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The Role of Affect in Misinformation Circulation

Early in the pandemic, a claim about a 'breath test' for self-diagnosis of Covid-19 was circulating on social media. Such messages were shared in multiple countries and were debunked by fact checking groups.

Last week we found this message circulating, yet again. This time with an eye grabbing animation to follow along, while one held their breath for ten seconds. (The misinformation label is super-imposed on original clip by Tattle)

While a lot has been said about the intention of misinformation peddlers, the sensory dimension of content circulation has received far less attention. Content creators rapidly adopt latest digital production tools to repackage old content in eye-grabbing GIFs/images/videos. The sensory appeal of these posts gives misinformation a new lease of life.

Kathinka Frøystad covers this extensively in her paper "Affective digital images: Shiva in the Kaaba and the smartphone revolution”. Her work though specific to devotional content has broader relevance for digital content sharing.

She writes about genres such as GIF animations which have "a particularly strong miraculous allure" and evoke wonder..."such wow effects are emotions that involve a strong impulse to act, often in ways that bypass critical reflection.” In context of devotional memes, the author writes "When such images popped up on people’s smartphone screens for the first time, it was virtually impossible not to miss a heartbeat and press ‘like’ or ‘share’ almost instantly”.

We tend to think about misinformation sharing with a problem-oriented perspective, ignoring that media consumption is a sensory experience. The attractiveness of a post can also be a reason for sharing it, causing  inadvertent harm.