Monitoring Digital Viruses Can Lead to Public Anxiety


kk-profile-picture-2013The perceived threat of a virus attacking a computer can keep users in a constant state of anxiety, according to Dr. Kim Knight, assistant professor of Emerging Media and Communication.

In her latest article, Knight contends that a preoccupation with living in a virus-free digital world affects how users behave online and offline.

Knight said that when people want to avoid a disaster — like a flu outbreak — from reoccurring, they try to identify and address all future scenarios to quash that possibility.

It’s a concept known as “premediation,” which was originated by new media scholar Richard Grusin as a way to explain social attitudes following the Sept. 11 attacks and the subsequent rise in security measures.

“I think Grusin would argue that premediation is a collective experience that has individual effects because it is so often prompted by media and the way it handles things,” Knight said. “The thing that’s most pernicious about premediation is not whether or not these predictions come true, it’s how it affects people’s behavior in the present.”

Knight studied the concept in the context of various epidemiological apps such as Google’s Flu Trends, FluNearYou and Sickweather, which track the spread of illness on a regional level using crowdsourced data from users or mentions of illness on social media.

While these digital tools exist to help mitigate anxieties over viruses, Knight said they can still be a source of “premediative” behavior. By constantly requiring new information and requesting updates from users, the software acts as a feedback loop, always reminding users of the possibility of infection.

“In the rhetoric used on their websites, these apps suggest that to be a good citizen is to report,” she said. “So, they position it as something very attractive; you’re joining a movement to take control of your own health. These sorts of arguments are very persuasive in making you feel like you’re doing something for the public good.”

Antivirus software works in a similar fashion; while the technology exists to stop the reproduction of computer viruses, users are still reminded of its presence through required updates and reminders.

For users who opt out of antivirus software, there is still a culture of required safe computer usage, she said.

“That anxiety becomes a persuasive mechanism to help people overcome what might be privacy concerns and other conflicts,” Knight said. “The idea that these apps prevent you from getting sick encourages you to share your location and to make these self-reports about your health, which can actually be inaccurate.”

Internet users and people who use illness tracking apps are threatened by the possibility of a virus, and they’re willing to share computing information with antiviral technologies to assuage their anxiety. Knight said this allows valuable data to be farmed by these technologies.

Because the user surrenders ownership, the data can and will be exploited, she said. For Knight personally, the minimal public health benefits do not outweigh the privacy concerns.

Read the entire article at electronic book review, a peer-reviewed journal focused on the arts, sciences and humanities through the lens of emerging digital media.