over by a tidal wave, the Infodemic. We sift through the stories for clues, like those on a public beach sorting through the tidal flotsam.