The first doubly viral virus: social media and Covid-19

Online platforms have acted both as an early warning mechanism and as a transmission channel for mistruths

25th March, 2020
The first doubly viral virus: social media and Covid-19
A memorial to Dr Li Wenliang in Los Angeles: the Wuhan-based doctor used Chinese social media to warn fellow medics about a new coronavirus. Picture: AFP via Getty Images

In December, Dr Li Wenliang went on Chinese social media to warn medics about the emergence of a new coronavirus. He was accused of spreading illegal rumours.

The opening move in this global crisis was a brave act of truth-telling on social media: a truth dismissed and censored as false. Since then, the world has seen – alongside the pandemic – an “infodemic”: the online spread of misinformation in parallel with the virus. Social media has acted both as an early warning mechanism and as a transmission channel for mistruths.

Fake news directly and indirectly affects public health. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), was unambiguous about this when he said fake news was “as dangerous” as the virus itself.

Leo Varadkar said that misinformation spreading through WhatsApp groups was “causing real damage”. The damage the Taoiseach was referring to may be the result of upsetting content harming people’s mental health, the dilution of legitimate health advice by nonsense ideas or deliberate attempts to sow confusion.

While fake news has arguably been accepted as an agent of change in many of the political movements we have seen globally, particularly Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election, a line has now been drawn. Fake news that can cost lives is not a price users are willing to pay.

But social media can be leveraged for good too. In the absence of a vaccine or cure, the bulk of the medical response to coronavirus has consisted of non-pharmaceutical interventions: for example, social distancing, cough etiquette and hand hygiene.

The medical community views social media communication as part of that toolkit of interventions. Clear and verified information improves a population’s health outcomes. There is a huge amount at stake, and effective use of social media can help a population understand how it should act.

This was evidenced recently by the extensive social media sharing of the graphic we have all seen explaining how social distancing reduces the spread of coronavirus. In terms of the secondary infection – the “infodemic” – communications professionals need to consider what equivalent behavioural measures we have at our disposal against the viral spread of misinformation.

Important steps have been taken. Aleksandra Kuzmanovic, the WHO’s social media manager, has engaged with the major social media platforms. Most have agreed to place prominent on-screen links to reliable sources of information. Several, including Facebook and Google, also made an unprecedented joint statement on their determination to fight fake news.

In Ireland, the state has taken to social media to disseminate valuable advice and to counter misinformation, and one could argue that the HSE’s Twitter feed has become a national treasure. So too have the digital platforms of our mainstream media, as they are viewed, as sources reporting the “scientific truth” and performing a valuable public service.

Emerging from this infodemic is the blueprint of a functional relationship between the state and major social media platforms that can be activated in the next crisis, but that also has everyday lessons for us all.

The emergent dynamic of widespread peer policing of fake news is a game changer. The breakneck speed of this crisis exposes falsehoods far faster than is the case with relatively slow-moving phenomena such as climate change or Brexit. You only have to look at how quickly the US and Britain stepped up their Covid-19 responses in recent days.

Moreover, these falsehoods have the potential to lead quickly and directly to loss of life. The result is a new public intolerance of fake news and increased inter-user social flack.

Social media platforms are being self-regulated and user-regulated like never before. Are we witnessing the moment where the balance between unregulated social media and regulated mainstream media fundamentally swings back?

Finally, the infodemic has undone some of the much-discussed decline in public trust of institutions. Mainstream media institutions are enjoying a surge in subscriptions, while proverbially unpopular institutions such as the HSE are held in new esteem.

Cutting-edge draft research suggests promise in terms of other innovative ways in which social media may be harnessed for good. Researchers from China’s Anhui Medical University suggest that Google Trends search data shows some countries’ populations started to engage with concepts surrounding Covid-19 earlier than others.

Digital surveillance of search and social trends may be an effective tool in monitoring the pandemic and the public’s response. Google Trends data for searches of the term “social distancing” shows a massive increase in Ireland from March 11. The equivalent surge in Britain appears three precious days later. Tracking these disparities may prove useful in understanding the likely trajectory of what is to come.

Researchers from Shanghai’s Fudan University have suggested that early social media posts could have helped authorities track the likely spread of the virus before cases began to appear in medical centres.

The same group also suggests that social media channels provide the authorities with a way of tracking and measuring the effectiveness and public uptake of disease interventions such as social distancing.

We saw an example of this in Ireland when Simon Harris, the Minister for Health, took to Twitter in response to social media reports of people flouting advice by drinking in Temple Bar. Within mere hours, those renditions of Sweet Caroline in a Dublin pub had accelerated what was in effect a shutdown of Ireland’s hospitality industry.

This pandemic has been a crisis punctuated by hashtags. In Ireland we have seen tags like #FlattenTheCurve, #StaySafeStayHome and #CreateDontContaminate trend. Live streamed “concerts” and spontaneous influencer content have both entertained and subtly reinforced crucial government health advice, particularly among a key young demographic.

Covid-19 has been an emphatically viral phenomenon. The global medical community are learning about Covid-19 “on the job”. As communicators, we are too. It’s interesting to see who people turn to when they know they need the scientific truth.

Lughán Deane is a consultant with Murray Group, the communications consultancy

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