A Virus Gone Viral

Social media and digital communications in the pandemic

The world is connected in many ways today. What seemed impossible in communication just decades ago is now the norm. Want to reach out to a family member in Israel? Shoot them a Facebook message in an instant. Want to inform the masses of your thoughts and opinions? Just click the send button.

While some countries have a heavy hand in monitoring and censoring online engagements, the United States has had a historically hands-off attitude regarding social media platforms. Yes, we are the country with free speech. Forget the fact checking of the Trump administration and the refusal by big social media platforms to allow “some” types of information flow (citing many reasons such as accuracy). For the most part, Americans can write at will on social media. We all know some of the information on the internet is uncorroborated, anonymous and many times just plain inaccurate, but it hasn’t stopped the populace from plugging away on the digital spectrum.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated our lives for almost a year, and the billions of messages in cyber space about it can be true, false or very misleading. According to a blog by Sprout Social, our personal and work lives are increasingly conducted online, making social media an even more important aspect of our day. Information on COVID-19 is easy to find on social media. However, some of what is out there on the virus has been wildly false, and conspiracy theories abound on many platforms. With all the rumors, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

According to a blog published by Chatham House, disinformation – false or misleading information created and disseminated for economic gain or to deceive the public – has a long history. But COVID-19 has taken its reach and impact to new levels. A Later.com post reports Facebook and Instagram have seen 40% increases in usage during the pandemic. Both platforms saw views double in just one week. Obviously, the internet is a go-to source for information – and for erroneous data that’s being thrown about like a ship on rough seas.

In a research project I’m conducting on social media and crises, many people I spoke with said that when it comes to a social media firestorm, public relations tactics do the most good when they provide factual, accurate information. But factual information can be pretty hard to find when there’s so much misinformation out there. Opinions vary, especially on social media, about what to do to protect yourself from infection. While much of what’s posted is correct, you have to ascertain some individuals’ strategy in posting it. We’ve seen firsthand that even with facts about the virus being readily available, many experts disagree about the way to stem the tide of the pandemic.

While communicators are struggling to get correct information out there, proven protective practices have taken hold, such as mask wearing and hand-washing. But, as we see COVID-19 cases rise and hospitals fill up, many people are deeply concerned that what we’re told on social media may be questionable, at best.

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