Hoarding toilet paper: The mystery of such panic buying explained

14 Feb 2020

Straits Times, 14 Feb 2020, Hoarding toilet paper: The mystery of such panic buying explained
Roland Bouffanais and Lim Sun Sun For The Straits Times

Last Friday, just as supermarket shelves began being emptied of rice, instant noodles and toilet paper, our social media accounts started filling up with images of trolleys heaped with those very items. These displays of panic buying soon dominated social media chatter on closed platforms, such as WhatsApp chat groups, as well as more open platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Photographs of long lines of shoppers paying for mountains of products went viral quickly, along with memes and jokes ridiculing the selfish hoarding behaviour.

What was to account for this descent into seemingly senseless and frantic purchasing? News reports suggest that a collective buying frenzy seemed to seize people across the island after the coronavirus alert level was raised to Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) orange. But was that the only trigger?

Disaster sociologists investigate human behaviour in response to extreme events such as natural catastrophes, mass power outages and terrorist attacks. They observe that there is a natural human instinct to prepare for rare contingencies by buying supplies, contacting loved ones and developing emergency plans. Panic buying is thus not unprecedented and has occurred in response to numerous disasters, both real and perceived.

During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Americans ran to grocery stores and stocked up on bread and milk after then United States President John F. Kennedy announced the Soviets' entry into Cuba. In the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, consumption of daily necessities surged, with households hoarding rice, bread and noodles. Panic buying thus seems to be a natural coping mechanism in the face of grave uncertainty.

However, this begs the question as to why the elevation to Dorscon orange was perceived by so many to be such an imminent and harrowing threat as to require a supermarket sweep.

The answer lies perhaps in a social contagion that seems more lethal than the viral pathogen we are currently battling - the spread of misinformation.

Throughout Friday, there was rampant spreading of fake news reports about the upcoming closure of Singapore schools on Monday. What was later revealed to be a premature leak of a government press release on the impending upgrade to Dorscon orange also raised anxiety levels as it was also quickly shared on social media.

Crucially, too, these local developments closely followed news reports emerging from Hong Kong of shortages of toilet paper and other necessities as early as four days prior.

Concurrently, panic buying of toilet paper had occurred in Taiwan, apparently triggered by falsehoods about raw materials typically used to manufacture toilet paper being diverted to make surgical masks.

Of course, the broader backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus crisis is the extreme containment strategy being undertaken in China, with Singaporeans having been able to observe via mainstream and social media what has been happening in Wuhan during the lockdown.

Many Singaporeans might have equated the elevation to Dorscon orange with signalling an imminent lockdown of Singapore and were therefore galvanised into panic buying.

Clearly, in a globalised world, our understanding of local situations is enriched but also complicated by perspectives extending far beyond our immediate environments.

As media consumers, we must contend not only with domestic information flows, but also manage the onslaught of international news, quite apart from having to discern between legitimate news and false rumours. In such a fraught media landscape, disinformation, rumours, untruths and misinformation can become virulent social contagions that trigger mob mentality and herd behaviour such as the panic buying we witnessed.

From the scientific perspective, a more productive line of pursuit is not the anecdotal nature or origin of specific rumours, but how social contagions emerge and spread within social networks to overcome our common sense.

The smartphone and Big Data revolutions of the past decade have enabled social scientists to gain insight into the intricate mechanisms underlying the spread of social contagions.

Social networks, online and face-to-face, are key to the spread of collective behaviours, including social norms and innovation diffusion.

Collective behaviours among humans are remarkably similar to processes in the animal kingdom such as schooling among fish and flocking among birds. Like these collective animal behaviours, the propagation of collective human behaviours such as fads and mobs arises from complex repeated interactions among individuals.

Recent large-scale studies of social networks provide two important insights.

First, the structure of online social networks can accelerate and amplify the process of social influence when there is considerable overlap in our social networks. In other words, when your different networks of friends are also friends with one another.

Second, the channels for the spread of social contagions are distinctly different from those of viral contagions. Notably, viral contagions from an infectious disease are said to be simple contagious processes as they can be transmitted from a single contact.

By contrast, social norms and social movements are complex contagious processes involving contact with multiple sources of virulence. For instance, if tomorrow a majority of the MRT ridership wear masks, it is expected that the minority will feel compelled to start donning them too.

Interestingly, social epidemiology reveals that misinformation spreads most rapidly through dense neighbourhood networks and cohesive social settings. Pressure from a critical number of contacts in one's social networks - these may not be direct contacts but friends of friends - can create a form of social "momentum" that prompts action. For example, WhatsApp messages from multiple friends about toilet paper hoarding can snowball into a desperate need to buy toilet paper for no apparent reason.

People are also known to be more trusting of information shared by one's immediate social network and further let down their guard against possible misinformation.

Overlapping social networks of strong ties, connected via social media platforms, are thus highly efficient pathways for social contagions to spread across large and diverse populations.

The panic buying observed in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan last week demonstrates the complex spread of a social contagion in a hyper-connected and globalised world.

Our online social networks extend from Singapore to the broader Asian region and beyond. Fear of a toilet paper crunch in Hong Kong and Taiwan percolated to Singapore, where the highly overlapping nature of local social networks made it propagate like a wildfire. Little wonder then that official assurances about the adequacy of supplies took a while to sink in.

Therefore, even as we attempt to close our air borders to visitors potentially harbouring viral pathogens, the porosity of our information boundaries makes it impossible to keep out social contagions that race through digitally connected networks. Immunising people through timely and effective communication is thus key to tempering fears and combating complex social contagions such as disinformation, rumours, untruths and misinformation.

Roland Bouffanais is associate professor of engineering and head of the applied complexity group at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at SUTD, and a Nominated Member of Parliament.