It started with a WhatsApp forward about how COVID-19 is taking its toll on people. The media made it abundantly clear that news would only cater to the pandemic and related things. Quite understandable and genuine, one would say. After all, social media thrives on breaking news, and masala served to the ever anxious mobile and TV-friendly users. 

And then there were none, only to confirm that there were many. The exotic affair between social media and the pandemic took off amidst all the doom and gloom. It was a match made in hell (err read Wuhan), and we were smitten. A relationship of giving and receiving where the social media gave all its attention while the pandemic kept giving thrills (err read chills).

From news of people perishing in China like falling packs of cards to cremating fields in Spain packed with dead bodies, social media sent chills down the spine. We had it all and in abundance. People staring at their phones, hence the messages exchange and random Facebook videos are the best sources of credible information. 

Yes, you hear it right. Everybody is a doctor and a self-proclaimed authority on all human problems. Once you were isolated from the position of strength through infinite video shots and a hoard of messages, you are bound to crumble.

And crumble we did. The anxiety took over us, and we gave in. From people drinking sanitizers for alcohol and sipping alcohol to get sanitized, life took a full circle.

Pandemic became the social media infodemic.

From pin to a plane, social media is your magic hat

An why not? You will find everything you need, want, or desire on social media. I never knew the dogs are cute, that the Maldives is a pretty celeb getaway to flaunt abs and skin, and a host of medicines when taken together can be an effective cure for CoV.

The numbers speak for themselves on the dominance of the internet. Who am I to rant? I am a user myself. 

4.1 billion people or a staggering 53.6% of the global community uses the internet, according to 2019 data. India ranks 2nd only to China in terms of users. Everybody has it; from the lowest in the society to the affluent, a mobile and internet connection is the constant between the two extremes.

Social media is your magic hat. You get just about anything from basics to the weirdest of stuff. It is like a pandora box with infinite possibilities. From crowdfunding to crowd riots, the possibilities are endless. You get the extremes of the world. It is like putting your hand inside a hat and performing a miracle. You dive deep into social media, and you are bound to be swayed by the sheer magnitude of what is available.

You get heavily edited videos to incite violence among communities. Also, you get access to millions of users ready to help you in some cause. With around 600 MN internet users (200MN +active) in India, the sky is your limit. Unlike China, social media in India is unregulated, and you can pretty much create a mess for someone or even make them an overnight celeb. The worst or the best part is that you always have the crowd available.

Social Media and the spread

With all the benefits available to us, we humans choose to spread panic more. Yes, good do happen through social media, and people reap benefits too. For instance, there are Facebook and WhatsApp groups where people share emergency numbers and details of other critical resources.

At this critical juncture, when we have limited access to cure and resources for managing CoV, it has become the savior of many. It is the go-to platform for spreading public health awareness and advocacy concerning public health issues. 

Many nations use Twitter & Facebook accounts for information spread. India has indigenously developed the “Aarogya Setu” application developed by The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Department. It is a tool to combat CoV and interlinking critical health services for citizens of India. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) maintains an active Twitter and Facebook page for information outreach. These organizations also monitor “tweets” that may signify any outbreak and share information on events related to CoV. 

A study in this respect confirmed that during the Ebola (2014) and Zika (2015) outbreak, social networks assisted CDC in establishing active communications within communities to prevent miscommunication which was later applied to improve public health. Even in 2016, when WHO declared the Zika virus as a potential danger to the world, social media monitoring played a critical role in enhancing risk control and disease outbreak management.

The roadblocks and hurdles

A smooth ride ain’t no affair, but an association.

With its ability to bring people closer than ever before, it comes with its challenges, including misinformation, Cyber-bullying, exploiting public opinion, and other forms of crime. 

Internet is a valuable source for obtaining health-related updates. The internet algorithms are manipulated as a means of spreading misinformation too. 

The stark possibility remains that the information transmitted is not current and not subject to any scrutiny, and is invalid, inaccurate, not applicable to our environment, or even false.

Another major hurdle for social media and the propagation of information is the “bubble filters” concept. 

Eli Pariser coined the term bubble filters in 2011. It touches on the concept of a personalized ecosystem for the user. 

The internet works on algorithms and through the data collected from the same user. It predicts their preferences and yield results considered similar to the likes of that user. These bubbles then produce a loop of similar data or content preventing users from viewing other different sources to differentiate information. 

The concept is similar to what we experience in our daily lives. It applies to any situation or illness consulted through the internet search engines or on social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

One of the most ominous challenges from social platforms is its potential to propagate false, pessimist, and distorted information that causes fear, depression, and anxiety in people with or without inherent psychiatric disorders.

While it has created a fast-track information channel, the same holds for misinformation too. It’s critical to come together and create working groups directed at fighting myths and false information over social platforms. 

Wrapping up, I’d say

Like everything else, social platforms have their evident pros and cons. Responsible use can mitigate many risks and bring a change coherent to the trouble at hand. It is a game-changer in this pandemic for a quick spread of critical information.

From critical treatments to oxygen availability and beds at your nearest hospital, the potential is immense. If utilized correctly, it can become the most potent weapon against inaccurate information, providing a quick resolution to critical issues.

The flow of news and information has become a double-edged sword for the people. Therefore, it is advisable not to contribute to the infodemic and bring about a positive change through actions by each of us. 

One less fake or unverified message can effectively bring a close to a vicious loop created over a period. The buck has to stop at us.

Pic courtesy: Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash