It’s the news on everyone’s mask-covered lips – coronavirus is front and centre in everyone’s minds and people are freaking out. The number of infected is rising, and so is the amount of information (and misinformation) about the disease. So how did we get to this point and what has social media got to do with it?
Moral panic and anxiety brought about by the media has been around for hundreds of years. The first recognised case of which was a crime wave in 1744 in London. Reports led to mass hysteria but ironically when the criminals were caught and executed, the media merely regarded it as a footnote and moved onto the next story.
With the television era came new scare stories: the War on Drugs, AIDS, and Islamic Extremism all whipping up a frenzy. Fast forward to the present day when news via social media is instantaneous, constant, and spans the globe, it is easy to see how a surge of panic can run rampant.
Social media’s pros and cons
Despite its early beginnings as a bastion of empathy and human connectivity, social media is now widely regarded as a safe harbour for the promotion and circulation of fake news, and conspiracy theories. Within this, reliable media can be drowned out by shock tactics and disregard for facts which are more commonplace.
Without the appropriate vetting, social media has become a breeding ground for rumours to spread unchecked and spiral out of control. From “spicy food makes it worse” to China’s covert testing of biological weapons, it would appear as though we wouldn’t want the truth to get in the way of a good story.
In Japan, toilet paper is being rationed and shelves are bare because of one irresponsible tweet that incorrectly suggested the toilet paper supply from China was about to dry up due to coronavirus. The only thing causing a shortage is fear of a shortage. Other countries are now experiencing similar problems.
To make matters worse, governments across the globe are fighting a losing battle to get their point across. While their aims to get a clear message to help assuage their fears and prevent the spread of the virus may be ever present, social media trolls have free rein to counter this without recourse or recrimination. This is not to mention the increased xenophobia that always comes in times of crisis and is made worse by online discussions that fan the flames.
So, what can be done? It seems that some steps are being taken by social media outlets to corroborate information. Facebook has attempted to step up their own fact checking, verifying sources and labelling as disputed questionable news sources. This, however, has come with its own downside as unchecked or unlabelled news appears to be fine, leading to what is known as ‘the implied truth effect’
Jonathan Ong, global digital media professor at the University of Massachusetts feels tech organisations should be more combative: “It’s important for conspiracy theories to be removed from online platforms sooner than has been. Claims around bat soup and bioengineering, for example, are still accessible,” he said. “Also, there’s been too much focus on nudging to legitimate information and not enough focus on taking down hate speech and slur.”
The inevitable truth is that social media in its current form will remain a reliable source of unreliable information. This means it’s up to the user to be diligent in their approach to news. Using trusted governmental and media sources, and staying away from unknown or dubious blogs. Remember, if it seems far fetched, it probably is.
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