“We should shed the illusion that rumours are spread by elderly poorly educated women. No, it's by us”

Social anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova on why people are buying up buckwheat and toilet paper and sending messages about Yura from Wuhan

“The probability of reposting a purely fake news is 70% higher than that of a true one. And this is not related to the gender, age, or education of the person spreading it. The main thing that is important is the factor of novelty and fear. Both poorly educated and educated people do this," says Alexandra Arkhipova, the researcher of urban fears and social anthropologist, in the column written for Realnoe Vremya.

“The probability of reposting a purely fake news is 70% higher than that of a true one

It doesn't matter who invent fake news. Sometimes they occur by mistake, accidentally, or for the purpose of manipulation. More important is why they are distributed and who distribute them.

To answer these questions, we need to turn to history. Rumours were first studied during the Second World War. In their early research, psychologists believed that rumours were spread by poorly educated segments of the population. In 1952, American sociologists and anthropologists conducted a famous study of former Soviet citizens as part of the Harvard Project. They were asked what sources of information they believed. More than 70% of respondents first trusted rumours and only then everything else. And the group that believed the rumours the most was the workers and peasants. It would seem that the proof was there.

However, in the '80s, Jean Noel Kapferer, a psychologist and sociologist, refuted this. At that time, France and other European countries were panicking because of the information that various products contained carcinogens, that E330 additives (which are actually just citric acid) indicated a specific carcinogenic additive. This is a corporate conspiracy! Shock! At the same time, an anonymous leaflet was distributed on behalf of a hospital in Paris, warning citizens of the danger. This resulted in a drop in demand for some products.

Kapferer reached an agreement with the National Health Service and surveyed teachers and doctors. Among other things, he asked them about this leaflet. About half of the teachers and doctors had not heard about it, and those who did, were actively spreading it further, passing it on to school children, parents, and patients. Only a very small percentage of teachers and doctors tried to check the information in the leaflet.

Therefore, we should shed the illusion that fake news is spread by some elderly, poorly educated women. No, this is us who do it.

In 2018, Science journal published another study confirming this fact. A group of researchers for 11 years studied how 3 million users of Twitter spread fake, true and mixed news. They analyzed 125,000 retweet chains. The probability of reposting a purely fake news is 70% higher than that of a true one. In other words, fake news spreads much deeper.

And this is not related to the gender, age, or education. The main thing that is important is the factor of novelty and fear. If the news is shocking and terrifying, then it has a better chance of being reposted, regardless of whether it is fake or real. Both poorly educated and educated people do this.

Why fake news spread

Infodemic arises when we don't believe institutions of power. When we think that in a situation of epidemic and disaster, we will be poorly taken care of.

Doctors, judges, lawyers, representatives of the political elite are alien to us, we do not believe them. And in this situation, fakes spread with terrible force.

For example, the story about black helicopters that have to spray disinfection tonight, so you need to close all the windows and balconies and not go out on the streets. The report says that the information came from the wife of a military man who works in the unit in charge of spraying. This story began in Kiev on March 16, the SBU refuted it. Then this “news” spread to the cities of Russia, in Kazakhstan. But before that, it has been in Spain.

Here's another example. In social networks and chat rooms, a message with pseudo-medical advice was distributed, which began with the words: “Yura Klimov from Wuhan is working on the virus...” Sometimes a woman from Milan “is working on the virus”, and sometimes a person from a New York hospital.

What unites both messages? The figure of the insider. This is “our man inside a dangerous place”, he is as ordinary person as we are. And we tend to believe such information.

This works in a situation where there is growing distrust of the authorities, which is the case in Russia.

We don't believe in medicine as an institution, but we do believe in familiar therapists or dentists. We trust personal connections more than the system.

There is no communication channel between the government and citizens, and therefore citizens are forced to take care of themselves and spread fake news with a reference to the wife of a military man. In this way, grassroots solidarity is maintained.

Pecularities of Russian infodemic

Infodemic occurs everywhere, even in the countries little affected by the epidemic. However, we have a pronounced tone of distrust of the authorities in the centre of this panic. On March 15-20, I identified four types of panic stories in our country.

The first type is the story of people who suspect they have the coronavirus, but they can't do these tests because they don't have these tests. When trying to get to the clinic, they are sent home to drink tea with raspberries. These stories are true, told in the first person. But the essence of all of them is the same — the authorities do not care that I may have the coronavirus, we are not protected.

The second type of story is that we are not only not taken care of but also intentionally harmed. They are about those who were forcibly hospitalized in one way or another, and the story emphasizes that “I am healthy, but I am in a room with a patient”. So instead of protecting me, the power institution is hurting me.

The third type of story is about information being hidden from us. There was a rumour that doctors were forbidden to diagnose “pneumonia”, that they had to conceal the true number of cases, and that the latter were actually much more numerous.

And the fourth type of stories — all this is necessary for the Russian political elite for their political goals. For example, to hold the vote on amendments to the Constitution. Or to hold a Victory parade. Or without a goal.

The general idea is the same: an ordinary Russian citizen is opposed to the power institutions, he is alone with his disease. Medical institutions and government institutions do not protect him.

We will not discuss whether this is true or not. It's important that everyone talks about it. And this forms “the broth” in which our rumours are cooked. And this is a specific Russian panic. It is supported by a good Soviet tradition. In the USSR in 1970, there was a serious cholera epidemic in the Crimea. In 1979, there was a mass infection with anthrax in Sverdlovsk. These were real situations, not fictional ones. In the case of Sverdlovsk, it was proved after the fact that the bacteriological laboratory Sverdlovsk-19 released (apparently accidentally) anthrax spores through the ventilation. Many people got sick and died. In both cases of cholera and ulcers, the Soviet authorities concealed information about the infections. The press was forbidden to mention the word “cholera”, they had to use the euphemism “stomach infection”, and in the case of anthrax, they couldn't say anything at all, the death certificates said “sepsis”. Great efforts were made by the KGB to conceal this information.

But still, in the conditions of the totalitarian state, it was impossible to conceal the information in both cases. Therefore, the story that today the state conceals about 30,000 sick people is unrealistic: it is impossible to control the concealment of this information.

Even in Soviet times (after the same tragedy in Sverdlovsk, for example), people still wrote letters to the party committee, district committee, city committee and higher, telling what they had seen. In the current situation, it is even more difficult to conceal information.

If the top official says that you do not need to buy extra products, then it means that everyone should buy up everything

The history of relations between the Russian government and fake news is long and complex. In 1832, a cholera epidemic began in the Russian Empire. Cholera came from India, but many believed it was being sent by the Polish who did not like the Russians, or by the French in response to the defeat of Napoleon, or at least by the Jews. An official writes a letter to his small provincial town: there is no cholera in fact, but ordinary people are just poisoned through food by arsenic, and thus the Empire is fighting with extra people who need to be fed. And perhaps, on instructions from the government, the Polish, the French, and the Jews do it. This letter was caught by the censors, and Nicholas I personally ordered to find and punish the author. Such rumours became the trigger of “cholera riots”, and in such times they were punished by whipping, pulling out the tongue, and death penalty.

During the Civil War, gossip was punishable by execution. In the 1930s, for spreading political rumours, a person was imprisoned under article 58-10 of the criminal code of the RSFSR 'Counter-revolutionary agitation and propaganda' for a period of 5 to 15 years. During the war, measures were tightened: execution for spreading rumors. But rumors did not disappear.

Now we have a bill on fake news. Recently, a resident of Amur Oblast was accused of spreading a fake saying that there are many more people with the coronavirus than the authorities say. We have created a special group of the Investigative Committee to combat fakes. However, there are too many of them.

After all, we cannot jail all mothers who spread a message in parent chats. Therefore, in my opinion, the authorities focus on rumours that threaten them personally: “The authorities are concealing the number of cases.”

But in any case, the spread of fakes can not be stopped. Our country and former Soviet countries have a long history of receiving official information “in reverse”. If the top official says that you do not need to buy extra products, then it means that everyone should buy up everything. Each of us in the family has experience that such promises are not always kept by the authorities.

What should we do?

The only way to combat fakes is to ask opinions of experts. In the situation with the coronavirus, I read the blogs of doctors, virologists, epidemiologists, and the WHO. This is my little expertise. This is the only way we can distinguish the true from the false.

By Alexander Arkhipov