Recent studies highlight the good, the bad, and the ugly
In times of social distancing and isolation, we are never truly alone. Social media has allowed people to connect although being physically apart. Since the pandemic began, and especially since lockdown measures were introduced, social media consumption grew drastically. According to a survey done by GlobalWebIndex, 57% of internet users in the US and UK said that social media made them feel less lonely during the lockdown. We are video-chatting more, messaging more, and virtually interacting more via social platforms.
The pandemic period has also changed one of the major issues social media platforms were facing in recent years. 42% of social media users said that they have been experiencing less pressure to portray an unrealistic image of their lives on social media during the pandemic. Social media allowed momentary escapism with “virtual happy hours”. In these challenging times, people shared their struggles and found comfort in others who are facing the same obstacles and hardships. Dozens of Covid-19 long hauler Facebook groups gave solace to thousands who initially couldn’t find answers with doctors and helped each other.
Researchers and doctors were able to collaborate and form global networks. Social media were also a place where valuable information could be passed on. Leading experts were able to share valuable information with the masses. A recent study that was done by Cleveland-based researchers found that social media could actually be used as an epidemiological tool and help predict future public behavior and obedience to public health guidelines.
Whereas there is good content in social media it might be tricky to find it. In the early days of the pandemic, the WHO warned about ‘infodemic’ — an overabundance of information. This is especially apparent in social media and makes finding a trustworthy source of information a difficult task for many people.
This might explain why researchers from India, Saudi Arabia, Czech Republic, and Egypt concluded that most covid-19 related tweets have failed to guide people on how to act during the pandemic. While analyzing tweets using deep learning classifiers, the group of researchers found that “people showed confused-behavior in social media… and portrayed emotions likewise”.
Social media trends could also motivate people into acting in an unwanted, irrational, and unbeneficial way for society. A study in Australia found that excessive information circulating through social media played a significant role in panic-buying phenomenons seen all over the world. For example, rumors about low supplies of toilet paper coming from China led to unprecedented demand in many countries. People were posting pictures of empty shelves, hashtags such as #toiletpapergate and #toiletpapercrisis were trending for days. People, who by then hadn’t bought toilet paper, were pressured into quickly stocking up, causing a further shortage.
The main reason that infodemic has become a major problem is the significant portion of the information which is false. When, in April, the little-watched “London Live” television channel broadcasted an 80-minute interview with Covid-19 conspiracy theorist David Icke, the network was sanctioned. Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator, issued a 16 pages report after receiving only 48 complaints. This doesn’t happen with social media.
It has been shown that misinformation and conspiracies are causing people to refuse to engage in health-protective behaviors. A recent survey that was done by British data analytics firm YouGov found that 1 in 6 British people would refuse a coronavirus vaccine. A further sixth said they weren’t sure whether they would accept. A study by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that people who rely on information from social media are more likely to be hesitant about getting vaccinated.
A study by Cambridge University also reached a similar alarming conclusion. Researchers have found a strong link between social media usage and Covid-19 conspiracy beliefs. People who mainly use social media as a source of information were found to hold at least one conspiracy belief such as that the coronavirus might not exist, the coronavirus is caused by 5G, the lethality has been exaggerated — to name a few. YouTube and Facebook were found to have the strongest association with conspiracy beliefs by the Cambridge researchers.
The study found an even more troubling link. Not only that social media usage, and relying on information from social media, sparked conspiracy beliefs; These beliefs, in turn, caused people to avoid health-protective measures. Infodemic causes the actual pandemic to keep spreading.
While misinformation and conspiracy theories on major platforms cause damage due to a high volume of users, it appears that smaller, niche platforms are responsible for much of the spread of false information as well. An Italian study found that in the American right-winged social platform Gab the volume of engagement to questionable-sourced posts is 3 times larger than for reliable-sourced ones. Posts regarding “biological warfare” and “Bill Gates” for example were driving a lot of traffic on the platform.
Some researchers called for government-backed fact-checkers in social media. Many call for stricter laws and regulations. Official health authorities such as the CDC and PHE have active social media accounts where they share reliable information. This is not enough. As the famous quote goes, ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’.
It is up to everyone to make social media a safer place. The platforms, the governments, and us, the users. Same as with Covid-19 health measures. Even if the majority is following guidelines, the minority who does not would make the pandemic keep going and cause everyone to suffer.