The WHO has declared coronavirus (COVID-19), a newly discovered contagious virus that attacks the respiratory system, as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. While most patients recover, older people, and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions are most vulnerable to its deadly effects. Given the quick spread of the virus that the world has witnessed in the past few months, people are concerned about contracting it and/or transmitting it to others.
Patrick Lagadec, author of Preventing Chaos in Crisis : Strategies for Prevention, Control and Damage Limitation (1993), characterises a crisis as a rapidly growing large-scale breakdown of important systems in a society, that jeopardizes people’s lives due to uncontrollable uncertainties in the form of the far-reaching effects and repercussions thereafter on a majority.
The COVID-19 outbreak is one such event that is creating a global crisis that needs the concerted effort of several stakeholders. COVID-19 is consequently the buzz word among individuals across every country. According to recent statistics, social media discussion on COVID-19 has hit almost 20 million in March 2020. This figure particularly escalated following country/location wide lockdowns, that result in restricted physical contact among people.
Why do we turn to social media during a crisis? The answer lies in the invisible but connected vast user base that disseminates information regarding the crisis. Our connection with other users of social media, provide us with much information and help us seek comfort in sharing common concerns about the crisis. Contents over social media can broadly be divided into:
- Information sharing: This typically involves sharing information of the day’s count of cases, information related to how many succumbed to the disease and the possible reason/s, and information about how governments across the world are tackling the COVID-19 crisis.
- Reactions: This typically involves people’s reactions to the shared facts, which takes an emotional front. This would include expressions of fear, loss, sadness, frustration about the looming uncertainty, and continued distress of what is to come along with the COVID-19 spread. Individuals also share jokes, fun riddles, and memes based on COVID-19. Many messages also express empathy, emotional support and encouragement to those affected directly and indirectly.
According to theorists, individuals who use social media during a crisis can respond in three ways: Creators of crisis communications; Followers who obtain information from the creators and disseminate it to others ; and Inactives who consume crisis information indirectly through word of mouth or traditional media outlets who in turn obtained the information first-hand from creators. That said, across the types of social media users, a huge amount of responsibility rests on the individual user to be an effective crisis communicator.
Statistics show that when comparing Informal personal/group accounts vs. Business/NGO/ government, news outlets/journalists, and healthcare/public health accounts, the former had more misinformation when compared to the other (33.8% vs 15.0%) . Such findings suggest that there is a need for interventions by multiple stakeholders to harness the power of social media during the COVID-19 crisis. While WHO has launched the @WHO Health Alert messaging service via @WhatsApp to disseminate accurate health information during this critical period, users are also accountable in spreading viable information.
Following are some suggestions on how we can be effective responders on social media during a crisis.
- Trusting authentic online sources posted on Facebook pages, tweets or blogs: The number of likes, comments or cross-posts does not necessarily verify the authenticity of the information. While the Government of India has already directed social media platforms to reduce the circulation of fake news on their portals, it is also wise for the user of these platforms to cross-check information with fact checking websites and/or official government social media platforms.
- Look out for images, videos and documents that do not look official: Whether an official letterhead is missing for a forwarded document, or whether a video just has a voice over and is static, could be vital clues that the media may be doctored.
- Share links rather than pasting text: Copying and pasting content, risks the information not getting updated, thus making it obsolete and inaccurate, whereas sharing the link would help ensure that the link will continue to provide updated information.
- Discussing sensitive and/or questionable/curious information with friends and family, and reasoning about their validity, before passing on the information. Heard of the famous forward on the effectiveness of lime and bicarbonate water being successful in killing the virus?
- Not spamming your immediate networks and believing that more information is better than less. In this case, it would help to be mindful that since everyone is affected by this global crisis, there will be an effort to seek information to reduce one’s feeling of uncertainty.
- Forward relevant information to a specific network: For instance if your network has parents who could benefit from information related to their children’s well-being during the crisis or perhaps articles related to the crisis that may interest potential researchers in your professional network, would make the information more relevant and contextual for the intended audience. This can go a long way in minimizing feelings of fear, distress or anger among social media users for whom the information may not be relevant at the moment.
- Allowing a ‘cool-off’ period for information to be processed by people in your networks. Some posts do not elicit an immediate response, and we do not need to force a reaction.
To conclude, today, all of us are empowered individuals due to technology. In these trying times of the COVID-19 crisis, our reliance on technology-based communication has grown manifold. Knowledge sharing comes with responsibility, not just for ourselves but also for the society at large. COVID-19, perhaps could be interpreted as fear incarnated but it heavily depends on us to perceive its existence rationally and backed by facts.
Miriam Mohan, M.Sc. & M.Phil., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. She specialises in Social Psychology.
Aparna Sahu, Ph.D., is a Cognitive Psychologist and a Senior researcher and consultant with Turiyan Psyneuronics Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore.
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