This is the second post in a two part series covering “One good conversation?” – a conference on the anthropology of misinformation hosted by SOAS on 23 September. The first post covers the morning session (on UK politics). After lunch, the second panel discussed misinformation as materiality – exploring misinformation in a wider, more anthropological context.

Vaccine hesitancy in Ireland

Dan Nightingale (UCL) is researching misinformation around vaccines. He started his PhD studying the uptake (or not) of HPV (the cervical cancer vaccine) in the Republic of Ireland. After his fieldwork was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, he switched his focus to misinformation around the Covid vaccine. The main problem of misinformation, says Dan, is presuming that misinformation is the problem – and focusing on removing it from the internet. As anthropologists we could instead look at conversation “as a kind of social patterning – something that moves between people purposefully.”

Dan is interested in socio-technical systems (STS) theory – particularly the work of Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour which looks at what facts do in the world: “how information and facts in particular can overwrite the social”. Facts are “the largest islands on the archipelago of information”, says Dan, quoting another author (I didn’t get who – maybe an idea from Heyla Alselim?)

When you start to look at the social environments in which people are sharing information, things take on a different shape. For example, in WhatsApp chats, there’s a lot of stuff that looks like misinformation, but is actually intended to be supportive and empathetic of what other people are saying. It’s these intimate dynamics, these entanglements, that interest Dan.

Digital capital in Sri Lanka

Craig Ryder (SOAS) is a PhD student and digital anthropologist. He is looking at how social media algorithms and influencers are driving resistance in post-pandemic Sri Lanka. Craig argues that online influence is digital capital (after Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of economic, social and cultural capital).

His area of study was the 2022 anti-government protests in Sri Lanka. He used the hashtag #Aragalaya (meaning “the struggle”) as a “digital artefact” and the entry point for his research. He scraped tweets from Twitter (now X) using Gephi, a data-scraping tool. Maybe not surprisingly, Craig found that bots were the biggest influencers in the network. But a second hugely important group was made up of “information influencers”.

Information influencers (by Craig’s definition) are people who explicitly use Twitter to influence political change. They have similar tactics to lifestyle influencers but resist monetisation and brand alignment. His findings tallied with Bourdieu’s argument that your economic capital informs your social capital. Craig would argue that your economic and social capital also inform your digital capital.

Marrying computer science (data) with ethnography is a great way to generate new knowledge, says Craig. The X (formerly Twitter) API is getting expensive to access but a TikTok API might be available soon.

Objects of misinformation

Alice Millar (UCL) is a PhD student researching digital media practices in museums. Her work is part of a wider project called Challenging Populist Truth-Making in Europe (CHAPTER), based in Berlin. As part of her fieldwork, she co-curated an exhibition at the Museum of London called “Into the Twitterverse”.

The anthropology of misinformation - screenshot of a viral tweet alongside speaker Alice Millar

The anthropology of misinformation – screenshot of a viral tweet alongside speaker Alice Millar

Some Tweets in the exhibition were grouped under the banner “going viral”. One tweet in particular (above) was shown without context. There’s a difference between the spirit of the misinformation and the letter of the misinformation, says Alice. In this particular viral tweet from @lucitelu, the UK House of Commons is shown nearly empty for a crucial NHS vote. But in reality, the photo was was taken at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and many MPs were participating online.

Alice felt that the Museum of London should have given some context around this particular tweet, rather than just presenting it as an example of something that has gone “viral” (ie: received more than 100,000 likes) without any explanation – leading most observers to assume that the content must be “true”.

The Museum of London avoided including conspiracy theory tweets because they were too politically sensitive. Their unwillingness to collect false information, by avoiding it, is itself a political statement, said Alice. Failing to show misinformation is in itself a form of misinformation. By not including tweets containing dangerous conspiracy theories, she felt that the Museum of London was misrepresenting history.

Final word

Danny Miller (UCL) presented the final wrap-up. Danny is a professor of anthropology and director of the Centre for Study of Digital Anthropology at UCL.

In terms of the anthropology of misinformation, we (academics / anthropologists) are part of the problem, said Danny. We need to respect the very positions that we are partly responsible for creating. We feel we should empathetically engage with people who are otherwise dismissed, because we feel responsible. Anthropologists are always talking about listening to the people you don’t actually agree with. Whatever everyone else thinks about them, we can’t say these people aren’t authentic. And there’s a very anthropological reason behind this.

The premise is that the digital has a causal relationship with misinformation. Danny personally believes the opposite. When you’re young, you constantly compare digital with the world that existed before. What gets ignored is the power of media before digital. See, for example, the misinformation spread in the Zinoviev letter, which was published in the Daily Mail in 1924. Or look at the tremendous power that used to be held by religious institutions. The panellists today have all taken the perspective that digital is at fault in some way. But we need to confront this assumption of causality.

We have to both accept and dismiss the concept of misinformation, said Danny.

This is a typically anthropological “answer”!

All in all, it was a very interesting day and I’m looking forward to further debates and events from Dan and Amir.

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

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