COVID-19 & social media

The “Spanish Flu”, which killed millions during 1918-21, didn’t begin in Spain. But it was the Spanish media that first reported it. World War I was in its final year, when the first cases were identified in the US. By then, many soldiers in Europe had been infected. But the propaganda machines of combatant nations suppressed news of the disease. Neutral Spain did not. Censorship delayed policy responses that could have mitigated the impact of the flu. Similarly, the initial response to COVID-19 may have been inadequate, due to the tight leash kept on China’s freedom of expression. Doctors in Wuhan, who speculated about a new disease, were punished. Victims were afraid to mention their symptoms and the scale of infection was unrecognised. The Chinese health care system woke up after COVID-19 had crossed the line into community-spread. Iran, which also disapproves of namby-pamby concepts like freedom of expression, also suffered massive infections and many deaths, before its health care system swung into action.


In other places, social media exploded with mentions of coronavirus and helped galvanise health care policy. It has been fascinating seeing the social media response to a pandemic in real-time. Panic and misinformation about COVID-19 have spread faster than the disease itself, even as the pandemic has bounded on at blinding speed. Social media has also proved an excellent medium for communicating public policy. Coherent, medically actionable information about handling the virus and travel advisories have been transmitted at speed. Platforms have been inundated with wild conspiracy theories, as well as ads and “public service announcements” advocating exotic and useless substances, such as cow urine, “blessed” turmeric paste, homeopathic pills, and vodka-based hand-sanitisers that supposedly prevent infection. (Hand-sanitisers, which do work, need about 60 per cent methyl alcohol content while vodka contains only about 40 per cent ethyl alcohol.)


But the platforms have featured public service announcements from the World Health Organization, and national disease control organisations. Announcements about cancellations of events, travel bans, and local news pertaining to the virus, have rapidly gone viral. The concept of social distancing — avoiding physical contact and keeping a metre’s distance between individuals — has also been spread on social media. Winnowing out fake news and misinformation from the verifiable and useful has been difficult, even on a war footing. Google, and its subsidiary YouTube, have worked overtime to remove ads, and videos advocating nonsensical practices, and ads selling therapeutically useless substances. Google has also tried to clear out fake news on keyword searches and it has given governments, multilaterals, and NGOs free ad space. By and large, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have amplified the verified and credible, even if they have not succeeded in eradicating the false.


Of course, one cannot forget the “social” aspect. Patients suffering in isolation have been able to keep in touch with the world in a fashion unimaginable a few years ago. They have played games, streamed music, and connected with far-flung friends. These have kept the very real threat of an epidemic of depression at bay. Social media could, in future, provide an early warning system to give notice about the next epidemic. Artificial intelligence is already being deployed to analyse public posts, to derive information about outbreaks of mystery diseases. When somebody is ill, their social media presence can be used to trackback to the focus of infection, and to warn others at risk. Of course, this raises uncomfortable questions about privacy. Unfortunately, an emergency like this gives governments an excuse to “temporarily” ignore fundamental rights and this could easily become normalised.


Thus far into the COVID-19 saga, it seems social media has been a force multiplier for both good and bad. It offers a rich dataset with early alarm signals and feedback from victims; it is a powerful platform to transparently inform the public about policy. It is also a tool for toxic misinformation. One can only hope that the wisdom of crowds continually tilts the balance more in favour of the positive.


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