Social media platforms are seeing an “extreme spike” in use during the pandemic. WhatsApp, the popular messaging app owned by Facebook, has seen an overall increase in usage of over 40% (and over 75% in some markets, such as Spain). Twitter, a favourite of US President Donald Trump, has also seen usage numbers surge, even as advertising falls away.
As lockdown drags on, people are turning to social media to stay in touch. Is that a good thing? Does it leave us more vulnerable to the spread of fake cures, misinformation, and panic? Or is it keeping loneliness at bay, helping us organise volunteer groups and offer support to our communities?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Dzsenifer, who argues social media has been enormously helpful during the crisis – allowing people to spread news and organise support groups. However, the World Health Organization has said that, as well as the pandemic, it is also fighting an “infodemic” of misinformation on social media. So, is social media making the job of fighting COVID-19 easier or harder?
To get a response, we spoke to Vytenis Andriukaitis, currently World Health Organization (WHO) Special Envoy for the European region and formerly European Commissioner for Health. Is social media making lockdown better or worse? How would he respond?
Both. You can’t separate the positive aspects from the negative. First of all, what is meant by ‘infodemic’? Look at how panic and fear are so high on the agenda. Some people are panicking others by talking about the end of the world, and disseminating bad information completely divorced from reality, and are not listening to scientific advice from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) or World Health Organization (WHO). They are ignoring the advice that is out there.
On the other hand, you can also see how we are now equipped, using social media and ICT platforms, to disseminate scientific knowledge and advice about public behaviour and the capacity of everyone to help us to fight this pandemic; about the possibilities of encouraging people to send positive messages to those who have mental health problems, because you know panic and fear always affect the most vulnerable hardest, especially those with mental health issues, and we need to send them reassuring messages, and can do that using social media. So, social media is a very powerful instrument but also causes very powerful challenges.
Finally, you also see people spreading disinformation deliberating as propaganda, to provoke riots or unrest. This is also very dangerous. We need to promote the positive elements of social media but, of course, I am very happy that some social media platforms have decided to block some fake news and disinformation, and we need to inform people to please instead use the WHO and ECDC websites. I see both trends, but now we should understand we are in a very fragile environment and need to join progressive forces to influence social media to move in a more positive way.
For another perspective, we put the same question to Natascha Strobl, an Austrian analyst of right-wing extremism and popular Twitter user, who has been active on social media helping to organise community support activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. What would she say?
If I had to choose, I would say it’s making things better, precisely for the reasons that Jennifer mentioned. It’s really good to see you’re not alone. When the going gets tough again, there are lots of people on social media and you can chat and joke; or you can be serious and find someone to talk with.
I think that’s really important because a lot of people are sitting alone, which is really difficult. There has always been fake news, rumours, etc. Even if there were no social media now, there has always been gossip between friends and neighbours. And now, of course, it’s on a much larger scale.
I think we have all learned a lot in recent years about how to deal with it and how to assess it. Precisely because it is a very difficult crisis situation, it is important to assess this again and again. But on the whole I would say: it is really good that people are not alone, and social media offer a lot in terms of help, being together, distraction and that’s nice. And we are all connected all over the world and can give each other courage.
Is social media making lockdown better or worse? Has it allowed people to share information and organise volunteer and support groups? Or has it facilitated the spread of “fake news”, junk science, and disinformation? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!