Why Social Media Has Helped Turn COVID-19 Into an ‘Infodemic’

Photo: Stocksy / MICHELA RAVASIO
In many ways, the current pandemic feels as if we are currently taking part in an experiment: What happens when you confine millions of people to their homes with nothing but their devices—and the incessant ping of notifications—to keep them company through an unprecedented crisis?

COVID-19 isn’t the first pandemic to explode in the social media age; the H1N1 "swine flu" outbreak happened in 2009, three years after Twitter launched and Facebook opened to the public. Yet social media was in its relative infancy at that time, and it’s grown by about 50 percent in just the six years since the Ebola virus gave the world a scare in 2014. This is the first time we’ve ever had so much access to so much information, from so many sources, in such a high-stakes scenario.

The consequences have been a double-edged sword: Fear has gone viral, but so, too, has hope. While racist content spreads in certain social bubbles, uplifting videos from Italy’s quarantined residents make the rounds in others. Forty-four people in Iran died after attempting a dangerous cure they saw touted on their feeds, but throngs of people use social media to peer pressure their neighbors into staying home. And while many populations turn to their social feeds for unverified “insider” information when facts can’t come quickly enough, social media has also provided a lifeline for millions of people living in relative isolation.

We awoke on March 11, 2020—the day the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be an official pandemic—to a new world; here, a look at the dramatic role social media is playing in these surreal times.

The rise of an 'infodemic'

SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus that was only just discovered in late 2019, so there is much the scientific community does not fully know or understand about how it works. It's perhaps unsurprising that this knowledge vacuum has set the stage for what the WHO is calling an “infodemic," or the spread of hazardous false information. “Misinformation is rampant in times of uncertainty,” says Kathleen M. Carley, PhD, director of the Center for Informed Democracy and Social-Cybersecurity.

Nowhere does misinformation spread faster than on social media, which is where many people are finding their "news" these days, thanks in large part to dwindling trust in traditional media outlets. A 2019 Gallup poll found that only 41 percent of Americans trust newspapers, TV, and radio to report on the news "fairly and accurately," and a 2020 Pew Research Center study found that Republicans tend to distrust 20 out of 30 mainstream media outlets (compared to Democrats, who tended to trust 22 out of 30 of the same outlets). According to Sarah Roberts, PhD, assistant professor of information studies at UCLA, this has led to "information destabilization," which is far from an ideal stage for an unprecedented crisis to play out upon. “We've seen some pretty serious attacks on traditional media outlets coming from very high echelons of power, which is going to have repercussions when people are seeking accurate, vetted, and timely information about this health crisis,” Dr. Roberts says.

When information from leaders, news outlets, and your Aunt Mary are mixed into a single social media feed, it can be incredibly difficult for some people to discern credible sources from non-credible sources.

The “seamless” mix of news and opinion common in the media today has added another layer of confusion, says John C. Silva, director of education for The News Literacy Project. “It’s really hard for a lot of people to recognize when they’re being informed as opposed to when someone is trying to persuade or mislead them,” he says. This means that people who seek basic information right now about the coronavirus—what to do if they feel sick, for example—might find those details hard to source, buried beneath layers of politically-charged commentary.

Distrust in the government is also playing a role in this infodemic. “There's some concern around the world, not just in the United States, that governments have not been forthcoming,” Dr. Roberts says. Some journalists in China, for example, have been arrested because their coverage of the coronavirus doesn't depict the government in a positive light. Here at home, President Trump has consistently misled U.S. citizens and contradicted statements from top health officials throughout the crisis, most recently recommending people inject themselves with disinfectant to combat the virus. (In case there's any doubt: Do not do this!) Given that he oversees the organizations we’re meant to trust for information, e.g. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s perhaps unsurprising that some citizens might wonder if their friend's friend's friend is a more trustworthy source than any official under the government's purview.

What's more, when information from leaders, news outlets, and your Aunt Mary are mixed into a single social media feed, Dr. Roberts says it can be incredibly difficult for some people to discern credible sources from non-credible sources. “We have a very complicated informational environment that regular people are now being asked to navigate,” says Roberts.

Influencer culture further complicates how people interact with information on social media. There are hundreds of individuals who hold an enormous amount of sway (and usually have zero health credentials), and are able to spread bad information to trusting followers. “I'm less worried about formally-trained journalists and people who work as professionals in the field [spreading bad information] than I am about people who suddenly found themselves with a bunch of followers because of their lifestyle branding prowess,” Dr. Roberts says.

With their usual verticals on pause and their livelihoods at stake, some travel and fashion influencers are already shifting to wellness content—with dubious results. (Bachelor contestant Krystal Nielson told her 600,000 followers that a 10-day detox would prevent them from getting the virus.) The virus has also inevitably led to the rise of what Buzzfeed calls “Corona influencers,” aka people who’ve gone viral for the pandemic-specific information they share. Once this happens, their information can float to the top of the heap due to various social media algorithms, meaning that it’ll be seen by more and more people who take its influence as a sign of its trustworthiness.

The bubbles created by social networks can also serve to keep important information out of sight, skewing perspectives. Silva illustrates this point with the example of the unconcerned young spring breakers we saw in early March, partying in droves as others locked themselves down. “In that bubble, they believe this doesn't affect them, it's not dangerous,” he says. “Other people are not going to be able to break into that bubble.”

We all have more than one bubble, too, says Silva. "There are political bubbles, geographic bubbles, demographic bubbles, religious bubbles, and then friends and family," he says. “It's really hard for us to recognize that those bubbles are echo chambers, and so they’re a really difficult thing for people to break out of."

Bad information in action

All of the above, taken together, have created an environment in which hard-to-obtain facts have been all but drowned out by bad information. Some of this is misinformation, or bad information spread unknowingly by people just trying to help one another, and some of it is disinformation, or bad information planted by those trying to cause trouble. Either way, it’s problematic, particularly given this crisis is life-threatening for many.

“What we're seeing right now on social media is that there are at least three types of disinformation,” says Dr. Carley. They are: false cures or prevention techniques, stories about the nature of the virus, and conspiracy theories. In terms of dangerous “cures,” she’s seen posts espousing gargling with or drinking bleach, spraying chlorine on your body, and taking the "Miracle Mineral Supplement.” (We won't be linking to any of her examples here because we don't want to continue spreading untrue and harmful claims.) She’s also seen bad information about how the virus works, such as that kids are immune to the disease or that people of African descent are immune.

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In terms of conspiracy theories, Dr. Carley has seen posts asserting that the coronavirus is a Chinese bioweapon, or that the CIA created it. Silva adds that there are also rumors going around that the coronavirus is a conspiracy employed to enforce vaccinations, or that it’s a result of the rollout of 5G networks. (There are hundreds of other examples; Silva tells me that Buzzfeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko is a good source of debunked info.)

To be crystal clear, none of the above is true. And there are huge consequences to people promoting these theories. “[Bad information] can actually cause physical harm," says Silva. (See: Drinking bleach.) "Then, in some cases, it’s making people engage in risky behaviors, it’s leading to bad choices with respect to social distancing. And conspiracy theories are just building onto people's fears."  The "viral" nature of social media—where one post suddenly blows up and reaches the feeds of hundreds of thousands of people—makes all of this information more dangerous, too, because while people may not believe something they read once, says Silva, they’re likely to start believing something they see posted many times.

The silver linings

Social networks are designed to bring content to the masses, and algorithms typically don't care who originates the content if it's popular. This was problematic before the coronavirus came along (ahem, the 2016 election), and there's already been much talk about how responsible social networks should be for auditing their users' posts. “This issue was not, by any means, resolved prior to this pandemic,” says Dr. Roberts.

Thankfully, the biggest players in social media are seizing this moment to take new steps to stem the flow of mis- and disinformation. “A group of technology companies in the U.S.—which includes Facebook, Google, Twitter, Reddit, Microsoft, and YouTube—said they're coming together in a commitment to fight coronavirus-related information and fraud,” says Jon-Patrick Allem, MD, assistant professor of research, preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. Some examples: Google and Pinterest now redirect people searching for COVID-19 information to trusted sources; Facebook has banned ads touting fake cures; Twitter is demoting conspiracy theories; Instagram has added a Stay Home sticker/Story to encourage social distancing; dating apps like Grindr and Match are putting health information front and center. Whether these policies continue once the coronavirus is gone remains to be seen; however, it’s a positive step towards creating order in the internet’s Wild West.

There's more good news to be sussed out of this situation, too. In many ways, digital networks are enhancing public safety. Individuals are using them, for example, to lead by example in terms of social distancing. Chronically ill and immunosuppressed influencers are utilizing their platforms to put a familiar face with the vulnerable populations that social distancing helps most. And some celebrities, like Kylie Jenner, are using their enormous sway to reach younger populations otherwise not known to consume vetted news.

“I do believe that the incredible power of social media could actually play a very positive role here." —Sarah Roberts, PhD

“I do believe that the incredible power of social media could actually play a very positive role here,” says Dr. Roberts. “I've been heartened, for example, by celebrities who have been able to have access to testing that others haven't, who have tested positive, revealed that status, and been open about what they're contending with—hopefully to counter some of these very conspiracy theorists you’ve discussed,” says Dr. Roberts. “We need to hear those voices as well.”

Local government official—such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—have also been making positive use of social media to spread information in real time that pertains to the citizens they govern. “We've actually become reliant on government accounts on social media for important information,” Silva says. For some, these local leaders are filling voids they feel have been left by the federal government's response.

In countries like Iran and China, where information is censored, citizens have been turning to banned networks like Twitter to access accurate information, too. “Because it was clear to individuals [in China] that what they were seeing is different than what state media was saying, people very quickly downloaded VPNs [to access banned sites like Twitter], which we’ve seen in past crises as well,” says Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, assistant professor of Public Policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. "What we’ve seen in a lot of provinces, especially where Wuhan is, is a tripling in the number of users accessing Twitter once the quarantine happened.”

Plus, as much as opening social media can be a risk to mental health right now given the sheer amount of bad news circulating, it’s also providing an antidote to fear, anxiety, and loneliness. Viral videos, such as the ones of Italian residents singing from their balconies, are lifting spirits. Jokes and memes are playing their part in lightening the mood, too.

Facing the challenge ahead

With that said, isolating in our online bubbles while we're forced to cease IRL interactions may intensify the infodemic. It's imperative in these circumstances, then, that we learn to practice good hygiene when it comes to our information consumption and creation. "Being informed right now is is absolutely critical, and so we have to be very mindful," says Silva.

First and foremost, he advises turning to established outlets for your news. "Curate a list of sources you feel you can trust to be informed," he says, like following one or two of your favorite journalists and sussing out which news sites share factual news versus opinion or propaganda. "Look to the CDC and the World Health Organization, and if you want to spread information, spread that information," Dr. Carley adds. 

From there, you can employ a few pro tips to discern between fact and falsehood, reality and hype. "If you see something in your feed that leads you to have a strong emotional reaction, the first thing you need to do is take a step back and recognize that you are probably looking at something that is trying to manipulate you," says Silva. "The second step is that anytime you see something that just doesn't sound right to you, trust your instincts, open up a new browser tab, and Google it yourself; we call that lateral reading."

Silva adds it's imperative that people verify any information they find before they post it themselves. This means that knee-jerk reposts (guilty!) need to be avoided, and that you should take time to not only research the information but also to sit with it before sharing. By giving yourself time, you'll likely be able to eliminate some of that guttural emotion and editorializing from your own post. Dr. Carley further advises against posting satirical info to your account, as not everyone will be able to tell that it's a joke.

All of these are behaviors we should have adopted before the coronavirus came into our lives; however, these are extraordinary circumstances that call for extraordinary efforts. We don't know how long we will be kept apart from one another, and for that reason, social media is a godsend if used ethically and intelligently. A great responsibility has been placed at our fingertips and, for the most part, no one is policing how we wield it.

If that thought makes you uncomfortable, you can always, as both Silva and clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus recommend, utilize social media for its original intended purpose and that purpose alone: to connect with your friends, family members, and acquaintances. Once upon a time we may have complained about the endless stream of baby pictures and selfies in our feeds. Now, they may prove to be a balm, a welcome reminder that we are not alone and that behind closed doors, life continues.

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