Stretching the criminological imagination: an account from my research on information pollution
To be awarded the ESC Early Career Award has been a true honour, not only for the academic recognition of my work, but also because this award came at a time when I was wondering (and, at times, wandering) about how to position my work within criminology, with some of my more recent research projects and publications evolving into interdisciplinary scholarship and finding a ‘home’ within and beyond criminology – and with some struggles, as they were at times considered by reviewers to be too in between disciplines. As such, there is a sense of relief in being reminded that I belong to my primary academic community, the one that has welcomed me since the early days of my PhD studies.
I have always considered myself a curiosity-driven researcher, and since my PhD I found myself working on a range of topics, mostly pivoting around the challenges and opportunities posed by cyberspace. In some cases, I have worked within clear criminological boundaries (e.g., online drug trafficking, organised crime’s presence online, internet-facilitated wildlife trafficking), but more and more I have been drawn into some of those grey areas where a crime might not be present, even deviancy might be difficult to identify, but nonetheless we can see the clear presence of social harms, of various types. My latest work on the propagation of polluted information online can certainly be placed in one of those grey areas.
This is a research agenda that I started in early 2015, thanks to some funding I was awarded at the University of Southampton to carry out interdisciplinary work on (potentially) harmful non-science-based medical information, which gave me the chance – among other things – to create a space for discussion with health psychologists, doctors, health sociologists, fraud experts, debunkers, and even some practitioners in alternative medicine. The complexity of the topic at stake and the potential of criminology to contribute to the field soon became clear, particularly since I become aware that my understanding of cybercrimes and my methodological tools could be put to good use to investigate its online dimension. It was also clear that regardless of my willingness to approach this puzzle from a criminological perspective, I really could not avoid engaging with colleagues from other disciplines.
Yet, as a criminologist I felt I could provide an original contribution to the discussion. With very few exceptions, criminologists have mostly overlooked harmful non-science-based medical information as a topic of investigation, both as regards some unquestionably illegal practices (for instance some cases of health frauds) and, more in general, the potentially negative impact of these practices on vulnerable individuals even when they do not clearly meet the legal threshold of criminality. Nonetheless these practices deserve a fully-fledged place in the wide constellation of perspectives constitutive of the criminological imagination. Specifically, I have argued in my work that such practices are perfect candidates to be considered through the social harm lens, an approach that is particularly promising when there is a misalignment between criminal law and harmful (or potentially harmful) antisocial behaviours. Or where some or the harms might be hidden.
Since 2015, I have investigated non-science-based health information and related topics from different angles and methodological approaches; the pandemic, of course, added a new perspective to this endeavour. To exemplify some of my recent research on this topic, I will focus briefly on a book I recently published, Information Pollution as Social Harm: Investigating the Digital Drift of Medical Misinformation in a Time of Crisis (Emerald, 2021), based on a virtual ethnography I carried out throughout 2020 in self-identifying alternative lifestyle and counterinformation Italian-speaking online communities, which was complemented by a small number of narrative interviews with providers and propagators of polluted health-related information.
As I am sure you all have noticed, in the unfolding of the pandemic, a flurry of information has been published and widely disseminated, building up a pile of relevant knowledge alongside equivocal or deceiving news. Many words have been used (e.g., ‘infodemic’), which I personally do not like as they compare the spread of ‘bad’ information to a virulent, uncontrolled and contagious disease. But receivers of information do not simply have a passive role as infected objects of an external agent: especially in and through cyberspace, many receivers are a productive audience. For these reasons, I prefer to use the notion of information pollution, a broader umbrella term that encompasses misinformation (when false information is shared, but no harm is meant), disinformation (when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm), and malinformation (when genuine information is shared to cause harm).
I want to stress once more that only a minority of the behaviours encountered in this study can be easily considered as ‘deviant’ (if only because that would imply a sufficient level of societal consensus around science-based approaches or at least around a recognized ‘value’ of science in our societies), and only very few of these behaviours are (potentially) illegal. Furthermore, in cyberspace, and especially in the context of some social media networks, certain behaviours that would be probably deemed (at least borderline) deviant offline suddenly become prevalent among specific populations, making it particularly hard to classify them as ‘against the norm’. Nonetheless, because of the (potential or actual) harm to which they can contribute, I think that theories of deviance can offer valuable insights for unpacking important behavioural dynamics. Theoretically, the study I am introducing to you here, which was elaborated in my aforementioned book on information pollution, integrates socialization approaches (and specifically the recent adaptation of Matza’s ideas with the ‘digital drift’ concept) with cultural approaches. Starting from the premise that health-related polluted information can create social harms, even if some behaviours are not criminal or deviant, their normalization and promotion can be problematic. Hence, with my study I aimed to better understand how certain forms of online problematic socialization take place and are maintained, looking not only at the individual level but also at the broader cultural ingroup/outgroup (meso)level.
The actors encountered in the study were categorized as providers (those actively involved in offering non-science-based health approaches), supporters/propagators (those who proactively supported one or more providers, becoming an important source of polluted information), and receivers/utilizers (those who belonged to a certain online group but mainly as bystanders, or participate in a very limited role). In this short contribution, there is certainly no space to cover this typology in detail. I can only hint at how, through the research, a drift mechanism through which these actors ‘escalate’ in promoting and creating polluted information was observed. How does the drift mechanism operate? If we place the extent of digital drift along a continuum, the different categories of actors mentioned above will be progressively placed in different parts of it; the further they are positioned along the continuum, the more their presence in online health-related discourses shapes their identity. Advancement through the continuum is generally prompted by a catalyst event, that pushes or pulls individuals further, changing the equilibria in the drift.
Users are pulled towards the drift, and (individual and group) identities are shaped, by a series of conspiratorial and epistemic ideations and converging narratives. In this short write-up, I can only briefly note how conspiratorial thinking thrives in situations when people’s need to feel safe and secure in their world and to exert control over their existence are threatened, as it helps individuals’ feelings of agency and power. Additionally, when group members experience relative deprivation or competitive victimhood and end up believing that their ingroup is not given the same opportunities as the outgroup, or that their ingroup has endured more suffering and injustice than the outgroup, conspiracy belief can find a solid basis to grow. Conspiracy theories are generally the result of a multi-biased information-seeking process, challenging the epistemic authority of modern science through alternative and experiential knowledge-building process where initial opinions, beliefs or even self-diagnosis are confirmed and strengthened by communal peer-reinforcement. As such, to understand why the pandemic provided such a fertile soil to conspiracy beliefs, it is important to look at individual and group attitudes and behaviours, and the role of epistemic mistrust.
As regards the converging narratives, in the course of the study it was possible to document a number of themes and frames that were independently pushing diverse – but compatible – discourses, facilitating socialization with what appeared to be perceived as like-minded people by structuring intragroup attitudes and beliefs, but also facilitating their engagement with a larger audience. In the book, I categorized emerging narratives into those themes and frames informing ‘narratives of the self’ and pivoting around the image of themselves that the participants observed wanted to project to others and which are at the basis of their online socialization. I also categorized a number of ‘agency and empowerment’ narratives, and these were those that responded in a subtler way to participants’ use of the social media groups to find not only support and reassurance among like-minded people, but also a sense of agency, of control over their lives. Overall, the study highlighted how online interactions at the basis of health-related information pollution become a key tool allowing the agential self to further practices of freedom, ethics of self-care, and a self-oriented morality. This latter aspect cannot be overlooked if we want to understand why certain polluted information is popular and successful: the narratives offered in our networks of interest are not only persuasive, but they are restorative to some, enabling some participants to find a renewed sense of the self and purpose.
The analysis of the main characteristics and roles of providers, supporters and receivers, and of how they build their identities and systems of beliefs through their different drifting in and out medical misinformation, shed light on core online socialization mechanisms informing the propagation and success of some dangerous health-related beliefs, including those we experienced during the pandemic. This can hopefully have some practical implications, for instance, to help develop better designed, framed and targeted science-based information and public health-related communication, to create a bridge to effectively communicate with those drifting more and more into polluted information. Of course, as is the case with other online harms, there is no single best strategy for the control or prevention of polluted information online: in order for proper immunization and healing to occur, a sustained, concerted and multi-layered effort between a wide range of institutions, individual actors and the technological sector is needed. But the social sciences – and criminology as a social science – can have an important role in this. It has been claimed that, nowadays, social scientists are probably not the main actors in studying society and defining the nature itself of social knowledge, and similarly criminologists are not the only or possibly the main actors studying crime, deviance, and social harms. Nonetheless, we still have the subject-knowledge, critical skills, and methodological tools that are still of great value in unpacking social, behavioural and organizational dynamics.
From the very condensed overview of the study presented above, it should be clear to the reader that it was mostly grounded in socio-criminological literature, especially in that body of literature that in some countries would be defined as the sociology of deviance. Nonetheless, key insight came from disciplines such as health and social psychology, science communication, science and technology studies, and even moral philosophy. Other recent studies carried out as part of the same research agenda received great input from colleagues in web science. As stressed at the beginning of this contribution, the topic of health-related polluted information is not a traditional or mainstream criminological one. I have argued, however, that colleagues from the social sciences and specifically criminology should consider it within their ‘academic jurisdiction’, in light of the social harms it can allow – even if this means stretching, and looking beyond, some strict disciplinary boundaries.
In this process, however, there is a lot we can learn from colleagues from other disciplines, and that we can offer them: moving beyond disciplinary boundaries allows to look at research problems from different perspectives, and possibly to mitigate oversights and biases. Unfortunately, even when investigating complex, multifaceted social issues, most of us operate in disciplinary contexts that continue to be often limited by unhinged frames, embedded in education and research systems that mostly are based on, and often reward (in publications, or more generally in career advancement) strict disciplinary boundaries. Even if, especially in recent years, interdisciplinarity has become a buzzword in many research endeavours, and at least in some countries it has received increased attention, the potential of interdisciplinary research is not always recognized, or sustained. Collaboration, and when possible, integration of multiple disciplines, of course, is not an easy task, as they come with different epistemologies, traditions, and languages. But being more open towards these endeavours might be the best way for criminology to maintain its relevance when facing some of our contemporary challenges. Afterall, in the end, criminology has an intrinsic multidisciplinary history and great adaptive potential.