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My colleagues & I have been studying/researching crisis informatics for over a decade, looking at how people converge online to make sense of crisis events. This field is informed by much older research in the sociology of disaster. Many of our lessons are relevant to #covid-19.
Crisis events, as they unfold, are often characterized by high uncertainty — about what is happening and what we should do about it, individually and collectively. In these cases, the “facts” of the situation are dynamic, and there are still unknowns.
This uncertainty feeds anxiety — about the personal and collective impacts of the event, as well about what actions we should take. What should we do? Where should we go? When should we evacuate, or in this case quarantine?
These conditions (high uncertainty and anxiety) often catalyze a collective sensemaking process, where we come together to seek, process, and share information.
Historically, the biggest challenge (for people experiencing an acute crisis) was an absence of official or good information. In that void, people would share information with their families, friends, and neighbors, to try to make the best decisions (e.g. when to evacuate).
Though a natural response to crises, sensemaking can produce rumors — including ones that turn out to be true and ones that turn out to be false. The latter (i.e. misinformation) are dangerous because that can cause people to take actions that endanger themselves or others.
In the connected era, the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of information, but the over-abundance of information and the challenge of differentiating between information we should trust and information we shouldn’t trust.
This challenge becomes compounded when we lose trust in “official” sources — e.g. government agencies charged with managing the response. That is why is it so critical for those agencies to share the best information at the time (e.g. from scientists, epidemiologists, etc).
When elected leaders share dubious info & contradict their own agencies and scientists, this foments distrust and diminishes our collective ability to find the best information at this time — increasing uncertainty and anxiety, and even causing people to take the wrong actions.
Unfortunately, our current information space is also characterized by the active politicization of just about everything and the pervasive spread of disinformation. The conditions of crisis (uncertainty and anxiety) make us particular vulnerable to these types of messages.
I implore us as information participants to tune in to how our anxiety fuels info-seeking and sharing practices that may make us susceptible to spreading mis- and disinformation. Perhaps this is the “hand washing” for the infodemic accompanying the pandemic.
And I implore political leaders and political communicators to reflect upon how their statements may contribute to the spread of misinformation/disinformation about #covid-19 and may have detrimental effects on individual and collective responses.
#covid-19 is a public health crisis. It may necessitate every one of us taking specific actions to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors, our communities, and society at large. But it’s critical that we have good information that we can trust — to inform those actions.
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