Viral hysteria? Social media and Zika

By Sarah Khatry

8 February 2016

A dodgy tweet will travel halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

On 2 February 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Zika virus a global emergency. On 3 February, the first case of Zika transmission in the US was identified in Dallas, Texas. The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) believes the virus in Texas was spread through sexual contact, although the primary vector remains mosquitoes within the genus Aedes. Zika’s modes of transmission, possible vaccines, emergence in various countries, and connection to microcephaly (a congenital condition affecting brain development) will continue to drive research. It will also fuel speculation and rumours around the world. In Southasia, in order to prepare for Zika, we will, among other things, have to combat the viral spread of misinformation along social media networks.

Fear of its arrival has already made headlines in Southasia, country after country. Since only one in five of the infected will manifest any symptoms, according to CDC, the paranoia is understandable. Once Zika makes landfall – through a tourist, most likely – the standing fresh water pools that breed Aedes aegypti in India could become geographic hubs of the virus, as they already are for dengue and chikungunya. Zika poses the greatest risk to pregnant women, resulting in a high probability of microcephaly in the children born to them. Southasian governments and people should take all precautions to keep Zika from becoming endemic to the region.

Social media networks have demonstrated themselves to be unexpectedly far-reaching and rapid disseminators of information, both accurate and false. There are two primary forms of users. The first kind is ‘hubs’ of news providers like periodicals and political figures; and the second, personal accounts of individual users. Both types form a complex network that, despite not being designed for this purpose, far outpaces any simplified projections from mathematical modelling, when it comes to the spread of information. Scientific models have shown smaller, personal networks of just a few users to be just as essential as major hubs with thousands of followers like the New York Times; trusted information shared by a close friend and passed on can, in a few subsequent steps, travel widely. The old idiom ‘six degrees of separation’ has assumed a digital significance.

Graphic: Keiichiro Ono, distributed under a CC25 license.

A map of a network with some similar qualities to those of social media, consisting of hubs with many connections, and individual users with fewer. Image: Keiichiro Ono, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Ebola outbreak in 2014 came with a series of rumours and speculation delivered as fact. Ebola, erroneously, became airborne, waterborne, foodborne. Confusion and hype contributed to the panic. Social media has the propensity to instigate ‘mass hysteria’, a term coined in the 19th century that referred to the psychological phenomenon now known as mass psychogenic illness (MPI). In MPI, groups of individuals within a community develop symptoms of a disease they do not have, or perhaps doesn’t even exist. At present, these communities do not need to be formed through physical proximity or contact, but only through information networks.

Social media as a phenomena has already had a major impact on the landscape of Southasia –from the Twitter accounts of political leaders popularising nationalist sentiment in 140 characters, to digital grassroots election campaigning and activism, to controversial safety checks and rumours around the Nepali earthquake. A few weeks ago, Burmese officials blamed social media for creating a false impression among worried parents about the prevalence of child trafficking. Over the past five years globally and here in Southasia, social media has demonstrated itself to be a complex tool, a facilitator of both revolution and state oppression, a global platform to both unite and heighten conflict through discussion feeds.

But we are also getting smarter about social media. Zika as a global emergency will be addressed in part by raising public awareness regarding prevention and treatment, in step with the furthering of scientific research about the virus. The individual user first verifying and then sharing calmly what news they’ve discovered will be able to take some credit for the rational handling of this global crisis, and the ones to come.

~Sarah Khatry is an intern at Himal Southasian. She is a Physics and English student at Dartmouth College (and amateur ultracold atomic physicist). She is an editor of 40 Towns, a longform student magazine covering New Hampshire and Vermont.

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