The Coronavirus: Is Social Media Helping?

masked girl to protect herself from virus in public area

Lance Concannon Lance Concannon, Marketing Director, Europe

The coronavirus, which is officially called COVID-19, has quickly become a global issue after starting in China’s Wuhan province. More than any previous health scare, both information and misinformation about the virus has been circulating widely on social media, especially Twitter. The World Health Organization has called the coronavirus the first social media “infodemic.”

The Effects of the Coronavirus
The coronavirus has implications for people all over the world, affecting not only global health but also the economy and travel. It’s also causing a certain amount of fear and racism towards Chinese people and Asians in general. While fearful reactions to contagious illnesses are inevitable, it’s hard to deny that social media is amplifying the effects. On the one hand, people can access the latest information very quickly. On the other hand, false and potentially dangerous rumors spread just as swiftly.

Misinformation About the Crisis
With a dangerous disease, it’s critical for people to have accurate information. Misinformation can create panic or obscure real dangers. Some of the most popular fake news about the coronavirus includes:

  • Mischaracterizing the illness. Soon after it surfaced, the rumor that it was a type of “snake flu” was widely circulated. It turns out that coronavirus is not a type of flu and most likely isn’t spread by snakes.
  • Exaggerated death claims. Some reports claim more than 100,000 people dying when, as of this writing, it’s a little over 1,000.
  • The bat soup video. A viral video of a woman in China eating bat soup led to the idea that this practice is causing the illness to spread. While bats may be involved in the transmission, there’s no evidence that it has anything to do with eating them. This type of rumor can be dangerous because it can mislead people into thinking that they can avoid the disease by avoiding certain exotic foods.
  • Fake cures. Many websites and social media posts have suggested unproven cures. This is another dangerous practice that could prevent people from getting help.

In these and other cases, social media sites may not have been the origin of false or unproven information. However, they undoubtedly allowed such misinformation to spread quickly. This is a case where the term “viral” has a double meaning.

Social Media Issues in China
Ground central for the coronavirus is China, a country where social media has really taken off in the last few years. Some of the world’s largest sites, including Weibo, WeChat and TikTok are based in China. This has made it possible for rumors and both true and false information about the virus to circulate quickly in the world’s most populous nation. The fast-growing video site TikTok has been of particular concern. Video footage is often taken at face value even though it can easily mislead viewers. Of course, TikTok is now very popular in other countries as well, including the United States.

Because #coronavirus is such a popular hashtag, users have an incentive to make videos on this topic. A large number of fake videos have been removed by the site. A couple of examples include a video falsely claiming that the virus can be transmitted through the eyes and a doctor extracting purple blood from an alleged patient. Teenagers on TikTok have even posted videos where they falsely claim to have the virus. This is more than a harmless prank if it makes people think the illness has spread to new locations. For example, one such fake video came from British Columbia, a city with very few actual cases so far. False information on TikTok is a serious concern because the site is mainly used by teens and young adults who may lack the experience to identify misinformation.

Racism and Xenophobia
One of the most disturbing aspects of social media posts about the coronavirus are the many instances of Asians being targeted. Many trolls are using this as an excuse to make racist posts on Twitter, Facebook and other sites. This includes everything from posts and videos to random comments made to others’ posts.

Of course, this problem exists offline as well. Nor is it confined to the United States and other Western countries. In an article where Asians share examples of xenophobia both offline and on social media, photos from Thailand are shown of a restaurant banning Chinese guests. Once again, however, social media makes it easy to spread such sentiments.

Positive Effects of Social Media
Of course, social media can also be a force for good when it comes to a public health crisis. Both true and false information spread quickly on social media. The challenge for WHO, governments, healthcare professionals and others trying to get coronavirus under control is to help people access accurate information, which can save lives. WHO is working with Google, Facebook and other social media sites to ensure helpful posts and stories are easy to access. Some of the ways social media posts can help include:

  • Updates such as travel restrictions and avoiding certain regions.
  • Accurate information on the symptoms, causes and treatments as more is learned about the disease.
  • Correcting rumors and misinformation.

The coronavirus is still at a fairly early stage. We still don’t know the scope of it or how long it will take to get it under control. In any event, it will probably not be the last public health crisis where social media will play a major role. This type of issue brings up some interesting and complicated questions about social media, such as the role of social media sites as well as governments in restricting information. In China, the internet is already highly censored. However, sites such as Twitter and Facebook have to decide what type of content to restrict.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other sites already have policies in place regarding fake news as well as manipulated media. Right now, for example, a post on Facebook that’s likely to be false is labeled with suggestions to click on more reliable stories. YouTube has a similar policy. However, when it comes to a public health crisis, there may be pressure to start using stronger tactics to protect users from false information.