Infodemics, vaccination and anthropological theories

Journée d'étude

La campagne de vaccination contre la pandémie de Covid-19 a été perturbée par des rumeurs sur sa dangerosité et des théories du complot, ce que les autorités sanitaires qualifient d’infodémie. Qu’est-ce que l’anthropologie sociale peut dire sur les conditions dans lesquelles émergent et circulent ces rumeurs, et que révèlent-elles de ce qu’est la vie humaine dans les sociétés contemporaines ? Le 1er juillet, se tiendra à l'ENS-PSL une journée d'étude sur le sujet.

In February 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting, the head of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the uncertainty about this new disease would produce an “infodemics”, by which he meant a propagation of fake news on the social media. Such infodemics can take many forms, in word and image, from retelling of what a neighbour said about heavy metals in vaccines, to spreading a pseudo-scientific text, where incorrect medical information about COVID-19 is attributed to some kind of authoritative voice, often adjacent to prescribed advice derived from traditional folk medical practices. Very often, “infodemics” have been blamed for high levels of vaccine-hesitancy and medical mistrust. The standard narrative of progress would suggest that, as greater understanding is made available through the findings of the scientific community, and as better technologies produce new treatments in an accelerated way, people should trust it and use it for their good. This positivistic idea can clearly no longer be assumed in the twenty-first century, as we encounter how people react ambiguously to new scientific data and do not believe or heed medical recommendations.

Social anthropologists, psychologists and folklorists have explored how and why people might accept, act upon, and share narratives of infodemics and vaccine fears, and how they perceive the risks to themselves and their families. They have shifted from studying infodemic narratives solely as a severe social illness to viewing them as social regulators that communities may need to mitigate uncertainty about the future. For instance, field studies in anthropology show that a loss of control over one’s life often trigger the emergence of legends about lethal vaccines, conspiracy theories about bioweapons from labs, and fears of new technologies, thereby altering risk perceptions among those telling these stories. When such narratives gain popularity, they forge an interpretative language through which some social groups, feeling weak and deprived, defend their identity and agency against authorities. We need anthropological theories to understand infodemics not only in the sense that data on rumours and legends need a theory to be understood, but also in the sense that they rely on theories of what it means to be human.
On July 1, 2024, social anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists will gather at Ecole Normale Superieure to discuss how anthropological theories explain the inevitability of infodemics in European countries and whether it can be stopped.


10h00 | Alexandra Arkhipova (EHESS, ENS, France) & Fréderic Keck (CNRS, France)

Panel I. Infodemics and theory of communication
Chair: Ian Brodie (Cape Breton University, Canada)

10h15 | Charles Briggs (UC Berkeley, USA)
“Infodemics” as “misinformation”: on the production of incommunicable subjects and narratives

11h00 | Julien Bonhomme (EHESS, France)
Back to chaos: Information and disinformation in times of pandemic

11h45 | Coffee break

12h00 | Kenzo Nera (FRS-FNRS, Belgium)
Conspiracy Theories, Group Identities, and the Management of Intergroup Threats: A Psychosocial Perspective

12h45 | Lunch

Panel II. Vaccination and conspiracy theory
Chair: Guillaume Lachenal (Medialab Sciences Po)

14h00 | Alexandra Arkhipova (EHESS, ENS, France)
Infodemics vs. Vaccination: Unpacking the Russian Scenario

14h45 | Mia-Marie Hammarlin (Lund University, Sweden)
Conspiracy Places: Objects and Atmospheres at a Conspiracy Theory Meeting in Gothenburg

15h30 | Coffee break

15h45 | Jeremy Ward (Inserm, France)
Who looks for information on online social media? A bourdieusian approach to mis/dis/information on health

16h30 | Gaetan Thomas (SciencesPo, France)
Vaccination: Towards a Material History

17h15 | Final discussion


Mis à jour le 14/6/2024