Virus, Memes and Protocol in the Competition for Propagation

Article by Dominique Boullier, Professor of Sociology and Director of Research at the Centre for European Studies and Comparative Politics (CEE). When a health crisis occurs, a virus does not just propagate itself using its own mechanisms; rather, each society demonstrates its own viral potential, according to a pattern of usual social functioning that Tarde explored using the term imitation in the late 19th Century. Warning alerts and messages of solidarity on social media, recommended procedures, fears, and fake news all circulate using a viral model, which we might call a principle of replication since, just like a virus, that which is being transmitted can mutate and is not always reproduced identically.

All of these kinds of propagation occur at a considerable pace and high frequency, and are in competition with one another. Thus the virus’ particular propagation mechanisms must be countered by the rate of propagation of sanitary guidelines. This could work either using a disciplinary model, like the Chinese, or (as was also seen in China) by means of imitation, an elementary social mechanism that we tend to overlook in times of crisis and in spite of Tarde’s writings on the subject.

These processes of diffusion take place between individuals and follow patterns of interaction that depend on environment and the (often unique and fleeting) circumstances of an interaction, and can transmit pieces of information that we might call memes just as well as viruses; hence our difficulty in modelling them, or predicting their spread.

The first instance of competition to be taken seriously as a social issue is that between the virus, an opportunistic organism, and the governmental messages that urge us to observe and adopt best practices during the epidemic. These messages, however, are sent into an already-chartered territory: our attention is already crowded by other influences, and especially with habits that differ between individuals. Hygienic rituals ingrained through numerous repetitions and imitations become our allies against the propagation of the virus. Specific behaviours turned automatisms allow us to save precious cognitive energy. Yet for many of us, it takes effort to think constantly about what we are touching, or remember how to behave around others without giving in to “unhygienic” habits, and ordinary life can begin to feel like an endless test of our problem-solving abilities. We then feel as though the situation is no longer “natural” (although, of course, what felt “natural” before was the result of sustained habit and imitation over a long period of time).

Humans are somewhat disadvantaged in the competition against the virus in the sense that our most resistant customs are those consisting in going out, shaking hands, and congregating with friends or colleagues: all activities that we consider essential for our social lives under normal circumstances, none of which are particularly compatible with systematic social distancing.  Here, again, is competitive propagation and imitation, as even a group of people sitting along a canal is a powerful signal of our habits of social proximity.

Best practices and social discipline

Some might argue that the propagation of distancing measures would be markedly more efficient if there were sanctions involved, using mass surveillance and enforced social regulation, as is the case in China. Often forgotten is the fact that it is also precisely this that caused China’s crucial delay in raising the alarm, as conformity, in this instance, consisted in suppressing deviations while the whistle should have been blown much earlier. 

Our adoption of such commonplace habits is also a much more complex issue than that of a legal or normative sanction. Personal experiences show us just how easily this competition for the propagation of best practices can turn us against each other: 

The last time I took the train (on the 13th of March, before the lockdown), a man got on at a stop and helped his elderly mother to get on, having to hold her by the arm as he helped her into the seat. The man then got back off the train to the platform where I was standing and it happened that, caught off-guard by the gust of air as the train departed, I sneezed into a paper tissue which I immediately disposed of in the nearby bin. The man stopped me sharply and told me “If you are ill, you need to wear a mask.” I explained that it was a one-off sneeze and that I had taken all precautions. The situation went no further than this, but it was startling to experience such overt hostility, presumably heightened because he felt uneasy putting his vulnerable mother on public transport at that particular point in the viral crisis. I could have argued that he had been more irresponsible than me on this occasion. We can see here that the logic of social controls can all too easily give way to conflicts, to public denunciations - which is the case with several calls to the Service d’aide médicale urgente (SAMU) - and certainly to confrontations. This should be kept in mind, despite the apparent calm of the situation.

As the number of victims rises, and fear begins to take hold in much of the population, we will see many different reactions. I say reactions, rather than considerations, because those who call for a “rational” stance are overlooking how completely fear can short-circuit our deliberation and decision-making processes.

Mimetic mindsets and the fear of shortages

In the same way, the competition between propagations is now extending into the question of provisions. In this case we might say that there is an anticipation effect, a mindset that compels people to hedge their bets on the prospect of a shortage, which leads to panic-buying, a behaviour which others will criticise as “irrational” since the messages from retail professionals have been reassuring on this issue. This much is true, but when the proximity of customers in the supermarkets allows them to see others’ baskets piled high “in precaution”, mimetic attitudes can take over, inducing identical behaviour in individuals who did not share the same rationale but who now feel compelled to take precautionary procedures “just in case”. 

This propagation of the anticipation of scarcity itself brings about scarcity, as is well known, and the classic reassuring institutional messages here lose the competition to infectious imitative behaviours. Institutions would have needed to immediately publish and circulate images showing fleets of delivery trucks and employees rapidly restocking the shelves as they emptied out to have had a chance of countering the effects of imitation. Since in these situations it is our “alert attention” that is triggered, which is based on the shock produced by images (and images that may well distort our interpretation of the truth) which create powerful signals, where our conception masquerades as reality.

The moment of infection

These moments of panic are not only the manifestation of ill-informed societies; they are effectively analogous with the financial behaviour of the wealthy. Panicked buying and selling has been, until now, a practice of firms and professionals who make a career out of watching and participating constantly in this game of speculation about such micro-panics. The power of anticipations and expectations is at the very heart of the speculative mechanism of the financial industry, which boils down to a process of propagation, meticulously instrumented and manipulated by those who profess to have information sooner than others. 

The propagation of anticipations has been experienced in previous crises and has permeated as far as the banks (Lehman brothers, for example), challenging their robustness. If the threat reaches the protection of personal investments, all things guaranteed by law up to a certain limit, banking panic will prevail, as has been the case in many countries in the past decade (Cyprus, Greece, Argentina), and no rational message will be able to prevent this. It then becomes necessary to limit the distribution of liquidity, which itself will only confirm the existence of a problem. As we have seen, it is all too easy to dismiss these phenomenons of propagation, imitation and replication as crowd behaviour, and the irrational actions of the masses. This virus must teach us that we are made up of the same processes as it, that is to say, we too are shaped by moments of infection.

Fortunately, these proximity mechanisms are themselves also competing for power against our abilities to reason and make decisions, as well as against our heritage: our collective education which should suffice to prevent a civil war from breaking out over the shortage of protective masks. But the result of the conflict is not yet clear. The circulating matter, these messages and signals, are sometimes just as powerful as the virus and can either magnify or counter the pandemic. The rumours of the old world media have spawned a proliferation of high-frequency signals in an ecosystem where our attention is increasingly and incessantly strained. Adam Gazzaley and Gary Rosen emphasise from their research that if our mind has become distracted, it is due to being constantly bombarded by a system of “bottom-up” stimulation, centred around novelty and salience, which regularly deflects our attention from its usual circuits.

Towards a new viral communication

Henceforth we will need to create an outfit of viral communication that is up to the task, including the use of striking images, although these are no replacement for a vaccine, and can further exacerbate the same problems of stimulating our reactivity and alert processes, impairing our capacity for reflection. But in the age of social media it would be naive to imagine that the propagation can compete solely through institutional channels and pedagogic television broadcasts, which are certainly necessary elements but often the sole formats available on continuous information channels, which tend to generate a repetitive rhetoric that is therein presented as fact but which, in reality, is subject to the fierce competition between the various experts proposed by each channel.

It would be contrastingly prophylactic and effective to broadcast the video of people in Italy singing together from their balconies, to challenge the fear of isolation with a powerful image, a visual and emotional impact that can remind us of the power of neighbours to support one another, above the general distrust that can germinate and take root. There is nothing distinctly “pedagogical” about this video, but it is a powerful visual manifestation of how other collective values can combat mass fear, particularly the fear of isolation. 

Digital platforms and social media, which are designed to abuse and accelerate our reactions for advertising purposes, can play an interesting role in this respect/area by promoting content that demonstrates collaborative social solutions to the propagation of fear. This strategy relies on the creativity of individuals and communities and on promotion by institutions on their networks. The viral race for our attention is just getting started.

We can expect that these processes will eventually be taken seriously as objects of study, as constituent elements of our social life: we are thoroughly (although not exclusively) influenced by the processes of propagation of the matter that passes through us - viruses, messages, and objects - that can transform us in ways beyond our control. If at least the virus is purging us of our modern and deluded faith in our capacity to control the world, the victims will have contributed in our first steps towards a new, and necessary, wisdom. 

Article originally published in French on The Conversation and translated by Lily Parmar.

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