Practice Social Distancing with Social Media Too

Asmita Karanje

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In the corona times that we live in, while social media helps in disseminating real-time information, it also causes the spread of misinformation, information overload, stress and anxiety following exponentially growing statistics and an unprecedented focus on one issue eclipsing other pertinent matters.

It puts a lot of stress on our limited resources and restricts our ability to make the right decisions.

It is only imperative that we talk more about these issues during such times.

I have focussed on 3 major issues in this article using plenty of examples from around the world and some insights that I have gathered from experts on what we can do to overcome each of these issues.

  • Information Overload that breeds fear
  • An exponential increase in the spread of Mis-information
  • Stress and Anxiety, driven by following statistics

The information overload that breeds fear

There is no doubt about the content explosion on social media with relation to Coronavirus — it has topped as the most searched and researched term on Google.

It has piqued interest from all spheres of life — Government, Travel, Business, Politics, Medicine, Economics, to name a few.

From casual conversations to board room discussions to parliamentary addresses — it’s all about the virus — it knows exactly how to go viral.

Source — Google trends for one month from 21st Feb to 18th Mar

There are over 11 billion search results for Coronavirus/COVID-19 as of date — a novel virus we probably didn’t know much about until a few months ago. (Yes, I know the term isn’t new, the strain of the virus is so that we can count a few billion less — but you get the point, right.)

We are all equally guilty of scrolling through hundreds of tweets, texts, emails and the endless stream of Facebook and Instagram posts. We can’t help but click on those viral videos, read and respond to the Whatsapp forwards and browse through some fascinating personal stories on Quora and Reddit forums.

It can get overwhelming at times.

While I want to know about the travel ban restrictions imposed in my country, I probably don’t need to know about toilet paper fight in a shopping centre.

And the news on toilet-paper eventually did more harm than good.

A few people who fear supplies running out of stock pressed the panic button and stocked supplies far more than they need to get through this pandemic. It resulted in empty shelves causing even more people to rush to the supermarkets creating further panic.

Only if we didn’t have this information on toilet-paper fights’ or empty shelves at supermarkets’ we all could have been spared with this madness.

Again I am no one to say, ‘don’t stock’ or ‘don’t prepare for the future’ but I don’t believe hoarding helps anyone and we don’t wish to create another crisis when we are already dealing with one.

However, as we can’t control the supply of information, we need to self- moderate our consumption of content — what we consume, the sources we refer to and the time we spend in watching that content.

As per Daniel Levitin, McGill University psychology professor and author of ‘The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.’ said in his book,

“All of this is more information than the brain is configured to handle. The conscious mind can pay attention to three, maybe four, things at once. If you get much beyond that, you begin to exercise poorer judgment, you lose track of things and you lose your focus.”

Too much of anything is dangerous.

It is vital that we exercise caution while processing and sharing this information.

With a spurge in information related to Coronavirus, it caused a lot of fear and anxiety.

While certain information such as the story of Italy’s unprecedented escalation helped the world to take preventative measures, there is a plethora of other information which we can do without for now.

While it feeds people’s curious minds, it also breeds fear.

Before it became an epidemic, it became an infodemic driven by the fear of the unknown

There is way too much unproductive time spent online consuming content.

In the popular Netflix show ‘Patriot Act,’ Hasan Minhaj once gave his strategy to survive through a billion issues in 2020. He said, ‘You don’t need to shut your laptop, just close a few tabs.’

What he meant was we all have limited f***s to give, so we need to chose what we really care about and let other people worry about it.

That’s how we can truly focus on issues that really matter to you.

Overall, restrict your content viewing time not to be overwhelmed with a gazillion ton of information

Misinformation spreads faster than the virus

Misinformation is dangerous than the virus itself. While the mortality rate from the virus is roughly less than 10% in most countries, the damage by misinformation is 100%.

I am going to illustrate this point using a few examples from India and the US to explain how misinformation can be lethal.

There was a story by ‘Times-of-India’ that claimed ‘Infected Techie’s Wife who defied quarantine flew to Delhi, took a train to reach Agra tests positive for coronavirus’.

However, later on, SwarajyaMag (a digital media company) interviewed the family and uncovered the truth — ‘She didn’t defy quarantine, and when she flew to Agra, the husband wasn’t tested positive.’

It also provides details along with substantial evidence (tickets, test reports, and hospital records) around how ‘Times-of-India (TOI)’ (a leading mainstream newspaper) had misrepresented the entire story — wrong dates, incorrect facts, click-bait headline.

TOI later corrected the dates and changed the title of the story, however by then it was too little, too late — the damage was already done. The story had gone viral, was widely shared on all social media platforms. It brought a lot of shame to the family.

It is just one of many stories where either; facts are misrepresented, or fake news generated to create click-bait headlines.

In India, the right-wing Government authorities claim that cow-urine can cure Coronavirus. This story was so widely publicized that major international publications like BBC, Economictimes and Livemint had to run stories to counter this claim — Google search on Gomutra cure for Coronavirus

In the US, Alex Jone, a far-right conspiracy peddler has used the outbreak to sell his food products and other survival goods on his website.

Another Republican congressional candidate Joanne Wright from California tweeted: “The Coronavirus is a man-made virus created in a Wuhan laboratory. Ask @BillGates who financed it.”

This conspiracy theory made rounds on Whatsapp as well — “CORONA UNMASKED — Chinese Intelligence officer reveals the true magnitude of china’s coronavirus crises.”

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Source — Image of My Family Whatsapp group

It eventually was busted by fact-checkers at Snopes.com calling it a piece of horror fiction — however, a little too believable for some readers. It was published on r/NoSleep, a section of Reddit dedicated to scary fiction stories.

Fake news on COVID-19 virus illness is shared over 142 times that of legitimate and expert sources such as the CDC and WHO

PM Modi asked everyone to observe a public curfew Janatacurfew’ on 22nd Mar 7 AM to 9 PM to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus in India.

However, since his announcement, a message went viral that claims — ‘it is medically proven that the life of the virus is 12 hours and so a 14-hour ban will help to break the chain.’

Thankfully, this claim has fact-checked by ‘Altnews’, ‘Reuters India’ and several others.These are just a few of the misleading content that I was exposed to in the last two weeks. As per Newsguard, between Jan to March, the list of websites carrying fake news related to Coronavirus has grown from 31 sites to over 106 in the US and Europe.

In India, as there is more reliance on WhatsApp than any other medium, as per one article by Al-Jazeera, misinformation on health news has surged from 3 articles a week to 6 articles a day.

We live in times when we have a barrage of fake news that circulates in the media, and we also have a handful fact-checking news agencies to bust these myths, claims and superstitions.

But the problem lies spread faster than truth, and lies are easier to believe — we, as humans, are drawn to new conspiracies and lies much easily believing in truth.

We don’t want to believe the truth because the truth is boring.

It also sometimes cleverly exploits certain pre-conceived notions that people have — if people are inherently xenophobic, conspiracy theories like the ‘CORONA UNMASKED’ are more natural to believe.

Lies and fake news also offers some clarity by drawing out a clear villain in the story. However, reality is often ambiguous and much complicated. People want to consume something more comforting, and so the fake news sells.

So it becomes a lethal weapon in this digital age where battles are fought on Twitter and not on the borders.

Stress and anxiety-driven by following statistics

While we have spoken about information overload and misinformation related issues, it is only imperative to talk about the stress related to statistics.

Have you been hooked onto the statistics on Coronavirus ? If you are you are a ‘a statistics stalker’.

I have done that in the past when the pandemic hit and we all wanted more data and information to understand how contagious it is, which areas are impacted more and other things.

But it is nothing to be proud of, honestly.

As per a study done in the US on 1,279 Americans, 47% spent time each day reading statistical information and looking at graphs about the Coronavirus.

It said the statistics stalkers are likely to be more anxious, stressed and fearful.

As these statistics do not tell you anything about the 99% people who supposedly didn’t get the virus and are not infected, it magnifies the fear of contracting the virus amidst statistics stalkers.

It also proves to be counter-productive, as this time is being wasted in worry. It is of no help to those on the grounds fighting this pandemic.

Instead, utilize this time to do something you always wanted but didn’t find time previously.

Summary

Information is crucial to take prompt actions, but when information is traveling faster than the speed of light, it is essential to self-moderate the content we consume for our own sanity.

While it is important to be aware, it is also essential to get that information from the most authentic sources. Additionally, limit the time spent watching it.

Also, in rapidly evolving times like these, news around medicines and treatments for Coronavirus needs to be viewed with caution. Misinformation and misrepresented facts cause more harm than good — so it becomes all the more essential to fact-check everything that is being thrown our way to break the chain of fake news.

Lastly, being hooked onto the statistics doesn’t help anyone. So instead withdraw the need to look at the statistics before it becomes an addiction.

Instead, use this time to contribute towards building a stronger economy as that’s what we need the most.

Write an article, compose a song, call parents, clean home, work on that business idea, help a needy, don’t hoard supplies, stay at home, wash your hands and break the chain.

Take care, Stay safe!

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Thinker, self-experimenter, and a newbie writer. I write about personal growth, socio-political issues, and career advice.

Dallas, TX
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