Misinformation spreads like a virus
The COVID-19 pandemic has become one of the most defining moments of the digital generation. New norms such as mask wearing and social distancing have been adopted to further slow the spread of the virus in this country and across the globe. When these mandates were first put in place in March, many have utilized social media more than ever before to stay connected to friends and loved ones when they physically could not be together. However, social media usage during the COVID-19 pandemic also has posed certain concerns over the spread of misinformation in an era where accurate information is crucial to further preventing the spread of the virus.
When social media first became prevalent in the early 2000s, it was simply an online outlet to virtually keep in touch and connect with people you didn’t see frequently. In 2004, MySpace was the first social media outlet to reach a million monthly active users, followed by Youtube, Reddit and Facebook. As technology progressed, the world’s screen time increased along with it. Social media has become widespread as millions around the world tune in every day to see what their friends, family, celebrities, and favorite influencers are up to. Once the pandemic hit, social media became a frequent pastime, but also a necessity to many.
The months of quarantine left everyone to their own devices at home, literally. In March of 2020, worldwide smartphone usage increased by 70%, and by 40% in the United States. Social media platforms like TikTok took off, with short, one-minute videos of relatable content, but also newsworthy and informational how-to videos. Suddenly, it seemed as if everyone on Tik Tok was making whipped coffee, learning how to cut their own quarantine bangs, and learning dance routines. Tik Tok user traffic increased by 15.4% from January to March.
As summer trips to the grandparents’ homes, birthday parties and graduations were canceled, people resorted to using social media to virtually celebrate life’s moments. While apps like Facebook and Instagram have been around to keep in touch through messaging and photos, since quarantine began, there has been a demand for video chatting. Phone applications such as Google Duo and Houseparty had a significant increase in daily user traffic from January to March, correlating with the timeline of the emergence of COVID-19, to the lockdown.
Social media has not only been a way to connect with family and friends, but it also connects everyone to the rest of the world through the power of the internet. Social media has always been an open platform for anyone to say anything they wanted, with little regard for its potential consequences. While this open source of communication is valuable, the easy spread of misinformation on the internet through social media, in fact, does have its consequences, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As frustrations grew over the lockdown and the virus became increasingly politicized, the spread of misinformation and conspiracies about the virus began to increase as well. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres went as far as calling this issue the “pandemic of misinformation.”
In an interview with the Harvard Gazette, Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, a Lee Kum Kee Professor of Health Communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said that social media has changed the way the public receives information, from “passively consuming inaccuracies and falsehoods” to now being the source of its creation and spread. In comparison to when previous outbreaks like MERS and H1N1 took place, social media has a much larger presence now more than ever. This vast spread of misinformation and political propaganda causes confusion over issues such as mask wearing, how the virus is spread and even whether the virus is real or not.
Viswanth said that online COVID-19 misinformation has been overcrowding and overshadowing healthcare guidance from public health communicators, “making our work a bit more difficult.” This creates a challenge for healthcare workers who are on the frontlines working tirelessly to help those battling this virus, all while putting themselves at risk of potentially exposing themselves and their families.
Some social media platforms decided to regulate potential misinformation posts about COVID-19, knowing the possible detrimental impacts of spreading false information during a global pandemic. Facebook put warning signs on posts that were considered misleading and removed posts that were definitively spreading misinformation. Facebook said in August that they had removed a total of 7 million of those posts, and labeled 98 million posts with the warning. Instagram has also taken initiative to moderate COVID-19 related posts on its platform. Instagram stated in a blog post, “We’ll remove COVID-19 accounts from account recommendations, and we are working to remove some COVID-19 related content from Explore, unless posted by a credible health organization. We will also start to downrank content in feed and Stories that have been rated false by third-party fact-checkers.”
Twitter has been actively moderating potentially harmful tweets on its platform as well. Twitter has flagged several of President Trump’s tweets for COVID-19 misinformation. The President’s election campaign, Team Trump, was required by Twitter to remove a video where the President stated that children were “almost immune” to the virus. These actions taken by these platforms show that social media responsibility during the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t just apply to the everyday American citizen. Even the President of the United States and his campaign need to be held accountable for what information they decide to send to the public.
The utilization of social media during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a unique internet phenomenon. Social media has allowed loved ones and friends to stay connected and close during a time when it is encouraged to stay distant from one another. People are discovering different ways to make use of social media to keep busy while staying safe. However, social media usage during this time has also shown potential harm with the continued spread of misinformation and ultimately the potential to spread the virus itself. As the world continues to become increasingly reliant on social media for communication and news, the importance of social media responsibility and accountability prevails along with it.
Erin Terada is a second year Journalism major who will not be getting their news from Twitter. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.