As we are collecting and researching rumors and information circulating about COVID-19, we are noticing how a specific character type has emerged in distinct versions to provide the narrative’s legitimacy. Today we are asking whether you have noticed this appeal in versions you may have collected of similar accounts, both in oral and written forms.
In the contemporary legend, the internal credibility of the legend is typically attributed either to the source being something “in the news” or “from the police department” (or through some other Foucaultian apparatus of authority), or through the classic “friend of a friend” channels of social trust.
Within the COVID-19 pandemic, we have noticed, particularly in authoritarian or so-called “hybrid” (formally democratic) regimes, how a hybridized form of these two appeals has emerged. Looking closer, this new (or perhaps third) type of framing for rumors/fake messages consists of two subtypes:
- The source of the rumor is a junior member of some institution, which in the COVID-19 situation is highly important for “us”, the recipients of such messages. If this institution is foreign (like, for example, a hospital in Wuhan), often this “source” shares her/his ethnic identity with “us”, not with this institution. For example, in February several pieces of pseudo-medical advice appeared in Chinese blogs, which were later translated into different languages, including English. In every language they have their own attributed source: in Chinese it was “my sister’s son“ (so, friend-of-a-friend), in at least one American source it was someone from Mount Sinai, the New York hospital, and another from Stanford University (i.e. institutional authorities). In Russia it was transformed into “The young Russian doctor Yura Klimov is working in the hospital in Wuhan. He called his relatives and said..”: in this version the source is an identified Russian friend inside an alien institution, and thus the type of hybrid reference that earns people’s trust.
- The second subtype of such a hybrid is someone one step removed from the institution, either by familial association or by some other close relationship. The insider expert (as they are presented above) has not taken the initiative to share the information outside of their immediate family, but it is their close confidante who in turn recognizes that the information must be made known and does so, with the implication that it may bear some personal social risk. For example, in mid-March rumors arose about black helicopters coming to spray chemicals to disinfect public spaces (with advice on how to keep yourself safe from harm): in Russia the source was the wife of someone who works either in the ministry or the Army.
These subtypes are similar to each other as they are virtually adjacent steps on the implied chain of appeal to the original source, yet on the level of the individual version the question is raised about who is transgressing which implied bond of trust and secrecy in order to make this information known: the expert to their institution or the family member to their affiliative group?
The figure of this source, someone peripheral to authority, appears to address the logical question of how withheld information from within official agencies--an essential element in conspiracy thinking--enters into vernacular channels. Moreover, it would seem that, the greater the mistrust of official messaging or the news media, the more explicit this source is within the narrative.
If you have examples or wish to contribute to this discussion, please respond to this thread on the H-NET site or email Ian Brodie (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Alexandra Arkhipova (email@example.com).