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How Narratives About Vitamin C as COVID-19 Cure Moved From the Fringe to the Mainstream

Apr 20, 2020

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We can all agree that we are in uncertain times as people, families, medical systems and businesses try to take care of their communities and find new ways to sustain themselves. If it felt like people were hyper connected before the pandemic, our current socially distant reality has us turning to our virtual social networks, channels, and platforms more than ever before.

Total messaging on the Facebook platform (Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp) was up by more than 50% over last month. Source: Facebook

Twitter’s daily usage has jumped by 23% this year. Source: Reuters

We refer to these times as “uncertain” because no one — not even the experts — have all the answers. In lieu of clarity and definitive information, hypotheses are made, experts are questioned and the loudest voices are sometimes seen as the authority. The perfect opportunity is being presented to feed perspectives and agendas into the social web megaphone. And, it’s working.

A recent Yonder study found that narratives from agenda-driven groups have been traveling over 10x faster during the COVID-19 pandemic than in more stable times preceding it. Click to download the report.

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When the public lacks information, the mainstream conversation is primed for conspiracy theories, rumors, or panic-inciting narratives. Hyperactive, passionate, like-minded groups online (called factions), use a growing list of tactics to move their narrative from small fringe sites and message boards to niche media and highly connected social media users to spread their ideas and perspectives to the mainstream.

As reported in TechCrunch, we see narratives make these leaps towards more and more mainstream outlets over 6-8 months. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Yonder has seen many narratives go viral in 3-14 days.

In our tools, we can both be alerted when a new narrative is beginning to trend and be able to trace the faction-by-faction leaps a narrative took to the mainstream. We joke that our work is like “infodemiology” as we track how information spreads within and between subcultures.

Vitamin C as a Cure for COVID-19

One recent narrative that spread especially quickly is in regard to Vitamin C usage as a cure for COVID-19 (click to download the report). It’s just one such hypothesized cure we’ve seen swirling with non-mainstream factions. In tracing the fingerprint of this recent narrative, we found that some of the earliest most influential posts began with fringe groups on 4chan.

Throughout February, it leapt across groups with broader connections and ties to niche media outlets (Conservative Populists and Anti-Vaxxers), gathering traction and getting more voices heralding the treatment. Then, a major news outlet went public the first week of March challenging the thinking. The early factions continued their messaging campaign, while we then saw new groups join the conversation (Pro-Vaccination Advocates and Blue Wave), challenging the hypotheses and amplifying the conversation dramatically.

As consumers, we are empowered to determine our own perspective on topics like this, but it’s getting harder and harder to determine what information we want to use to drive our decision-making. For our customers, this intelligence, coupled with insights on how these narratives intersect with their own brand, creates the ability to know what’s real, what’s not and what matters to them most.

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We hope that sharing more generalized insights like these may also help general consumers better understand where information is coming from as we all try to navigate what is certainly a new normal!

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