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Bridging the Social Distance: How Social Media Can Help and Hurt During the COVID-19 Pandemic

March 17, 2020

The world as we’ve known it has been upended in the last few months. There are the ever-growing threats of climate crisis, financial uncertainty playing out each day and, most recently, the COVID-19 global pandemic that’s changing our daily routines. Everyone is inundated—even overwhelmed—by information coming from a variety of sources, all reporting on different aspects of this pandemic with varying degrees of reliability.

In his speech at the Munich Security Conference in February, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke about a number of things, but the part that I found the most compelling was about information and the potential impact of misinformation: “But we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” he said. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.” He goes on to say they are working directly with platforms but also notes: “Now more than ever is the time for us to let science and evidence lead policy. If we don’t, we are headed down a dark path that leads nowhere but division and disharmony.”

The Good, the Conspiracies and the Mixed Bag

Some are using their voice and platform for good. For example, when asked to comment on his time and experience in quarantine, Tom Hanks declined to speak on the record because he does not want to contribute to misinformation, create mass hysteria or give false hope. Spectrum News NY1 Reporter Jamie Stelter and her colleagues are putting out a call for questions about the virus, misinformation and what people can do through social media; the crew will answer questions live for an hour each day.

But it’s not all good. An article by the Washington Post cited an unpublished U.S. Global Engagement Center report that said there were around two million tweets containing conspiracy theories about the coronavirus over a three-week period in January and early February.

One of the major differentiators about this outbreak, compared to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 for example, is the overwhelming dominance of social media and its role in how most of the population receives and shares information. Social media undeniably changed the way we obtain and communicate about information and news. It took down the wall between source and consumer, but as a result, that systematic check and balance is gone.

With this comes a lot of pressure on social platforms to ensure they are upholding news and credibility with the highest regard. But how do they combat fake news and misinformation? Is looking to governments the only way to stay informed with a central perspective? Should people stop sharing any other sources? But then, what happens to the efficient spread of information?

While platforms are seeking to sort out the fact from the fiction, this new funnel of critical information has resulted in a mixed bag of conversations, including those that:

  • Create mass hysteria based on many falsities;
  • Normalize a pandemic and downplay the events of a crisis;
  • Share information quickly and efficiently; and
  • Change how we as a community treat each other.

We’ve seen governments and organizations call for more transparency in information sourcing and sharing, hoping to sound the appropriate level of alarm and taper the mass hysteria that leads to people treating each other with less respect and panic purchasing that causes shortages of essential household items (such as soap and toilet paper).

A question that isn’t new, but is more so top of mind than ever before, is whether the platform has a responsibility to ensure the accuracy of information. Moderating the content would be a momentous challenge as information evolves by the minute and people are constantly looking for updates from platforms they’ve come to rely on as information sources. To date, these platforms have been on the frontlines, trying to correct any misinformation and cooperate with global health organizations to support campaigns aimed at correcting misinformation. Experts fear that if unchecked, the spread of misinformation in regions that are currently less affected will lead to the rise of infections among vulnerable populations and healthcare systems.

But we also need these channels of communication. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House coronavirus task force highlighted the importance of millennials and their communications methods, including social media: “They need to communicate with each other, public health people like myself don’t always come out with compelling and exciting messages that a 25- to 35-year-old may find interesting and something they will take to heart, but millennials can speak to one another about how important it is, in this moment, to protect all of the people,” she said.

This pandemic ultimately will change not only the way we physically engage each other, but also how we interact with one another on social media and what we choose to share, retweet and discuss. As a community, we are now talking about social distancing to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which leads to more phone time, more time to go down the rabbit hole that the Internet can be and more time to spread information that is not necessarily reflective of the most current virus statistics. Because we’re surrounded by news about the pandemic, it is consuming our thoughts and our actions. Photos of ransacked grocery store aisles have been a particularly interesting trend that demonstrates the fear and panic influencing ordinary tasks.

The fight against misinformation extends beyond the COVID-19 crisis and is not new, particularly for those that work in the communications industry. As general online consumers, we’ve been reading about the impact of false information for years—whether it be swaying an election outcome, influencing public opinion or, in this case, creating a lack of understanding and awareness of what information is real and what we should be following in order to do our part.

As industry professionals, we have a responsibility to seek the truth and only share information from credible sources. As people and a community, we must always strive for an univocal relationship with the truth in everything we share. There is a fine line between informing and contributing to the spread of misinformation and we’re all flirting with it each time we repost an article, retweet a post or shame someone for an action they’ve taken during this pandemic.

One final piece of Dr. Tedros’ speech really stood out, given the increasing call to work together: “The greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other.” Our world is sick and we need to do our part to be a necessary force of change both physically and virtually.

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