publication reflection

Seeing things the other way around? Researching global conspiracies during the so-called COVID-19 infodemic

Can research produced in one part of the world sufficiently explain what happens in another part of the world? Can we even talk about (digital) media theory without first trying to situate it somewhere  – geographically, culturally and historically? This blog post discusses these fundamental questions in the context of researching the COVID-19  “infodemic” in Africa.

Anarchist activist and anthropologist David Graeber once quipped that anthropologists have historically played the nagging role of gadflies. This is because every time “some ambitious European and American theorist appears to make some grandiose generalizations about how human beings go about organizing political, economic, or family life, it’s always the anthropologist who shows up to point out that there are people in Samoa or Tierra del Fuego or Burundi who do things exactly the other way around.” [1]

Our article recently published in Social Media + Society similarly tiptoes around what is perhaps one of the central challenges of contemporary global digital media research. The provisional outline of this problem could be sketched as follows: 

Can research produced in one part of the world sufficiently explain what happens in another part of the world if, as Graeber sarcastically notes, people often do things “the other way around?”  

If not, can we then even talk about (digital) media theory in the first place, at least without first trying to situate it somewhere  – geographically, culturally and historically?

While these questions may seem, at first, like unnecessary philosophical sophistry, they also raise fundamental questions about how we research and understand the so-called “infodemic” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Is there more than one “infodemic?”

The article titled “Demystifying the COVID-19 Infodemic: Conspiracies, Context, and the Agency of Users,” focuses on how two popular conspiracy theories – the 5G conspiracy and the Bill Gates conspiracy – intersected with long-term discourses and political projects in two central countries in sub-saharan Africa: Nigeria and South Africa. Similar to other parts of the world, in these two countries, the 5G conspiracy consisted of allegations that 5G technology was deployed to make people more susceptible to the virus. The Bill Gates conspiracy, in turn, included, speculations whether Bill Gates was involved in using the pandemic to surveil people and depopulate Africa.

In order to gain insight how these conspiracies were used in Nigeria and South Africa, the article analysed over 6 million tweets collected during the first months of the pandemic using a set of country-specific keywords and hashtags. The research discovered that such conspiracies represented only a small fraction of the conversations around COVID-19. Moreover, in the online communities where these conspiracies did get a stronghold, they also adopted quite different meanings from what research had previously indicated.

In Nigeria, the two conspiracies were approached through an opportunistic frame used to extend existing criticisms of the ruling party. In South Africa, the 5G conspiracy had limited buy-in but the Bill Gates conspiracy resonated with deep-rooted resentment toward the West. In Nigeria, conspiracy theories became mired into domestic concerns about political legislation, service delivery, and corruption. In South Africa, a more existential frame was used that was critical of Western disinterest and even malevolence toward the African continent.The article concluded that perhaps there is not one “infodemic” – but  multiple.  Research needs to thus carefully focus on what people actually do with conspiracies in different contexts rather than simply “relaying factual information that fails to account for the diverse uses of conspiracies in different parts of the world [2].”

But is there also more than one media theory?

Global concerns about the “infodemic” have resulted in remarkable progress in research that utilises large-scale data and digital methods to map the spread of mis/disinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories online [3, 4]. However, our findings suggest that this research also may have limited explanatory potential once we move to “the rest of the world.”  

On the surface, then, the article follows a well-trodden path of typical digital research. It is data-driven.  It focuses on Twitter.  It uses digital methods.  It highlights a trendy topic – conspiracy theories during the infodemic – that rustles public and policy fears about the dangers of unbridled online communication. However, behind the surface, the article also raises three cautionary notes about the some of the conceptual and methodological limitations of contemporary digital media research globally. 

The first cautionary note has to do with the use of computational methods to filter large-scale datasets for negative or unwanted content relevant to the “infodemic.” This is because, while there are clear cases where such content can be identified in a non-trivial manner such as obvious cases of computational propaganda [5], there are also limitations of using these methods especially in situations where such clear-cut manichean divisions between true/false information are more difficult to ascertain or where they do not exist in the first place. Conspiracy theories, in particular, often function on an epistemological register that defy such simple binaries [6, 7]. The article thus concludes by posing the following question”: “can criticisms of Western historical interference in South African affairs or criticisms of corrupt government practices in Nigeria—even if they, on the surface, piggyback global conspiratorial narratives—be simply dismissed as false? Or are the categories themselves fuzzier and more difficult to define?” [8]

The second cautionary note has to do with the question of how useful is research that uses empirical evidence from one part of the world for understanding another part of the world, and especially for understanding countries in the Global South with complex postcolonial legacies [9, 10, 11]. In other words, can research on the “infodemic” supersize its findings to other contexts despite the different social, political, and communicative milieus that these conspiracies become embedded in [12, 13]? Or does this problematically presuppose some “universal features of communication with little cultural variation” [14] – which usually means research carried out in Europe or the US?

Finally, the third cautionary note has to do with the growing tendency of research to approach online communication primarily in normative terms. During the pandemic, the frameworks used to understand the “infodemic” have referred to it as a kind of “peril” [15], a “plague” [16] or a “serious health risk” [17] rather than situating these communicative practices among many of the “different communicative tactics  available to individuals globally.” [18]

Many of the existing approaches are still rooted on the earlier ideal of the internet as a beacon primarily for political participation, a space where negative externalities to online business-as-usual such as mis/disinformation, conspiracy theories or hate speech should not be present. However, does this overwhelming focus on the negative side of online communication as some kind of pathological symptom of contemporary communication also risks magnifying the very aspects that are considered negative thus potentially “providing an even bleaker picture of the status of online communication, which can, at worst, take on  the characteristics of a new ‘moral panic’ about the information disorder globally [19, 20].”

If nothing else, anthropological research has shown that “truth” or recourse to facts have never been the sine qua non of human communication [21, 22].

Conclusion: or how to see the other way around?

Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has described what he calls the “paradoxical position” of knowledge production globally, and in relation to Africa in particular, the following way:

Africa has always occupied a paradoxical position in modern formations of knowledge. On the one hand, it has been largely assumed that “things African” are residual entities, the study of which does not contribute anything to the knowledge of the world or of the human condition in general. Rapid surveys, off-the-cuff remarks, and anecdotes with sensational value suffice. On the other hand, it has always been implicitly acknowledged that in the field of social sciences and the humanities, there is no better laboratory than Africa to gauge the limits of our epistemological imagination or to pose questions about how we know what we know and what that knowledge is grounded upon.

It is also perhaps within a similar paradoxical position that new research on contemporary digital media – and the digital methods that are developed alongside it – needs to be experimented with and theorised.  This, we believe, requires researchers to learn to see, so to speak, the other way around.

The growing movement to decolonise knowledge rebels against the idea that theory derived from regional examples from the US or Europe holds universal value or should be uncritically applied to other parts of the world.  Rather, there are complex negotiations between knowledge production and decolonial theory involved in this relationship.  

Conversely, neither should the cases of Nigeria or South Africa looked at in the article be seen merely as regional examples, somehow relegated to the confines of “area studies.”[23] Instead, elevating research coming out of Africa on an equal epistemological pedestal as a form of universal theory-making not only enriches our understanding of how digital media operates elsewhere, but it also allows us to complicate and diversify the theoretical models and methods we too often take for granted closer to “home.” 

The article is a part of a larger research project funded through the Cambridge-Africa Alborada Research Fund.

References
[1] Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The First 5000 Years. New York, NY:  Melville House.
[2] Gagliardone, I. et al. (2021). ‘Demystifying the COVID-19 Infodemic: Conspiracies, Context, and the Agency of Users’, Social Media + Society, p 5.
[3] Havey, N. F. (2020). Partisan public health: How does political ideology influence support for COVID-19 related misinformation? Journal of Computational Social Science, 3(2), 319–342.
[4] Shahsavari, S., Holur, P., Tangherlini, T. R., Roychowdhury, V. (2020). Conspiracy in the time of corona: Automatic detection of covid-19 conspiracy theories in social media and the news. ArXiv.
[5] Bradshaw, S., Howard, P. N. (2018). Challenging truth and trust: A global inventory of organized social media manipulation. Computational Propaganda Project.
[6] Butter, M., Knight, P. (Eds.) (2020). Handbook of conspiracy theories. Routledge.
[7] Harambam, J. (2020). Contemporary Conspiracy Culture: Truth and Knowledge in an Era of Epistemic Instability.  London: Routledge.
[8] Gagliardone, I. et al. (2021), p 14.
[9] Mignolo, W. D. (2014). Spirit out of bounds returns to the East: The closing of the social sciences and the opening of independent thoughts. Current Sociology, 62(4), 584–602.
[10] Srinivasan, S., Diepeveena, S., Karekwaivanane, G. (2019). Rethinking publics in Africa in a digital age. Journal of Eastern African Studies, 13(1), 2–17.
[11] Willems, W. (2014). Beyond normative dewesternization: Examining media culture from the vantage point of the Global South. The Global South, 8(1), 7–23
[12] Mare, A., Mabweazara, H. M., Moyo, D. (2019). “Fake news” and cyber-propaganda in Sub-Saharan Africa: Recentering the research agenda. African Journalism Studies, 40(4), 1–12.
[13] Willems, W., Mano, W. (Eds.). (2016). Everyday media culture in Africa: Audiences and users. Routledge.
[14] Pohjonen, M., Udupa, S. (2017). Extreme speech online: An anthropological critique of hate speech debates. International Journal of Communication, 11, 1173–1191.
[15] Cinelli, M., Quattrociocchi, W., Galeazzi, A., Valensise, C. M., Brugnoli, E., Schmidt, A. L., Zola, P., Zollo, F., Scala, A. (2020). The covid-19 social media infodemic. ArXiv.
[16] Ferrara, E., Cresci, S., Luceri, L. (2020). Misinformation, manipulation, and abuse on social media in the era of COVID-19. Journal of Computational Social Science, 3(2), 271–277.
[17] Sharma, K., Seo, S., Meng, C., Rambhatla, S., Liu, Y. (2020). Covid-19 on social media: Analyzing misinformation in twitter conversations. ArXiv. https://arxiv.org/abs/2003.12309
[18] Gagliardone, I. et al. (2021), p 4.
[19] Gagliardone, I. et al. (2021), p 4.
[20] Jungherr, A., Schroeder, R. (2021). Disinformation and the structural transformations of the public arena: Addressing the actual challenges to democracy. Social Media + Society, 7(1), 1–13.
[21] Carey, M. (2017). Mistrust: An ethnographic theory. Hau Books. 
[22] West, G.W. and Sanders, T. (2003). Transparency and Conspiracy: Ethnographies of Suspicion in the New World Order.  London: Duke University Press
[23] Cheruiyot, D., Ferrer-Conill, R. (2021). Pathway outta pigeonhole? De-contextualizing majority world countries. Media, Culture & Society, 43(1), 189–197.

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