Olivia Garrett writes about the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the impact social media has had on a worldwide panic.
We live in an age of connectivity and exteriority. Interior thoughts are plastered across our phone screens and transparency is, at this point, mandatory. And whilst such total candour and communication should and does help, it is combined with an atmosphere of distrust and cynicism, brought on by our general faithlessness in politics. The result of this is the continual spreading of rumours and suspicion via social media. Which, in the case of mass infection, culminates in large scale fearmongering. This is, of course, in reference to the coronavirus currently affecting the population of Wuhan and is spreading out through China to over twenty other countries.
Coronaviruses are one of a variety of viruses that typically cause colds. The current virus is one of three strains that cause more deadly outbreaks (the other two being SARS and MERS). The symptoms of the virus include a fever, a cough and difficulty breathing. Now, the severity of the coronavirus is not to be downplayed. There have been over four hundred deaths and the World Health Organisation have declared it a public health emergency. On the news, all we have seen is hazmat suits, masks and hastily assembled hospitals that look like shipping containers. So it is natural that this frightening imagery, combined with the fact that this is a foreign disease with a mysterious (and supposedly animal) origin, has caused the circulation of panic. However, the facts are that although coronavirus is more severe than SARS (which broke out in China in 2002), it has a much lower mortality rate- that of 2% in comparison 9.6%. Furthermore, the median age of the deceased is 75 and most of them had pre-existing medical conditions or weakened immune system. In short, this is unlikely to be the next bubonic plague and, whilst it’s a wide-spreading and threatening disease, you are likely to survive it.
So with the facts in mind, where does this fear and hysteria come from?
In four weeks there have been an estimated fifteen million tweets about coronavirus and ‘#coronavirus’ has been trending constantly across UK Twitter. Unfortunately, within that vast sea of information and opinion comes a deluge of fake news and clickbait. There have been several false claims specifically with the intent to incite fear among those who do not know the proper facts. Claims such as the illness came from a biological weapons lab in Wuhan, a vaccine for the virus already exists and is not being distributed, scientists predict the death toll will hit 65 million, there are 100,000 confirmed cases etc.
The fact that people on sites such as Twitter and Facebook are so susceptible to random pieces of clickbait suggests a general mistrust of the institutions at the forefront of this global health emergency.
As these lies are spread, more become alarmed and share their fears, thus creating a snowball effect as anxiety and panic circulate across people’s social media feeds. Even sites such as “Exefess” (an independent Facebook account run by student admins that allows Exeter students to post anonymously) have had people posting their concerns for example: wondering if the university should be supplying facemasks to the students.
This case of coronavirus is also not the first to spark a social media frenzy. From 2014 to 2015 there were over 36 million tweets regarding the Ebola virus, the majority of them in English and many citing the same concerns about weaponised illnesses and foreign origin. This was then used as an excuse for discriminatory practices against those from West Africa, where the virus was rife. The same can be said for today as many tweets and social media posts have been attacking those of Chinese origin for their ‘part’ in the coronavirus. One student at the University of Manchester tweeted “This week, my ethnicity has made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass. To see me as someone who carries the virus just because of my race is, well, just racist.” This then shows the responsibility social media has in the transmission of false information and promotion of xenophobic views. Furthermore, the ominous hashtag “World War Three” appeared earlier this year just hours after the death of Qasem Soleimani (Iranian major general) with over 1.6 million tweets. Thereby demonstrating that this virus is not an exception and that any major global event can cause widespread panic on social media.
In response to these problems, the most prominent social media platforms have had to introduce measures in order to prevent further incitement of panic or harm through fake claims. Facebook is currently using fact-checkers to review and expose false information and to notify users who share said information. Twitter has created a prompt titled “know the facts” that appears when you search for “coronavirus” and has a message below that encourages users to go to the official and authorised Twitter pages. Tik Tok also has taken steps by adding a link to the World Health Organisation’s website and sending a reminder to users to report false information.
However, is it just in social media that the problem lies? The fact that people on sites such as Twitter and Facebook are so susceptible to random pieces of clickbait and cannot be satisfied with the official reports, suggests a general mistrust of the institutions at the forefront of this global health emergency. Some may see social media as the key to truthfulness and uncovering deception. However, when it comes to issues of illness, this is likely to do more harm than good as the point of institutions like the World Health Organisation having social media accounts is to help maintain calm whilst also making people aware of possible precautions to take. The key is finding a balance of trust with social media. Users need to know the signs of an untrustworthy claim and the sites themselves need to improve their abilities to discontinue said claims. Social media can be a wonderful tool that increases global connectivity and understanding, yet in the case of the coronavirus and other potential crises, it tends to breed uncertainty, falsehood and panic.