Arguing on Facebook about COVID: a case study of key beliefs, rationales and strategies

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, social media platforms have become well-known for both disseminating misinformation and conspiracy theories as well as acting as valuable information sources concerning the novel coronavirus and governments’ efforts to manage and contain COVID. Facebook in particular – the world’s most popular social media site – has been singled out as a key platform for naysayers such as anti-vaccination exponents and ‘sovereign citizens’ to express their resentment at containment measures such as lockdowns, quarantine and self-isolation regulations, vaccination mandates and face-covering rules.

What rationales and beliefs underpin these arguments? How and to what extent are they contested or debated on Facebook? What rhetorical strategies are employed by commentators to attempt to persuade others that their views/facts are correct?

To explore these questions, I chose a case study of a short video (2 minutes 5 seconds long) shared by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Facebook on 19 February 2022. I came across the video three days after it was published on the platform as part of my routine Facebook use. It turned up in my feed because a Facebook friend of mine had shared it (which it how the average Facebook user is presented with content from organisations like WHO if they don’t follow these accounts themselves.) I noticed how much engagement this post had received in those three days. There were 6,000 reactions: including 5k likes but also 551 laughing face emojis (suggesting viewers found the video content risible), 1.2k comments, 2.2k shares and 244k views. I decided to delve into the comments thread to see what people were saying in response to the video.

WHO’s official Facebook page has a huge follower base: at the time that I viewed this video, their page listed over 14 million likes and over 38 million followers. It is clearly a highly trusted Facebook presence. Many of its posts have thousands of reactions (the use of emojis to respond to posts), likes, comments and shares. WHO shares content at least once a day and often more frequently: most of this content is made by WHO itself in its role to communicate preventive health messages globally. In reviewing their latest content, it is evident that WHO has a very busy and accomplished team making their social media content.

The video featured two WHO experts: Dr Mike Ryan (pictured above from the opening section of the video) and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, both of whom feature regularly in WHO’s social media content. Ryan was introduced in a caption as ‘ED, WHO Health Emergencies Programme’ and Van Kerkhove as ‘COVID-19 technical lead, WHO Health Emergencies Programme’.

In this video, both people spoke to camera as if to an unseen interviewer, explaining why they were concerned about governments beginning to loosen COVID restrictions too quickly.

The written introduction to the video stated:

Some countries are lifting all public health and social measures despite high numbers of COVID-19 cases/deaths. Dr Mike Ryan and Dr Maria Van Kerkhove explain why a slow approach is better.

Ryan and Van Kerkhove went on to use simple English to acknowledge that there is a strong desire on the part of governments and citizens to ‘open up’ and remove all COVID restrictions and ‘go back to normal’. They warn, however, that such actions could lead to the pandemic continuing ‘much longer than it needs to be’ due to ‘the political pressure to open up’ in ‘some situations’, and that replacing abandoned control measures would be difficult if a new variant emerged. Ryan and Van Kerkhove emphasise the importance of ‘a slow, step-wise approach’ to lifting COVID restrictions rather than an ‘all-or-nothing approach’ that ‘many countries’ are adopting at this point in the COVID crisis.

Both speakers are careful not to single out individual leaders or governments for criticism in these quite vague statements, leaving it up to the viewer to make a judgement about exactly to which ‘situation’ they are referring. These experts also ‘acknowledge uncertainty’ and that their concerns may be unfounded but emphasise the need for caution. They note that they do not ‘blame anyone’ for feeling confused, given the continual flux in governments’ COVID measures. Van Kerkhove ends by stating firmly that ‘you [the video viewers] have control over this’ regardless of government actions and then Ryan chimes in by asking ‘every individual just to look at your situation’ and ‘be smart, protect yourself, protect others, get vaccinated and just be safe and careful’.

There’s a lot that could be said about the statements made by these two WHO experts in this video: the veiled critique of ‘many countries” government actions and health communication efforts, the focus on individual responsibility in the face of government inaction and lack of responsibility. But I wanted to direct my attention to the more than 1,000 comments Facebook users wrote in response to this video.

I noticed first that comments came from all over the world – evidence again of the global reach and popularity of Facebook. When commentors were responding to each other, therefore, there were many examples of someone in Asia, South America or Africa engaging with Facebook users located in the USA, Australia, Canada, Europe or the UK.

Another observation was that a vigorous debate was occurring in the comments section, with supporters of the video’s messages seeking to argue with those who decried what they saw as an overly cautious or even unscientific argument from the WHO experts. Those who did not support the WHO’s points made such arguments as (my paraphrasing):

  • opening up will help the economy – people need jobs
  • people’s lives need to get back to ‘normal’
  • most populations are now adequately vaccinated, so there is no need for further restrictions
  • governments are lying to their citizens and spreading false information as a way of exerting greater control over them
  • the novel coronavirus does not exist and nor does COVID
  • it is risk to one’s health to wear masks for prolonged periods of time
  • other health conditions kill more people than COVID
  • COVID mass testing and mass vaccination have been conducted as a profit-making enterprise serving Big Pharma and governments
  • WHO’s facts are wrong and they are spreading lies and fear, trying to promote their own interests for political purposes
  • WHO has shown little leadership during the pandemic and is ineffectual
  • face masks give a false sense of security and are useless as a preventive measure
  • people who follow government restrictions are being controlled and can’t think for themselves
  • the pandemic has been going on for two years and governments and health agencies like WHO are still not controlling it adequately
  • the person commenting does not like to feel forced to do anything by government authorities, especially if restrictions/mandates do not help the situation (in their view) – ‘my body, my choice’
  • even vaccinated people can still become infected with or transmit the coronavirus, fall ill or die of COVID – they are therefore pointless
  • COVID is ‘real’ but controllable like influenza or no worse than the common cold
  • governments who continue to impose restrictions/mandates are ‘Socialist’
  • people’s immune systems can be strengthened without vaccines due to basic health promoting strategies
  • people are dying from being given too many COVID vaccines (including children), not from the disease itself
  • vaccines are ‘bioweapons’
  • the medical establishment and the government are forcing COVID vaccines on people and hiding evidence of their serious side-effects
  • there is a difference between ‘dying with COVID’ and ‘dying from COVID’ – governments and health agencies are deliberately obscuring this
  • people need to be freed from living in fear
  • scientists and medical experts are controlled by governments to serve political agendas
  • ‘commonsense’ practices such as eating a healthy diet, taking Vitamin D and washing hands regularly will adequately protect against COVID

People who supported the points made by the WHO experts in the video tended to be reactive in their comments, responding to the naysayers using such rationales as:

  • COVID is a real threat and has killed many people – we still need to be cautious to protect ourselves and others
  • even though the situation seems to be improving in many countries, new variants could emerge that could pose major challenges
  • scientific and medical knowledge and expertise should be trusted over other information sources
  • many people are still dying
  • opening up too quickly will lead to many more deaths globally
  • vaccines do protect against serious disease and death and everyone should accept them: the benefits outweigh any risk
  • face masks are important protective agents against infection (just as shoes, for example, protect against foot injuries)
  • people who don’t want to conform to COVID restrictions/mandates are being selfish and don’t understand the importance of self-sacrifice to protect others
  • wearing face masks and getting vaccinated are small sacrifices to make for the greater good and saving others’ lives as well as self-protection
  • economies are damaged if too many workers become ill from COVID and can’t go to work
  • the person commenting still feels at high risk from COVID and is happy to continue to engage in preventive measures such as wearing masks and accepting vaccination
  • young children have not yet been protected by COVID vaccination in many countries and therefore are vulnerable to infection
  • mass vaccination programs have worked well globally to protect people against other serious diseases, such as polio
  • people who support dropping all restrictions are engaging in magical thinking or do not want to face reality
  • low income countries do not have enough medical support to help people who become ill with COVID
  • countries should work together in a global response to COVID rather than simply pursing nationalistic interests

Rhetorical strategies on the part of both ‘sides’ of the argument included:

  • giving examples from their own lives/health (e.g. they had avoided COVID because of wearing face masks and getting vaccinated or they avoided COVID because their immune systems were naturally strong and not weakened by vaccines)
  • describing the situations of people they knew personally (e.g. those who died from COVID vaccines or those who died because they refused COVID vaccines)
  • urging people to ‘do their research’ or ‘due diligence’ and not just rely on television, social media or what their friends tell them
  • accusing those who are disagreeing with them of ‘lying’, ‘making up facts to suit their agenda’, as ‘stupid’ or simply gullible (to either misinformation or in believing the science)
  • providing hyperlinks to articles or blog posts outside of Facebook to support their claims and urging others to read them as part of educating themselves about the ‘facts’
  • claiming ‘truth’ in response to ‘non-truths’, ‘lies’ or ‘fake news’
  • contrasting the value of all human lives versus the value of individual freedom
  • the use of large numbers to support the validity of the arguments

As just one example of a pithy exchange between two commentators:

Commentator 1: We can’t stop living.

Commentator 2: 900,000 Americans have.

These findings demonstrate the kinds of beliefs and rationales underpinning Facebook users’ concepts of COVID risk and their attitudes towards COVID restrictions. Both sides received ardent support from others. Comments sometime descended into ad hominem attacks but most of the content was focused on presenting opinions or ‘facts’ and responding to these arguments with counter-claims. Most of the commentators attempted to act as educators, challenging the misinformation or extreme views put forward by the naysayers. Emotions ran high as people defended their position or accused others of stupidity, blindness to the truth or making up facts. Some extreme misinformation positions and conspiracy theories were advanced (e.g. ‘the holy blood of Jesus Christ is our only protection’) but many arguments concerned topics such as whether vaccines were necessary or effective (and how many there should be) or raised issues around the politics of COVID control.

The main insight from this single case study of COVID commentary in response to a peak health agency’s video posted to Facebook is that there was little evidence of an echo-chamber or filter bubble where only one main viewpoint was put foward. Instead, vigorous debate and contestation about ‘the truth’ went on in the comments section, suggesting an open forum for many opinions to be aired. However, it was also clear that people’s opinions or beliefs were not challenged in and through the debates or comments. Despite all the argumentation and presenting of examples from personal experience or hyperlinks to other material, no consensus or acceptance of other people’s opposing views was evident in these comment threads.

My 2021 publications

Books

Lupton, D., Southerton, C., Clark, M. and Watson, A. (2021) The Face Mask in COVID Times: A Sociocultural Analysis. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Edited books and special issues

Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (eds) (2021) The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge.

‘In and beyond the smart home’ special issue. Convergence (volume 27, issue 5), 2021.

Journal articles

Lupton, D. (2021) Young people’s use of digital health in the Global North: narrative review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, available online at https://www.jmir.org/2021/1/e18286/

Lupton, D. and Southerton, C. (2021) The thing-power of the Facebook assemblage: why do users stay on the platform? Journal of Sociology, 57(4), 969-985.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Not the real me’: social imaginaries of personal data profiling. Cultural Sociology, 15(1), 3-21.

Watson, A. and Lupton, D. (2021) Tactics, affects and agencies in digital privacy narratives: a story completion study. Online Information Review, 45(1), 138-156.

Watson, A., Lupton, D. and Michael, M. (2021) Enacting intimacy and sociality at a distance in the COVID-19 crisis: the sociomaterialities of home-based communication technologies. Media International Australia, 178(1), 136-150.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Things that matter’: poetic inquiry and more-than-human health literacy. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 13(2), 267-282.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘The internet both reassures and terrifies’: exploring the more-than-human worlds of health information using the story completion method. Medical Humanities, 47(1), 68-77.

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Next generation PE?’ A sociomaterial approach to digitised health and physical education. Sport, Education and Society, online first doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2021.1890570

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Sharing is caring’: Australian self-trackers’ concepts and practices of personal data sharing and privacy. Frontiers in Digital Health, 3(15). Available online at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fdgth.2021.649275/full

Lupton, D. and Lewis, S. (2021) Learning about COVID-19: a qualitative interview study of Australians’ use of information sources. BMC Public Health, available online at https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10743-7

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Honestly no, I’ve never looked at it’: teachers’ understandings and practices related to students’ personal data in digitised health and physical education. Learning, Media and Technology, 46(3), 281-293Hjorth, L. and Lupton, D. (2021) Digitised caring intimacies: more-than-human intergenerational care in Japan. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(4), 584-602.

Lupton, D. and Watson, A. (2021) Towards more-than-human digital data studies: developing research-creation methods. Qualitative Research, 21(4), 463-480.

Watson, A., Lupton, D. and Michael, M. (2021) The COVID digital home assemblage: transforming the home into a work space during the crisis. Convergence, 27(5), 1207-1221.

Downing, L., Marriott, H. and Lupton, D. (2021) ‘Ninja levels of focus’: therapeutic holding environments and the affective atmospheres of telepsychology during the COVID-19 pandemic. Emotion, Space & Society, 40. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emospa.2021.100824

Lupton, D. and Lewis, S. (2021) ‘The day everything changed’: Australians’ COVID-19 risk narratives. Journal of Risk Research, online first, doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2021.1958045

Clark, M. and Lupton, D. (2021) Pandemic fitness assemblages: the sociomaterialities and affective dimensions of exercising at home during the COVID-19 crisis. Convergence, 27(5), 1222-1237.

The Lancet and Financial Times Commission on governing health futures 2030: growing up in a digital world. Kickbusch, I., Piselli, D., Agrawal, A., Balicer, R., Banner, O., Adelhardt, M., Capobianco, E., Fabian, C., Singh Gill, A., Lupton, D., Medhora, R. P., Ndili, N., Ryś, A., Sambuli, N., Settle, D., Swaminathan, S., Morales, J. V., Wolpert, M., Wyckoff, A. W., Xue, L., Bytyqi, A., Franz, C., Gray, W., Holly, L., Neumann, M., Panda, L., Smith, R. D., Georges Stevens, E. A., & Wong, B. L. H. (2021) The Lancet and Financial Times Commission on governing health futures 2030: growing up in a digital world. The Lancet. Available online at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673621018249

Lupton, D. (2021) ‘All at the tap of a button’: mapping the food app landscape. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(6), 1360-1381.

Petrie, K., Deady, M., Lupton, D., Crawford, J., Boydell, K. and Harvey. S. (2021) ‘The hardest job I’ve ever done’: a qualitative exploration of the factors affecting junior doctors’ mental health and wellbeing during medical training in Australia. BMC Health Services. Available online at https://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12913-021-07381-5

Book chapters

Lupton, D. (2021) Self-tracking. In Kennerly, M., Frederick, S. and Abel, J.E. (eds), Information: Keywords. Columbia University Press, pp, 187-198.

Lupton, D. (2021) Afterword: future methods for digital food studies. In Leer, J. and Krogager, S.G.S. (eds), Research Methods in Digital Food Studies. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 222-227.

Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (2021) COVID Society: introduction to the book. In Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (eds), The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 3-13.

Lupton, D. (2021) Contextualising COVID-19. In Lupton, D. and Willis, K. (eds), The COVID-19 Crisis: Social Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 14-24.

Other publications

Lupton, D., Pink, S. and Horst, H. (2021) Living in, with and beyond the ‘smart home’: introduction to the special issue. Convergence, 27(5), 1147-1154.

Watson, A., Clark, M., Southerton, C. and Lupton, D. (2021) Fieldwork at your fingertips: creative methods for social research under lockdown. Nature Career Column, 3 March 2021. Available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00566-2

Lupton, D., Pink, S. and Horst, H. (2021) Living in, with and beyond the ‘smart home’: introduction to the special issue. Convergence, 27(5), 1147-1154.

Digital Food Cultures book now published

Digital Food Cultures cover

 

My latest book, Digital Food Cultures, co-edited with Zeena Feldman, has now been published with Routledge, as part of their Critical Food Studies Series. The abstracts and authors of each chapter are listed below. A book preview on Google Books is available here.

1. Understanding Digital Food Cultures: Deborah Lupton

This chapter introduces the book and provides a comprehensive overview of previous scholarship on digital food cultures. The five main themes into which the twelve other chapters are grouped are identified: bodies and affects; healthism and spirituality; expertise and influencers; spatiality and politics; and food futures.

2. Self-Tracking and Digital Food Cultures: Surveillance and Self-Representation of the Moral ‘Healthy’ Body: Rachael Kent

No longer defined in opposition to illness, ‘good’ health as representative of lifestyle correction has become a central discourse in international health promotion strategies for many decades.  This neoliberal discourse positions the citizen as a consumer, who self-regulates to make the ‘right’ ethical decisions in the management of individual self-care. Social media are key platforms to represent such ‘healthy’ lifestyles through the surveillance of food and consumption practices, as well as other health-related content. Through a critical discourse analysis of semi-structured interviews and guided reflexive diaries, this chapter explores how practices of food and health self-representation on Facebook and Instagram, and through the use of self-tracking apps, enable the performance of a moral ‘healthy’ body and identity, constructed by participants through carefully balanced inclusion and exclusion of ‘healthy’ and ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ or ‘cheat’ foods and lifestyles. The empirical findings explored both the qualitative and quantitative self-representations and practices of self-tracking in managing the body and health. Over time, however, the burdens of tracking health behaviours and the self-regulation promoted by these technologies tied health and lifestyle to ethical parameters of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours, influencing participants’ sense of wellbeing and mental health.

3. Carnivalesque Food Videos: Excess, Gender and Affect on YouTube: Deborah Lupton

Food-related content features highly on YouTube. Some genres of YouTube food videos go beyond ‘how-to-cook’ content by focusing on practices of excessive and transgressive preparation or consumption of food: or what I characterise as ‘carnivalesque’ food videos. In this chapter, I take up feminist new materialism theory to examine the ways in which these videos draw on gendered concepts of food and embodiment, and work to generate and circulate powerful affective forces. In my analysis, I present two case studies of carnivalesque food YouTube videos: the ‘cheat day’ videos created by fitness and nutrition influencer Stephanie Buttermore and the cooking videos that feature on the ‘bro’-style Epic Meal Time channel. I contend that the expression and appreciation of excessive food preparation or consumption in these videos offer a way for content creators and their audiences to express and celebrate their longing and desire to indulge in the fantasy of revelling in the sensory delights of forbidden food with no guilt or shame. Simultaneously, however, these videos reproduce sexualised stereotypes of hyper-femininities and hyper-masculinities and surface forceful affective undercurrents of anxiety and ambivalence concerning excessive or ‘wrong’ food consumption, revealing the fraught nature of contemporary digital food cultures.

4. You Are What You Instagram: Clean Eating and the Symbolic Representation of Food: Stephanie Alice Baker and Michael James Walsh

Food and dietary choices operate as a central mode of identification, a way to define the self in relation to what we consume. These modes of identity are increasingly communicated on Instagram, using digital photography to present the self visually online. In this chapter, we explore the meanings and discourses around ‘clean eating’ on social media. We perform visual content analysis of food images on Instagram to examine the social and cultural meanings of clean eating and food. Drawing upon and developing cultural approaches to social interaction, we employ the concept of the ‘affirmation ritual’ to understand how status and identity are established online. We argue that eating practices and preferences are displayed on Instagram to represent an ideal self to one’s social network. Despite the capacity for user-generated content to resist and reframe social identities, we contend that the curation of clean eating practices on Instagram reinforces the relationship between diet, status, gender and identity.

5. Healthism and Veganism: Discursive Constructions of Food and Health in an Online Vegan Community: Ellen Scott

The digital realm is a crucial site of discourse and meaning construction for vegans. Online forums are popular vegan spaces, where much discussion concerns the supposed health benefits of vegan diets. In this chapter, I take a cultural sociological perspective, which acknowledges food and health as symbolically embedded with significant cultural meanings. Discourses of food and health within a popular vegan discussion forum are analysed and found to significantly align with ‘healthism’, a moral imperative for health.

6. Working at Self and Wellness: A Critical Analysis of Vegan Vlogs: Virginia Braun and Sophie Carruthers

The idea of eating a particular restricted diet for personal health and wellbeing, or environmental, or ethical and/or religious/cultural reasons, has a long history. Recently, very restrictive eating approaches – such as paleo, clean, and raw diets – have gained traction in and beyond the west. The context for these differs quite radically from previous eras: digital and social media cultures and online modes of dissemination provide an accessible, potentially democratised space in which to present narratives of food, ‘healthy’ eating and the self. Veganism appears regularly in social media, but as a mode of restricted eating potentially occupies a different space. With an interest in the ontological, identity and socio-political work done around such ‘wellness diets,’ we analyse vegan vlogs on YouTube as a digital site of food meaning-making, demonstrating that popular producers – mostly white women – locate their practice primarily within health and wellness discourse, in contrast to more socio-political framings for veganism.

7. A Seat at the Table: Amateur Restaurant Review Bloggers and the Gastronomic Field: Morag Kobez

Digital media have enabled amateur food bloggers to make a significant contribution to the gastronomic field in recent decades. As a prominent subset of foodie culture, ‘serious leisure’ food bloggers construct public identities and participate extensively in the discourse around restaurant dining. This participation encroaches on the discursive territory previously occupied by a small number of elite professional food critics, creating a hierarchy of cultural intermediaries in a larger and more contested gastronomic field with diffuse boundaries. While amateurs continue to take cues from professional critics, evidence shows that they apply robust ethical standards in their work. Evidence also demonstrates that they are motivated by passion and enjoyment, rather than being driven by commercial considerations – despite assertions by professionals to the contrary. As such, they may be considered agents and cultural intermediaries in the gastronomic field, alongside professionals. This marks a profound transformation of the field brought about by the proliferation of online and digital media.

8. I See Your Expertise and Raise You Mine: Social Media Foodscapes and the Rise of the Celebrity Chef: Pia Rowe and Ellen Grady

In the post-truth era reflected in much of the contemporary media and political landscape, there has been a rise in the number of self-proclaimed health experts, utilising social media to promote their views. Anyone, regardless of their professional background, can occupy this space. As an example, some ‘celebrity chefs’ actively construct and mediate discourses about both ‘good food’ and who should be trusted as authorities on the topics of nutrition and health. While overtly appearing to promote good health, these experts can publicise potentially harmful messages, particularly when their influence in public health debates can surpass that of qualified health practitioners. Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans exemplifies this new development. Best known for his paleo diet advocacy, Evans repeatedly challenges the Australian Dietary Guidelines (NHMRC 2013), seeking to replace them with his own. Using illustrative examples from both Evans’ own Facebook posts, as well as from mainstream media coverage reporting on Evans over a one-year period around the publication of his controversial co-authored book Bubba Yum Yum, we examine the self-construction of expertise in the digital age and discuss the celebrity influencers’ role in the contemporary landscape of mediated food governance.

9. ‘Crazy for Carcass’: Sarah Wilson, Foodie-Waste Femininity, and Digital Whiteness: Maud Perrier and Elaine Swan

In this chapter, we examine the food waste blog posts of Sarah Wilson, an Australian anti sugar and domestic food waste avoidance author and campaigner. To date, feminist food studies and food waste studies have neglected the digital representations of food waste and femininity, and in particular, intersections with class, race and whiteness. Our analysis shows how Wilson constructs what we call a foodie-waste femininity that mobilises repertoires of white bourgeois control, discipline and purity through her visual and verbal texts on her blog and her response to a Mail Online article. We show the ways in which Wilson’s foodie waste persona and the scorn it generates is premised on the racialised and classed histories of hygiene and cleanliness and of leftovers as contagious and contaminated, rendering her foodie waste femininity as fragile and unstable.

10. Are You Local? Digital Inclusion in Participatory Foodscapes: Alana Mann

The local food movement is the target of considerable critique for its failure to include socially excluded groups and individuals who experience systemic barriers to food access in its activities and concerns. Digital applications promoting local food frequently mirror what Prody (2013) refers to as the ‘monocultural rhetoric’ of the movement, which ignores cultural and socioeconomic differences and ethical issues concerning local, and global, food production systems (see also Moore & Swisher, 2015). This chapter presents a case for digital platforms and practices that not only challenge popular local food framings that reflect middle-class values and proclivities but also address wider questions of food justice. I argue that while digital technologies accelerate the capacity of food-sharing ecosystems and other food distribution platforms to contribute to community building and social connectivity, they rarely incorporate the voices of the most food insecure who often experience severe and multiple disadvantage and social exclusion.  A better understanding of the relationship between digital and social exclusion can inform the development of technologies that build the capacity of food insecure individuals to develop connectedness and engage in the co-creation of participatory foodscapes in their communities.

11. Visioning Food and Community Through the Lens of Social Media: Karen Cross

Food consumption has long formed an important part of community making and this is apparent also within the development of digital food cultures. This chapter provides a specific case example of urban regeneration set within the region of South London, demonstrating how digital identities and practices infiltrate the market space. In the chapter, I reflect on some of the problems that arise in the popularising of alternative food networks and their role in the reconstruction of community-based forms of consumption. I interrogate in particular the urban investments of new networks and market spaces and consider how they impact on community-based food consumption. Reflecting on how the language and aesthetics of social media provide a new frame for ‘visioning’ food and community, my discussion also considers how network imaginaries contribute to local planning and policy-making strategies and the wider implications these have for the future of food and community.

12. Connected Eating: Servitising the Human Body through Digital Food Technologies: Suzan Boztepe and Martin Berg

Over the past few years, a new breed of digital food technologies has emerged. Utilising interconnected sensors, photo recognition, machine learning and artificial intelligence, these technologies provide so-called smart recommendations on eating right based on perceived individual needs. Using critical content analysis, this chapter analyses the ways in which three digital technology businesses present themselves and their offerings online. In so doing, we examine their marketing materials, such as websites, to unpack the underlying assumptions of their creators and the projected relationship between digital food technologies and healthy eating. The findings show that the business logic of digital food technologies induces servitisation of the human body through constant flow of food data. This logic favours and promotes an understanding of the human body as an entity that could be optimised through perceptively accurate nutritional data and standardised food. How this in turn prescribes highly personalised and controlled eating practices is discussed.

13. From Silicon Valley to Table: Solving Food Problems by Making Food Disappear: Markéta Dolejšová

From cooking, shopping, and growing to dining and dieting, digital technology has become a frequent companion of our day-to-day food practices. The diversity of products and services available on the food-tech market is broad, ranging from smart kitchenware to diet tracking apps and ‘biohacked’ food products. Investments in food-technology innovation are led by the corporate sector of Silicon Valley ‘foodpreneurs’ who started designing solutions for everyday food problems as well as complex food system issues. These food-tech solutions present opportunities for efficient food practices but also challenges to existing sociocultural frameworks of food production and consumption. In this chapter, I illustrate such contradictions through the example of Complete Foods — a powder-based food replacement originating from the Silicon Valley startup realm that enables quantified data-driven control over one’s diet. I discuss my three-year ethnographic study of the Complete Foods community and outline the risks and opportunities that the diet presents to day-to-day lives of its members. I frame my findings within the Silicon Valley food-tech innovation context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My publications in 2018

Books

  • Lupton, D. (2018) Fat (revised 2nd edition). London: Routledge.

Book chapters

  • Lupton, D. (2018) Lively data, social fitness and biovalue: the intersections of health self-tracking and social media. In Burgess, J., Marwick, A. and Poell, T. (eds), The Sage Handbook of Social Media. London: Sage, pp. 562-578.
  • Lupton, D. (2018) Digital health and health care. In Scambler, G. (ed), Sociology as Applied to Health and Medicine, 2nd Houndmills: Palgrave, pp. 277-290.
  • Lupton, D. and Smith, GJD. (2018) ‘A much better person’: the agential capacities of self-tracking practices. In Ajana, B. (ed), Metric Culture: Ontologies of Self-Tracking Practices. London: Emerald Publishing, pp. 57-75.
  • Lupton, D. (2018) 3D printing technologies: a third wave perspective. In Michael Filimowicz, M. and Tzankova, V. (eds), New Directions in Third Wave HCI (Volume 1, Technologies). Springer: London, pp. 89-104.

Journal articles

Encyclopedia entry

Fat 2nd edition now published

Fat second edition

 

The second edition of my book Fat has now been published, with a great new cover. This version is twice as long as the first edition. Each chapter has been revised and updated and there is a lot more material in the new edition on how digital material represents fat bodies (for example, memes, GIFs, YouTube, hashtags, selfies and social media platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram).

My author’s preface to the second edition is below. The link to the book on Google Books is here, which provides a preview of more content.

The first edition of Fat was completed in 2012, a time at which academic interest in understanding the discourses, practices and politics around fat bodies had been intensifying for some years. Several years later, this topic of study remains a fulcrum where various issues and controversies concerning identities and embodiment converge and intensify. To some extent, the panic about the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ has died down, perhaps due to the news media losing interest and other health issues receiving policy attention. Meanwhile, the views of fat activists have made greater ingress into public debates about obesity; if remaining subject to controversy or denial. Some of the topics I covered in the first edition have become more complex, with new research paying greater attention to the intersectoral aspects of fat embodiment: how social class, ethnicity or race, sexual identity, age and geographical location shape experiences. Further discussion has sparked up around the question of who can speak about or advocate for fat people or engage in critical analyses of obesity politics – must they be fat-identifying people or can others participate in these debates?

Since I wrote the first edition, as part of a turn towards the visual in popular culture, the representation of human bodies of all shapes and sizes have received greater levels of coverage in new digital media forums. These media offer many more opportunities for self-representation and for body positive and fat activists to draw attention to their causes. However, the fit and thin body continues to dominate in these forums as the ideal body type, often around the ‘fitspiration’ label. Social media allow the vilification and stigmatizing of fat people to intensify and be more easily distributed to ever-larger audiences. New digital media and devices promote a culture of intensified self-monitoring and measuring of bodies, and comparing them against norms. Many more apps and wearable devices have come onto the market, aimed at encouraging and helping people to count calories and track their physical activity and body weight in the interests of conforming to these ideals. These media, therefore, have made bodies of all sizes ever-more visible and subject to private monitoring and public display. These issues and topics all receive attention in this second revised edition.

 

Talks in Europe, November 2017

I am visiting Europe to give several talks in early November. Details are as follows:

Wednesday 1 November: Keynote presentation at the ‘Emotion and Affect in Dataified Worlds’ workshop, Helsinki, Finland.

Friday 3 November: Opening presentation with our Wellcome Trust grant research team at the ‘Researching Young People and Digital Health Technologies’ symposium we have organised, Manchester, UK (details here).

Monday 6 November:  Invited public lecture at the ‘Digital Health’ workshop, Malmo, Sweden.

Tuesday 7 November: Invited presentation at the ‘Challenges of Digital Health’ workshop, Orebro, Sweden.

Friday 10 November: Keynote at the ‘Monitoring the Self: Negotiating Technologies of Health, Identity and Governance’ conference, Helsinki, Finland (details here).

The senses and digital health

I have edited a special issue for the journal Digital Health on the theme of ‘The senses and digital health: sociocultural perspectives’.  Part of the editorial I have just finished for the special issue is excerpted below. The whole preprint of my editorial is here: Preprint of editorial for special issue on senses and digital health

(Edited to note that this editorial has now been published in the journal, and is available open access here.)

A few days before I began writing this editorial, I ran a discussion group with some people who were attending an outpatient cardiovascular rehabilitation program at a hospital in my home city, Canberra. The purpose of the discussion was to discover what sources of information and support people who had recently received hospital treatment for a serious heart condition were using and found valuable. As one of my major areas of research is the social and cultural dimensions of digital health (see, for example, my book Digital Health), I was particularly interested in the digital media and devices they may be using.

I began with general questions about what sources of information the participants had found useful in learning about their heart condition and rehabilitation following their diagnosis and surgery at this hospital. The group members told me that the hospital cardiac rehabilitation sessions were very important to them, not only as a way to learn about recovery and preventive actions they could take to improve their coronary health, but also as an opportunity to interact with other people who had gone through similar experiences. They explained that, together with the sessions they attended as part of this program, the print material (pamphlets and a book) about cardiac rehabilitation that had been given to them by the hospital had been the major contributors to learning about their disease and recovery. They commented that they had been able to discuss aspects of these materials during face-to-face encounters with healthcare staff if they needed to ask questions or receive clarification on any of the information within. Some people had also attended pre-admission group information sessions after their cardiac condition had been diagnosed, which their partner was also encouraged to attend. Others had had no opportunity for this kind of preparation, as they had experienced a sudden heart attack and found themselves in the emergency department receiving medical attention with little warning.

A dominant theme that emerged from the participants’ accounts was their desire to share insights from their experiences about the mysterious and unexpected nature of heart disease or heart failure. Several participants recounted their stories of how they had been diagnosed with heart disease or suffered a heart attack without realising that there was any problem with their hearts. For these people, the best way to share the insights they had gained from their own experiences was to tell their friends and family about it, as a form of warning. For some, friends or family members who had already experienced a heart condition were a source of information. They had listened to these other people recount their experiences and learnt about the symptoms and treatment.

When I moved onto the topic of digital technologies, it was clear that these were not important to most people in this rehabilitation program. Only about half of them even owned a smartphone. Several people said that they used at-home blood pressure and pulse rate monitoring devices as a way of tracking their heart health. They had purchased these from pharmacies, on their own initiative, rather than being encouraged to do so by their doctors. They printed out the data from a spreadsheet they maintained, or recorded their details with pen-and-paper, and showed this information to their doctors on follow-up appointments.

None of the participants used a digital device like a smartphone app or wearable device for monitoring their blood pressure. A small number did use these devices for tracking other body metrics, such physical activity levels. They were all in the younger age group (aged below 60). In terms of online sources of information, very few of the group had searched prior to their diagnosis for information related to any symptoms they may have experienced. About a third of the participants did go online after their diagnosis or surgery to seek information. However, none of the participants had ever used a patient support online forum or social media community for their health condition. When asked what they will do once they have finished the six weeks of the cardiac rehabilitation program, some mentioned that they would join one of their local gyms to continue their exercise routines. None was interested in joining an online patient support group at that point.

Reflecting on this focus group discussion as I write this editorial has highlighted some of the key issues I envisaged the issue as exploring. While my initial focus was digital health, these responses proved enlightening to me in their very de-emphasis and backgrounding of the digital. They provide a compelling counter to the techno-utopian visions that are often put forward by advocates of digital health technologies and the ideal of the ’digitally engaged patient’ that has become so dominant in the technological, medical and public health literature.

Profound affective and sensory aspects of living as a cardiac disease survivor were expressed in the participants’ accounts. For them, a key issue in how information about cardiovascular disease is communicated and shared was finding some way to let others know about the diverse symptoms that are not always recognised as signalling a heart problem. They reflected that they themselves in many cases hadn’t recognised the symptoms when they were living through the experience. The discussion group provided a forum for people to tell stories of hidden illness striking suddenly and catastrophically. They emphasised the uncertainty of not knowing what the physical sensations they were experiencing were, and whether they should be concerned and seek immediate medical attention.

Listening to their heart disease stories, and reading over them later as transcripts, I was reminded of Arthur Frank’s influential book The Wounded Storyteller, in which he discusses how people’s illness and physical suffering are expressed as narratives. Frank describes the wounded storyteller as ‘anyone who has suffered and lived to tell the tale … a guide and companion, a truth teller and trickster. She or he is a fragile human body and a witness to what endures’.

In the face of this uncertainty and experiencing life-threatening illness, major surgery, and then long recovery, the medical care and continuing support provided to the patients were vital to their sense of security and confidence in the integrity of their bodies. The participants’ positive feelings towards the rehabilitation program and what it offered them were obvious in their accounts. While the space and people were unfamiliar to me, I could perceive that the group members felt at ease coming to this space to which they were now habituated through their twice-weekly visits, and with staff who knew them and spoke to them kindly, and the other cardiac disease survivors in the group they had come to know. Compared with the strength of feeling about the face-to-face encounters they had in this program, the support and information offered by digital technologies were very much in the background. They were simply not important in these people’s everyday experiences of recovering from and managing their cardiac conditions.

These people’s experiences as they recounted them with filled with sensation and affect: the intense and sudden pain they experienced when having a heart attack, the surprise they felt at being diagnosed with a heart condition, the relief of having survived a serious medical problem and, in many cases, major surgery, and the comfort and reassurance of being supported during their rehabilitation by hospital staff and other group members. These were people whose everyday routines and assumptions about their bodies had been thrown into disarray. They wanted to be able to convey these sensory and affective experiences to me, and to others to warn them and instruct them on how to interpret their bodily signs and symptoms.

For this group, comprised of people who in many cases were not highly digitally literate or regular users of digital devices, digital technologies were on the margins of their care and support, or simply non-existent in their lifeworlds. It was the health professionals at the hospital, the other group members, the space provided for them to which they had become accustomed, and the print material given to them at the hospital that were the important and trusted elements in lifeworlds which they were moving and recovering their bodily integrity and confidence. The findings from the discussion group raise further questions about what further support should be offered to people once the six weeks of the rehabilitation program are over, and whether this should be mediated via digital technologies or provided in other ways.

New book out – Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

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My new book Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives has now been published with Routledge (link to the book is here). I have included excerpts from the book on this blog as I was writing it: see here, here,  here and here.

I did a Q&A session for Routledge, in which I explained some of the background to the book and give some advice for aspiring writers in my field. There is also a link to view the introductory chapter (see here).

 

New edited book now out – The Digital Academic

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A book I co-edited with Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson has now been published with Routledge, entitled The Digital Academic: Critical Perspectives on Digital Technologies in Higher Education. Here’s the link to the book on Amazon. We have wonderful contributions from researchers in Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, the USA and Canada.

This is the list of contents:

  1. The Digital Academic: Identities, Contexts and Politics: Deborah Lupton, Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson
  2. Towards an Academic Self? Blogging During the Doctorate: Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson
  3. Going from PhD to Platform: Charlotte Frost
  4. Academic Persona: The Construction of Online Reputation in the Modern Academy: David Marshall, Kim Barbour and Christopher Moore
  5. Academic Twitter and Academic Capital: Collapsing Orality and Literacy in Scholarly Publics: Bonnie Stewart
  6. Intersections Online: Academics Who Tweet: Narelle Lemon and Megan McPherson
  7. Sustaining Asian Australian Scholarly Activism Online: Tseen Khoo
  8. Digital Backgrounds, Active Foregrounds: Student and Teacher Experiences with ‘Flipping the Classroom’: Martin Forsey and Sara Page
  9. A Labour of Love: A Critical Examination of the ‘Labour Icebergs’ of Massive Open Online Courses: Katharina Freund, Stephanie Kizimchuk, Jonathon Zapasnik, Katherine Esteves, Inger Mewburn
  10. Digital Methods and Data Labs: The Redistribution of Educational Research to Education Data Science: Ben Williamson
  11. Interview – Sara Goldrick-Rab with Inger Mewburn
  12. Interview – Jessie Daniels with Inger Mewburn

 

Food porn, fitspo, bonespo and epic food feats: bodies and food in digital media

 

I have just finished a book chapter for a edited collection on alternative food politics. The chapter is entitled ‘Vitalities and visceralities: alternative body/food politics in new digital media’ (the full chapter preprint is available here).

In the chapter, I focus on the ways in which human bodies and food consumption are represented in social media platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram using visual media such as selfies, videos, memes and GIFs, and organised with the use of hashtags. Once I began searching for this material online (using search terms like ‘fat memes’, ‘food porn’, ‘food GIFs’, ‘fitspo’, ‘vegetarian’ and ‘pro ana’), the strength of emotions expressed about bodies and food was particularly noticeable.

Bodies and food in digital portrayals express and circulate visceral feelings that are often dark, centring around broader ambivalences concerning human and nonhuman corporeality. For example, disgust and repulsion for food that is not ‘clean’ or is high in calories and for fat bodies that are considered to be undisciplined was a key theme. This reached its apotheosis in images and discussions relating to self-starvation practices, in which food consumption of any kind was portrayed as contaminating the ideal of the extremely thin body.

A contrasting portrayal, however, was that of the transgressive pleasures of excessive food consumption, often as resistance to body shaming and food policing. In the digital media I examined, vegetarians and vegans were often positively portrayed for their ethical and healthy food stance, but also derided as bores and moralisers. The promotion of fleshiness and excessive food consumption was found in fat activist and body positivist digital media, but also in the grotesque feats of cooking and eating dude food performed by the ‘Epic Meal Time’ men and food-related GIFs and memes.

Food consumption in these media was often sexualised. People uploading or sharing ‘fitspo’ images idealised slim, toned bodies, both male and female, displaying their physiques in tight, revealing gym or swim wear. Supporters of the pro-anorexia ‘bonespo’ meme portrayed emaciated young women as beautiful and sexually appealing. The ‘notyourgoodfatty’ approach highlighted the sensuality and erotic appeal of both fat bodies and excessive food consumption.

More disturbingly, the ‘Epic Meal Time’ YouTube videos made frequent references to the erotic appeal of meat the suggested women were meat for the consumption of men. This misogynistic approach was even more evident in memes and GIFs about meat, in which men were portrayed as aggressors and women their prey.

I conclude the chapter by arguing that expressions of alternative food politics in new digital media are underpinned by affects that display broad and deep-seated ambivalences about what kind of food is morally and ethically justifiable and what types of bodies people should seek to achieve. In some cases, the emotional power that animate the agential capacities of these types of media can impel transformation and change in the interests of alternative food politics. In others, they express and facilitate conservative and reactionary responses, serving to reproduce and magnify dominant norms, moral meanings and practices about ideal bodies, sexuality, and gender.