When a viral crisis occurs, it is not only the viruses that spread with their own mechanisms, it is also each society that brings out all its viral potential, according to an entirely ordinary social functioning that Tarde had thought under the term imitation at the end of the XIX th century. Because messages of alert or support on social networks, good practices, fears, fake news, everything is disseminated according to a model of virality, which should be called rather a principle of replication, because, like viruses, what is transmitted is transformed and does not always reproduce identically.
All of these forms of propagation occur at high rates, at high frequencies, and compete with each other. Thus, the specific propagation mechanisms of the virus must be counteracted by the ability to spread health recommendations. Either from a Chinese disciplinary model, or (and even in the case of China) by virtue of imitation, basic social process, so neglected despite the works of Tarde.
All these processes are diffused step by step, according to a logic of neighborhood which can change according to the environment and the circumstances of contact, sometimes unique and very brief, for the messages which one can call memes as for the viruses, d where the difficulty in modeling and predicting them.
The first form of competition to be taken seriously as a social issue, competition between the virus, an opportunist force if ever there was one, and government messages inviting us to observe good practices during an epidemic. These messages do not arrive on virgin ground. Our attention is already completely monopolized by other influences, in particular by habits that differ according to individuals. The hygienic habits established by repetitions and multiple imitations become allies against the spread of the virus. The gesture, which has become automatic, saves our cognitive energy. For many of us, however, constantly thinking about what we are touching, how to behave with such a person without letting “unhygienic” habits take overtakes an effort, turns ordinary life into a constant problem-solving test. We then say that the situation loses its “natural” (which obviously only became natural through education and long-term imitation).
Competition with the virus is rather to the detriment of humans because the habits that resist the most are those which consist in continuing to go out, shake hands or meet up with friends or colleagues, all of which are essential to life. social in normal times, which do not rest on a systematic distancing. Again, the competition of propaganda and imitation, because seeing a group sitting along the canal is a strong signal in favor of habits of social proximity.
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Some may then consider that the spread of good practices would be much more effective if they were accompanied by sanctions, collective surveillance, reinforced social control, as we see in China. We forget to say that this is what also caused China’s delay in taking the whistleblower seriously, because compliance consists, in this case, of stifling differences, when the alert should have been released quickly.
And the issue of incorporating such ordinary habits is much more complex than a simple matter of sanction, legal or normative. Personal experience shows how this competition for the spread of good practices can turn into a war of all against all.
During my very recent train trip (March 13, before confinement!), A man climbs to a stop and brings in his old mother, whom he must hold by the arm to install him in his place. After he came back down, it turns out that, present on the platform, I feel the air flow and he makes me sneeze, in my handkerchief which I immediately throw in the next bin. The man calls me sharply, saying to me: “If you are sick, you should put on a mask.” I tell him that it is a very punctual sneeze and that I have taken all my precautions. The incident stops there but it is very astonishing to feel a very strong aggressiveness, all the more that he undoubtedly felt uncomfortable to circulate his weakened mother at this precise moment of the viral crisis. I could in fact retort him that he was even more irresponsible than me in this regard. But we then see that the logic of social control would turn into conflict, into public denunciations (which happens in some calls to the SAMU), and without any doubt into confrontations. This should be kept in mind despite the apparent calm of the situation.
As soon as the victims become more numerous, and fear has also spread to a large part of the population, all reactions are possible. I say reaction, by opposing it to reflection, because all those who plead for “rational” postures forget too quickly how fear manages to short-circuit all the processes of deliberation, of decision-making.
Mimetic attitude and fear of shortage
Similarly, the competition between propagations now extends to questions of supply. We can say in this case that there is an effect of anticipation, of reflection which pushes to bet on a risk of shortage, which leads to proceed with precautionary purchases. All behaviors that others will immediately denounce as “irrational” since the messages of distribution professionals are reassuring on this point. Yes, but when the neighborhood of the supermarket customers allows you to see at work the first shopping carts filled up “as a precaution”, it is the mimetic attitude that takes over. As much to do as the others without necessarily sharing the motivations but in any case, by adopting an ordinary precautionary principle (“just in case”).
This propagation of anticipation of shortage causes a shortage, it is well known and classic reassuring institutional messages lose competition in the face of widespread imitation. It would be necessary to immediately disseminate images showing the norias of delivery trucks immediately filling the shelves as they empty for a chance to counteract the effects of imitation. Because in these situations, it is “alert attention” that is mobilized, which relies on the shock of images (whose interpretation can then be completely disguised) to make powerful signals off them, and their conception becomes essential.
Moments of contagion
These moments of panic are not only behaviors of poorly informed populations because they are in fact analogous in all points to the financial behaviors of the wealthy. The stock market panic is limited for the moment to the firms and the institutions which make, them, profession and game of speculation on these microphonics with the microsecond near in their ordinary activity. This game of anticipations and expectations is at the very heart of the speculative mechanics of finance, which is only a process of propagation, very well-instrumented and manipulated by those who think they have information before others.
This propagation of expectations has already been experienced with previous crises and it had spread to banks (Lehman Brothers for example), to their robustness. If distrust reaches the protection of personal investments, all things guaranteed by law up to a certain limit, banking panic will succeed as it has been the case in many countries in the last decade (Cyprus, Greece, Argentina) and no rational message will stop it. It will then be necessary to restrict the distribution of liquidity which will only confirm that there is indeed a problem. As we can see, it is too easy to disqualify these phenomena of propagation, imitation or replication by describing them as crowd behavior, gregarious, irrational. The virus should teach us that we are made of the same processes as it, namely moments of contagion.
Fortunately, these neighborhood mechanisms are also in conflict of influence with our reasoning and decision skills and also with our inheritances, all our education which may be enough to prevent a civil war for stories of unavailable masks. But the outcome of the conflict is not always guaranteed. The circulating entities, these messages, these signals are sometimes as powerful as viruses and can amplify or counteract the health phenomenon. The rumors ) of the old media world have mutated into a proliferation of high-frequency signals for an ecosystem of our attention ever more energized. Adam Gazzaley and Gary Rosen recall from their laboratory experiments that if our mind has become distracted, it is because it is constantly called upon by a bottom-up simulation process based on novelty and salience, which divert attention from his usual course.
Therefore, it is advisable to prepare a viral communication material to the height of the challenge, by betting there also on shock-images which do not vaccinate, certainly, and which have the defect to exploit again the same processes of reactivity, d alert that inhibits reflection. But in the age of social networks, it would be naive to believe that the competition of propagations can be based only on institutional speeches, on educational TV shows, all necessary things but often the only formats found on these Continuous news channels that produce only repetitive speech supposedly legitimate but now subject to stiff competition from the ordinary experts that each claims to be.
On the contrary, it is very prophylactic to show the video of Italians singing among themselves from their balconies. Because the fear of isolation is then fought by a strong image, by an emotional shock which recalls the strength of the support of the neighborhood against suspicion which could become widespread.
No “pedagogy” here but practice made visible which strongly illustrates that other collective values can combat fear and in particular the fear of isolation. Digital platforms and social networks, which are formatted to excessively speeding up our reactions for advertising placement objectives, can play an interesting role in this respect by enhancing the content of collective solutions, which show how we combat the spread of the fear. Provided that the citizens seize it with creativity and that the institutions value all this. The viral competition for attention has only just begun.
We can hope that finally these processes are taken seriously as objects of study because they are constitutive of our social life: we are also (not only) acted by processes of propagation of entities which cross us, viruses, messages and the objects that transform us without our being able to control them. If at least the virus detoxified us from this delusional modern faith in our ability to control the world, the victims would have allowed a salutary step towards a new form of wisdom.