Rumor, Suspicion, and Misinformation

28 July 2017

I’m sometimes shocked, as a researcher, at where my investigations lead.

In the course of revising a new paper on experience and belief in the supernatural (co-authored with Michiel van Elk of University of Amsterdam), I received some comments that referred us to a book on sorcery “beliefs” and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zimbabwe.

The referred-to book was Alexander Rödlach’s Witches, Westerners, and HIV: AIDS and Cultures of Blame in Africa. It was published in 2006. But its insights about rumor, suspicion, and misinformation are relevant today—not just for understanding Zimbabwe, where 1.4 million people still live with HIV, but also for understanding any epistemic environment, such as our own, that is becoming increasingly riddled with misinformation.

In the early 2000s, when Rödlach was doing his ethnographic research, contracting HIV in Zimbabwe was a death sentence. With the vast majority of HIV carriers having no access to appropriate medications, full-blown AIDS was inevitable. I’ll spare present readers the gruesome details about conditions under which poor Zimbabweans died from AIDS. But those wishing to know more should read Rödlach’s book.

Why did our commentator think that book was relevant to a paper about experience and supernatural belief?

In short, “beliefs” about AIDS in Zimbabwe—you’ll see in a moment why I use scare quotes—make for a powerful case study in how dire life circumstances can contribute to an environment of misinformation.

There basically are two ways that people explain (or try to explain) AIDS symptoms in Zimbabwe.

The first is the familiar one: AIDS follows from HIV, which is a virus that is spread predominantly through unprotected sex. Sexual promiscuity and intercourse with sex workers (an estimated 50-70% of whom in Zimbabwe are carriers) often lead to infection.

The second manner of explanation is roughly the following: the symptoms typically associated with AIDS (or even AIDS itself) are the product of sorcery—where sorcery means supernatural practices that almost anyone can use to inflict harm on another.

Rödlach had a hard time extracting the details of mooted sorcery practices from his informants, since seeming to know about sorcery might lead one to be accused of being a sorcerer. But two elements stood out. First, a sorcerer or witch might have an undofa, a humanoid spirit creature that lives in shadows and inflicts harm on people at his master’s or mistress’s command. A witch might send an undofa to give the disease to someone she resents. Second, various sorcery poisons can be used to inflict harm.

The relevant question is this: why would anyone believe any of these strange things, when a perfectly good and comprehensive scientific explanation of HIV/AIDS is available?

The first thing to note is that in many cases, “belief” is not exactly the right word. A more common word in Rödlach’s book is “suspicion.” Most Zimbabweans are well familiar with medical explanations of HIV/AIDS. Yet pervasively, usually without feeling sure that sorcery is to blame, the presence of the sorcery cultural narrative leads people to suspect magical foul play. Of course, one might use the word “belief” loosely to include such suspicions, but such usage would conflate two cognitive attitudes that are in fact distinct: ordinary factual belief vs. murky suspicion.

Suspicion is dangerous. It has a low epistemic bar—one doesn’t need much or even any evidence to form a suspicion. Yet suspicions can be practically debilitating: they lead to behaviors that gobble up resources and get in the way of other behaviors that would be helpful. Suspicions stultify. Just suspecting that AIDS comes from sorcery lowers enthusiasm for proper means of prevention, like testing, condom distribution, and abstaining or practicing safe sex.

The fact that ideas about AIDS and sorcery mostly operate at the level of suspicion makes them spread easily. Another reason they spread is that these suspicions can be used for strategic social purposes. Accusations of sorcery have damaging effects on people’s lives, ruining reputations and making them increasingly shunned. So the possibility that someone might accuse another person of sorcery can pressure that person into, say, giving money to the potential accuser. All the accuser has to do is create a suspicion and the damage is done. In a healthier epistemic environment, such sorcery accusations would be laughed at, but in Zimbabwe they are terrifying.

Finally—for purposes of this blog—Rödlach found that people were more likely to take the idea of sorcery seriously once they had full-blown AIDS themselves. The psychology behind this fact is murky. But it two factors seem relevant. First, blaming a sorcerer is a way of not acknowledging one’s own sexual misconduct; AIDS is a source of shame, and hence clinging to ideas that obscure the nature of the disease is a way of avoiding shame. Second, since AIDS is an inevitable death sentence (given the general lack of medication in Zimbabwe), acknowledging the medical facts means acknowledging there is basically nothing one can do. It means giving up control over one’s fate. On the other hand, if one clings to the idea that sorcery is the cause of illness, then it seems that one still has some control. Unlike medical inevitabilities, sorcery can be combatted. So the sheer desperation of late-stage AIDS leads people to cling to ideas of sorcery.

What general lessons are there in all this? Extrapolating from Zimbabwe to other contexts is speculative. Nevertheless, I think Rödlach’s book is fascinating because he’s highlighting extreme examples of epistemic weaknesses that occur in less pronounced ways around the world. The lessons are these. Suspicion is an easy way to degrade a society’s informational environment, and once unleashed, it takes on a life of its own. Next, a culture of widespread suspicion facilitates social manipulation through the spreading of more misinformation: this becomes a vicious feedback loop. And last, personal, bodily desperation makes people increasingly susceptible to false narratives. Zimbabwe is still trying to recover.