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The Forsythia-Industrial Complex

In Steven Soderbergh’s newly rediscovered 2011 film Contagion, a hypothetical novel virus called MEV-1 causes a global pandemic, which has to be stopped by the film’s protagonists, epidemiologists working for the Centers for Disease Control.

While the film contains all sorts of exposition sequences that are legitimately educational about the nature and spread of airborne viruses, the real nugget of gold in the film is in its main subplot. Jude Law plays Alan Krumwiede, an Alex Jones-type conspiracy entrepreneur. He spends his days chasing down sensational stories and posting ranting videos on his website, “Truth Serum”.

Despite the contemporary irrelevance of the “blogosphere”, the Truth Serum subplot is as pertinent today as it was in 2011. In many ways, its implications are more frightening now than ever. In 2011, algorithm-driven social media sites did not have the same preponderance over the information environment that they enjoy today.

Studies indicate that media consumption patterns have changed rapidly over the last decade. While internet-based news consumption was wide-spread by 2011, there were two key differences with the information environment of today. Firstly, online news consumption skewed young. Today, American adults of all ages consume much if not most of their news online. Secondly, news items spread via a number of media, including email chains and blogs. The dynamics of email and blogs as media are fundamentally different from algorithm-driven platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Blog followings and email chains are linear — a person recommends a blog or forwards an email to certain people at their own discretion. Information from these media therefore spreads less virally than content on algorithmic sites. In fact, the entire concept of “virality” essentially cannot exist without the engagement-based recommendations and news feed algorithms behind our now-dominant social media machines.

In the second and third acts of the film (*spoilers*, sorry), Krumwiede begins pushing a homeopathic cure, Forsythia, on his website and eventually on TV. He posts a series of videos on Truth Serum in which he has apparently caught the MEV-1 virus, and nurses himself back to health by using the substance. His endorsement of the drug to his loyal followers causes desperate Americans to loot pharmacies in search of Forsythia. Krumwiede is eventually arrested, and after an antibodies test reveals he never actually had the virus, he is charged with fraud. By this time, he’s moved from Forsythia to anti-vaccination, claiming the CDC and WHO are “in bed” with big pharma, and that’s why they’re trying to vaccinate the entire population. He ends the film urging his millions of loyal online followers not to take the crucial MEV-1 vaccine being produced by American and French pharmaceutical companies.

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Forsythia today

While the Forsythia subplot serves as a slight diversion from our main protagonists’ investigations and research, it has turned out to be the part of the movie that holds up best in light of our current novel coronavirus pandemic. Of course, in its obvious resemblances to the hydroxycholorquine craze in the US and France. But more worryingly, it’s become obvious that our contemporary information environment is more vulnerable to the Krumwiedes of the world now than it would have been in 2011.

American author and critic Kurt Andersen’s 2017 book Fantasyland argues that the viral, platform-based contemporary Internet is the crucial focal point of our conspiracy-laden politics. Common criticisms of modern social and online media focus on its tendency to create self-reinforcing echo chambers where individuals are only exposed to information that bolsters their existing views. Andersen takes this idea further and turns it on its head, arguing that social media causes the cross-pollination of information silos that would otherwise have remained separate.

This phenomenon is evident in the fact that believing in one conspiracy theory exponentially increases the likelihood you’ll believe in others. In the days before mass access to the internet, an individual with an easily-debunked belief would have been relatively isolated, they can now connect with other like-minded individuals across the globe. Anti-vaxxers can virtually intermingle with chemtrails theorists, 9/11 truthers, and anti-semites. Without this cross-pollination, expansive crowd-sourced conspiracy narratives like Q-Anon would simply not be possible.

In Contagion’s 2011-based universe, Krumwiede is a lone crusader, harrasing reporters and officials, pushing his homeopathic scams, and broadcasting to millions from a webcam as a one-man information army. In 2020, there is a whole parallel information ecosystem across several internet platforms where conspiracy theorists, activists, influence bots, grifters, and extremists can exchange and reinforce each others’ beliefs. Today, Krumwiede would be one of thousands of viral content creators “flooding the zone” with conspiracies, untruths, partial truths, and unverified and misleading claims.

Imagining better media bubbles

Could the Internet become a less toxic place? Maybe, but it’s a difficult problem. In a November 2019 interview with Vox, tech entrepreneur Anil Dash reminisces for “the Internet we lost” with the rise of the social media giants. He points out the weaknesses in “free speech” arguments made by Zuckerberg and other tech moguls, arguing that free discourse can exist without virality and engagement metrics. He says that a “trust network” model that looks more like the blogosphere of the 90s and 00s is perhaps more conducive to civil discourse than our platform-centric information environment today. Bloggers, like TV anchors or op-ed columnists, have to slowly gain the trust of their audience over time. Without virality’s constant interruptions, a stronger bond forms between content producer and content consumer, leaving less room for loud interlopers with wild claims to wedge their way into the discourse.

The issue with this concept is that, in a trust network model, aforementioned trusted information sources are difficult to dislodge once their network has been established. A new video “owning” the old champion relies on virality to dethrone the incumbent, and requires on a news feed or recommendations algorithm to find its way into the incumbent’s audience’s media diet. While the kind of decentralized trust network Dash and other ex-bloggers are nostalgic for would perhaps address the problems of influence bots, viral information blitzes, and other issues caused by engagement-based algorithmic media, it could also exacerbate the silo-ization of our information environment by entrenching a certain set of existing sources.

Jackson Webster

Jackson Webster

Jackson is Wonk Bridge's social media critic and resident Luddite, based in Los Angeles. His writing discusses the effects of social media on the political and cultural space. He is, unfortunately, very online, and can be found @joliverwebster on Twitter.