Social Media Is Making All This Worse, Even The PM Can See It
If there’s one thing that recent events are teaching us, apart from proper handwashing technique and that, yes, most meetings really could just be emails, it’s the strengths and weaknesses of social media.
And really, it’s the weaknesses that are coming to the fore. So much so that at his press conference this morning, Scott Morrison had to warn people not to believe what they read about coronavirus on social media.
"Go to health.gov.au and go to the state websites to get your information there," he told the country. "Avoid that nonsense that you're seeing on social media."
We live in an age of unprecedented access to information, but that’s actually quite intimidating for many people. It’s hard to navigate. So, you default to getting your info from a few sources: Facebook, Twitter, and whatever emerging platform the kids are all about these days. (It’s TikTok, right? Is TikTok still a thing?)
The point is, almost nobody goes direct to established news sources anymore, at least not first hand -- much of your news is mediated by social media.
This has its positive effects, of course. In this age of citizen journalism, useful data can spread incredibly fast because it’s jumping the usual editorial process completely -- photos and videos of corona-stricken areas don’t need to be vetted by editors when they’re posted directly to YouTube or Flickr. That means we’re getting stories out of places like Italy faster than the machinery of traditional news organisations could ever supply. The agility of the social media landscape is astounding.
Facebook in particular has been great for community organisation, with many suburbs and towns coordinating supply drops, emergency transport, food drives, and more. Good stuff -- it’s heartening to see communities come together in a time of crisis.
But there’s a flipside, and that’s the unchecked transmission of misinformation, and the tendency for only the most outrageous and inflammatory stories to rise to the top -- which is why the nonsense theory that the virus had its origins in Chinese people eating bat soup is still doing the rounds, even though it’s been thoroughly debunked.
Thanks to good old-fashioned racism and squeamishness about other cultures’ eating habits, that one has stuck around for far longer than you might expect. But it’s not necessarily directly harmful (although it’s certainly indirectly harmful in terms of raising the level of anti-Asian sentiment in the general community).
More pernicious is the constant, steady rise of background-level panic, which is caused by people, paradoxically but undeniably by people talking about the kind of things people are likely to panic about.
The Great Toilet Paper Rush is the most obvious example of this. There was no shortage of toilet paper until suddenly there was. And while the specific cause of that panic is unknown (will we ever uncover the identity of Toilet Paper Panic Patient Zero?), the spread comes down to people propagating the idea via social media. Every photo of an empty shelf led to at least one or two people deciding to grab an extra roll or six on their next grocery run -- and to post a photo of the barren aisles if they were thwarted. And so it goes. I’ll cop to it -- I’ve done it myself, and on reflection I’m not proud.
We also tend to believe that anything that could be about the pandemic is about the pandemic. So when a story like the punch up at the Bass Hill Woolies starts heating up, it’s both because we think it’s about a fight over quarantine supplies, and it in turn exacerbates anxiety over quarantine supplies -- even though authorities have said they don’t believe the fight was over groceries.
Even when a fight is about quarantine supplies -- like the two women fighting, again, in a Woolworths -- or coughing etiquette -- like the man yelling at the woman on the train -- isolated incidents turn into viral sensations. But we share them around, and in the back of our minds we think, “Am I going to get my clock cleaned reaching for the last litre of long life milk?”
This stands in stark relief to the response to previous disease scares. In November 2002 another respiratory illness emerged from China -- SARS, which ultimately went on to infect some 8,000 people around the world, killing 774. That's a death rate of around 10 percent. But the response in Western communities was muted -- perhaps because we could view it as happening to “other” people over “there” rather than to “us”.
Today, COVID-19 has a higher infection rate than SARS, with almost 190,000 infected worldwide at the time of writing, but it also has a much lower mortality rate of between one and four percent. Plus, we know how to combat the spread -- social isolation and hygiene discipline being key. Yet the constant stream of information is what’s put us on an apocalyptic footing -- the signal of useful data is being lost in the noise of anecdotal and poorly-sourced conjecture. This wasn't possible in 2003.
We’re simple animals, really. We tend to believe either the first or last thing we heard, and when we’re looking for answers we tend to stop at the first one we find, which means that misinformation and disinformation are… well, they tend to be viral, especially when they feed into pre-existing fears and anxieties.
What we forget is context -- Italy isn’t Australia and Wuhan isn’t Sydney. There are factors at play in those places that affect the spread of COVID-19 that simply aren’t part of the equation here. Still, we see the videos and we read the alarming numbers, and if we don’t outright panic, we certainly become more open to the possibility.
There’s no systemic fix for this unfortunately. The big social media platforms can barely enforce their own policies, let alone consider more nebulous notions of public good like this. And so it falls to us -- and by us I mean you -- to do our best to check the spread of misinfo, disinfo, and general panic. So, think about what you’re posting, consider the source of what you’re sharing, and try to make sure that what you’re putting out there is helpful, not harmful.