Scientific and political aspects of the circulation of rumors about zika and microcephaly in social networks during the summer epidemic of 2015-2016

Author: Marcelo Garcia – Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Brazil

Co-author: Janine Cardoso – Oswaldo Cruz Foundation

Considered one of the worst Brazilian health emergencies, zika strongly mobilized health authorities, scientific community, press and the general population during the summer of 2015/2016. A striking feature of the epidemic was the widespread circulation of rumors that accompanied it. In this work we analyse four alternative narratives (rumors) that circulated on that occasion (from Whatsapp) and 100 most engaged comments from posts related to the circulation of rumors about the disease on three Facebook pages. The pages chosen were from Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, brazilian institution that stood out in the production of knowledge about zika, Folha de S.Paulo, one of the largest newspapers in Brazil, and Diário de Pernambuco, most sold newspaper in Northeastern region, which was epicenter of the epidemic. The results evidenced the configuration of an environment of great uncertainty, related to three factors: scientific ignorance about the disease, characteristic association of science and risk on contemporary societies, and the environment of political crisis in Brazil. We observed that the rumors maintained ambiguous relation with scientific authority, sometimes contradicting it, sometimes seeking legitimation by mentioning institutions and specialists. Interdiscursive relationships were evidenced by citations of previous cases of scientific failures and arguments from antivaccine groups, besides memories of past epidemics, especially dengue outbreaks. Two main points fueled the circulation of rumors: the unexplained concentration of cases in the Northeast and the novelty of association with microcephaly, never registered before. The data collected also evidenced differences temporalities between science under construction, media hunger for news and population eager for pragmatic recommendations. Based on the results, our view is that virtual rumor emerges as characteristic element of an era of uncertainties, mediatization and elimination of hierarchy marks between ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’, in which science loses its status and the ’truth’ itself becomes more fluid, ‘post-truth’.

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Presentation type: Individual paper
Theme: Stories
Area of interest: Investigating science communication practices