Communication Capacity Has Become 1.5 Million Times Greater Over the Past Century

What is “Infodemic”?

COVID-19 Rampaging Around the World

What has become known as COVID-19 started as a cluster of “pneumonia cases with an unknown cause” in Wuhan, Hubei Province in China. The new disease has spread all over the world in just over three months. On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, which means an outbreak on a global level, and subsequently, major cities around the world, including New York, London, and Paris, went into lockdown. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, warned that “the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most dangerous challenges this world has faced in our lifetime” after confirmed cases exceeded one million on April 3.

Infectious diseases are generally categorized into three levels depending on the number of cases: endemic refers to a prevalence within a geographic area, epidemic means outbreak, and pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over several countries and continents. The pandemic is the largest in scale among these categories. Historically, pandemics
 have made significant impacts on mankind. The plague became a pandemic in Asia and throughout Europe in the 14th century, when medical care was not yet fully developed, claiming the life of one in three Europeans. The modern era is not alien to pandemics either. For example, the global outbreak of Spanish flu from 1918 to 1920 is considered to have killed 50 to 100 million people. Most recently, swine flu circulated around the world in 2009 as a new type of influenza. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, located mainly in the southern part of China in 2002, is categorized as an epidemic.

Communication Capacity Has Become 1.5 Million Times Greater Over the Past Century (PDF,708KB)

Expanded Communication Capacity Benefits Society During This Time of Crisis

One of the huge differences between pandemics and epidemics in the recent past and the current situation surrounding COVID-19 is the capacity of communication, i.e. how quickly information gets around. With the prevalence of mass media, such as TV and radio, and the explosive growth of the internet and social media, no one can deny that the current speed at which information is disseminated is remarkably different from the time of the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, when only word-of-mouth and fewer printed media, such as newspapers and magazines, were available as a means of communication. Taking this opportunity, we would like to explore the implication of the expanded communication capacity with regard to the current pandemic situation.

To begin with, there are countless benefits that expanded communication capacity has brought about. Over the past 100 years, greater numbers of people have better access to more detailed information more efficiently, thanks to the prevalence of new media such as TV and the internet. When national leaders appear on TV and radio, whose messages can be accessed and viewed later via the internet, more citizens can readily receive urgent information more accurately. On March 18, Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Germany, demonstrated her sense of urgency, calling the coronavirus pandemic “the country's greatest challenge since World War II,” and urged unity among citizens to contain the pandemic's spread. The video and transcript of this televised speech was posted on the German government's website and has been viewed by many around the world via the internet as they were made available in many languages by volunteer translators. Communications of this kind could not happen 100 years ago at the time of the Spanish flu outbreak.
Furthermore, with smartphones and social media’s penetration into daily life, anybody can receive information anywhere in real time, and at the same time, anyone can become a source of information. Social media platforms may not be a match for mass media like TV in that they have a limitation in disseminating the same information to a large audience at the same time. On the other hand, the ability of social media platforms to deliver a greater amount and more details should not be underestimated. After the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, though it was not a pandemic per se, social media helped people send information and confirm safety and whereabouts of loved ones when the affected area faced disruption of telephone communications. Real-time communications, made possible by social media, can make significant differences during a time of crisis.

Downside Risk of Spreading Misinformation and Disinformation

In the meantime, expanded communication capacity brings new challenges to daily life, that is, “infodemic,” or epidemic of information. Infodemic, a new word created by shortening “information epidemic,” first appeared around 2003 and was used only by a handful of experts at the time of the SARS outbreak. The word refers to the situation in which “both reliable and non-reliable information get disseminated, accompanied by a sense of uncertainty and fear, blocking people from accessing reliable information as they need it.” In its report dated February 2, 2020, the WHO warned against the infodemic to emerge with the outbreak of COVID-19. MIT Technology Review wrote, “the coronavirus is the first true social-media infodemic,” referring to an abundance of information on social media. Amid mounting concerns over infodemic, social media companies issued a joint statement that they were working on “tackling COVID-19-related misinformation” and started coordinating with the WHO, the US government, and other organizations and authorities.

One of the examples of the infodemic is a conspiracy theory claiming that coronavirus is the result of a biological weapon prepared by the Chinese authorities in order to control population. Some public media published articles along the lines of this theory which was cited by blogs and social media around the world. As another example, because the COVID-19 pandemic started in China, claims went around that Asian people were spreading the virus, causing anti-Asian racism in Europe and the US.

In daily life, people panic-bought toilet paper and other paper products, driven mainly by unconfirmed rumors floating around on social media. Someone may post, “paper products are manufactured in China; thus, imports may be suspended due to COVID-19.” This could be amplified or sometimes denied by other posts, and such a ripple effect prompted fear among people, resulting in an actual shortage of paper products. These are typical examples of the infodemic caused by the prevalence of social media; its nature is to enable anyone to become a source of information.

As such, expanded communication capacity is two faced; on the one hand, it provides a useful pathway of information in the circumstances of a pandemic, and on the other, it also brings negative side effects such as an infodemic.

Communication Capacity Has Become 1.5 Million Times Greater Over the Century

Let us now turn to the study on how communication capacity expanded as different media channels became prevalent and lifestyles have evolved.

We have indexed the prevalence of media and its communication capacity during the periods of past pandemics and epidemics over the last century and compared the indices with each other.
Events for comparative study cover four pandemic/epidemic periods: Spanish flu (from 1918 to 1920), SARS (2002), swine flu (2009) and COVID-19 (2020). Given the population increase, evolution of technologies, change of life style, and development of media prevalence, we define communication capacity as “capacity to reach out to 1) greater number of recipients, 2) more efficiently, 3) with greater amount of information, and 4) in more detail.” The goal of the study is to find changes in these four factors from one period to another.

Caluculation Models
※Click or tap to zoom in

<Details of Calculation Methodology>

  •  The calculation covers all 36 member states of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the end of March 2020. These countries are deemed to have a prevalence of major media channels and a certain level of high-quality communications during all four periods covered. 
  • The calculation covers major media channels that are deemed to play key roles in communications during these periods. Depending on the period, major media channels include word-of-mouth, personal letters, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, land line, mobile phone, email, and internet, which is divided into three categories - social media, video sites, and web sites other than the previous two categories.

 For each period, the following media channels are considered:

  • Spanish flu: newspapers, magazines, personal letters and word-of-mouth
  •  SARS: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, land line, mobile phone, personal letters, word-of-mouth, emails, text messages, and web sites other than social media and video sites.
  • Swine flu and COVID-19: All media considered for the period of SARS as well as social media and video sites.


<Basic Framework of Calculating the Four Factors>

 1. Maximum number of people that can be reached (“greater number of recipients”): The number of people in the OECD member states over whom respective media channels have prevalence is calculated and aggregated. Then the value of each period is compared with the baseline value of “1” set for the period of the Spanish flu.

  • Calculation formula: Average population of OECD member states, multiplied by the prevalence rate of each media
  • If the media prevalence data is not available for a period, the data of a specific region (e.g. EU) or specific countries (e.g. Japan, Spain, etc.) that are deemed to have a similar prevalence rate is used as a substitute.
  • Countries’ population in 1918 is obtained from a wide range of public information. The population of Turkey and Israel in 1918 is calculated assuming that the population growth rate of these two states is level with the growth rate of Greece from 1918 to 2002. 

2. Real time communication (“more efficiently”): The average number of people to whom a single communication can reach through the respective media channels is calculated and aggregated. Then the value of each period is compared with the baseline value of “1” set for the period of the Spanish flu.

  • Media channels that work for one-on-one communications by nature (e.g. telephone, Email, word-of-mouth, etc.) are deemed to have the value of “1.”
  • Media channels capable of reaching out to many people via a single communication (e.g. TV, social media, etc.) are given individual calculation models as follows:
  • Newspapers: The average population of OECD member states, multiplied by the prevalence rate of newspapers, multiplied by market share of major newspapers
  • TV: The average population of OECD member states, multiplied by average viewer rate of news programs
  • Social media: Average “impressions” (i.e. the total number of times a content is seen by users) of posts on Facebook and Twitter using a weighted-average in accordance with the proportion of users to the total number of users of these two platforms

3. Amount of content delivered (“with greater amount of information”): Average amount of content that one person can receive, share and spread per day through respective media channels is calculated and aggregated. Then the value of each period is compared with the baseline value of “1” set for the period of the Spanish flu.

  • “One packet of content” refers to a unit of sharable/spreadable information from a recipient to someone else as it is received.
  •  Calculation models are as follows:
  •  Newspapers: One page of newspapers is deemed to have 12,600 characters in double byte. Using the average number of characters one person can read per minute as well as the average time spent reading newspapers, one person is deemed to read an average 1.43 pages per day, or 3.6% of all papers. (The calculation is for after 2002.)
  • TV: The average number of programs one viewer watches per day is calculated through average time spent watching TV programs, divided by the length of program (average 30 minutes).
  • Telephone: The average number of people making phone calls per day is calculated as the number of calls made per telephone contract per day. The methodology is applied both for land line and mobile phone.
  • Web sites other than social media: The average number of pages viewed per day is calculated through the average time spent on the internet excluding social media browsing (154 minutes in 2009 and 237 minutes in 2019), divided by the average time on site (deemed to be one minute).
  • YouTube: The average number of YouTube videos watched is calculated through the average time spent watching online videos (40 minutes in 2019), divided by the average length of online videos (deemed to be 11.7 minutes).

 4. Amount of information per packet (“in more detail”): Average amount of sharable/spreadable information contained in one packet of content in respective media channels is calculated and aggregated. Then the value of each period is compared with the baseline value of “1” set for the period of the Spanish flu.

  • As in the in the previous section, “one packet of content” refers to a unit of sharable/spreadable information from a recipient to someone else as it is received.
  • All data including text, voice, and video is translated into bytes for the calculation. Calculation methodology is as follows:
  • One copy of a newspaper is deemed to have 1,008,000 bytes, which is calculated as 12,600 characters in double byte, multiplied by 40 pages.
  • One personal letter is deemed to have the same amount of data as 1,000-character text mails, which is 17,067 bytes.
  • One social media post is deemed to be 205,080 bytes, which is calculated as one image (200 kilobyte) added by 140 double-byte characters (280 bytes).

The results of the study reveal that, compared to the communication capacity at the time of the Spanish flu (1918 to 1920), which is set as “1,” at the time of the SARS outbreak (2002), communication capacity is 22,000 times greater and at the time of the swine flu (2009) 171,000 times greater. Right now, in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, such capacity is 1.5 million times greater than during the period of the Spanish flu pandemic. These findings clearly show that the communication capacity via a variety of media has grown at an explosive rate over the century, with mass media such as TV and radio, as well as the internet becoming widely available.

Not surprisingly, the growth over the last 20 years (from the outbreak of SARS to date) has been led especially by the penetration of social media. The findings confirm that the drastic increase of “amount of content delivered” (i.e. average amount of content one person receives per day) in recent years is attributed mainly to social media, and that social media makes a significant contribution to the increase of overall communication capacity.
With the emergence of social media, in which any user is a recipient and a source of information at the same time, the absolute amount of content (i.e. information, posts and messages) seen by one person has become greater than ever before. On top of this, the ability for receivers of information to easily “disseminate” what is received accelerates the speed of communication.

Greater communication capacity, through social media and other factors, helps rapid information sharing and mutual cooperation at a time of crisis among individuals and within communities, while at the same time negative consequences, such as an infodemic, can also be easily triggered as already discussed.

Changes of Communication Capacity at Times of Pandemic
※Click or tap to zoom in

Especially because Twitter and other social media platforms make posting and sharing information ever easier, people who are driven by the sense of crisis and uncertainty tend to deliver or spread information on impulse, bringing more risk of spreading disinformation and unconfirmed information.
Social media has a real-time nature by its definition and functions as a platform through which anybody can be a source of information. The benefits and negative side effects then are two sides of the same coin. The situation now necessitates calling for improved information literacy among users.

At this time when information is being delivered at unprecedented speed, corporations are also required to revisit their marketing and communications efforts. While many corporations expect their products and advertisements to be widely disseminated through social media, it is almost impossible to control how the information is spread on social media due to the characteristics mentioned above. Even if the dissemination of information itself may be successful, “how” it is spread is out of the originators’ hand. It should also be noted that messages can be altered in the process of disseminating, as there is room for different interpretations and unforeseen context.
Corporations are also the ones who are required to equip themselves with improved information literacy in order to take control over and navigate through the waves of information that are constantly being disseminated and spread.


情報パンデミックの拡散力、SARSの68倍 新型コロナ(日本経済新聞)


Ayumi Yamori
Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting LLC
Manager, Social Impact

Before her current role, Ayumi Yamori worked for A.T. Kearney, a strategic consulting firm, Google, and a start-up firm. She is involved in a wide variety of projects, including development of business plans, SDGs/sustainability strategies, human rights due diligence and human rights policies. She is also in charge of the secretariat office for Deloitte Social Impact Committee.

Asuna Okubo
Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting LLC
Senior Consultant, Social Impact

Asuna Okubo joined the firm after working for a financial institution and an IT advisory firm. Her areas of work include development of sustainability strategies for private sector companies, development of policy targeting the ASEAN region at METI, and development of NPO/NGO’s business plans. She is also in charge of the secretariat office for Deloitte Social Impact Committee.

Ayako Fukuyama
Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting LLC
Chief Trade Analyst, Regulatory Strategy

Ayako Fukuyama worked for the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (in the Trade Policy Bureau as well as the Industrial Science and Technology Policy and Environment Bureau) before joining the firm. In her previous capacity, she was involved in international affairs including negotiation with the World Trade Organization. She has published a number of books and lectures on the topic of trends in world trade. Her writings include, “Making profit through FTA” (Nikkei BP Publication: co-author), “Renegotiation of NAFTA; the primary purpose is modernization” (Nikkei Business Online), and “Current situation of data privacy regulations in Europe and China; Outlook of the Trade Rules” (World Economic Review).


Did you find this useful?