How Covid-19 brought out the best and worst of social media
The rampant spread of misinformation during the pandemic has led to louder cries for greater responsibility from tech giants
Many serious issues in society that have been known, but were dormant, are resurfacing following the seismic after-shocks of the Covid-19 'earthquake'. Now, more than ever, the universally acknowledged truth about social media as an amplifier of communications between people from across the globe is evident everywhere. Its ability to connect people globally with few barriers and no censorship has meant that anybody can indelibly share anything with anybody, anywhere at the click of a button. Indeed, this ubiquitous power of social media, has only been magnified during the Covid-19 lockdown.
At its best, social media has provided a lifeline for many people physically isolated and alone in their own homes. It has provided reassurance, support and messages of hope and love for many. There have been inspirational stories, such as that of Captain Moore, the WW2 veteran who raised millions of pounds for NHS charities, which went viral and inspired other nonagenarians and centenarians from across the world to walk in their gardens for charity. Medical professionals also used these platforms to share their knowledge and practices to advance the understanding of coronavirus and advocate for prevention measures during the pandemic.
But at its worst, the Pandora's box of social media's amplifying power has also created a lethal echo-chamber of conspiracy theories and misinformation, by enabling anybody to share their opinions and views about Covid-19, unchecked. Countless corona-conspiracy theories cropped up, based on nonsensical pseudo-science; for instance, that 5G networks could spread the virus, which led to engineers receiving death threats and phone masts being set alight.
The spread of misinformation, fake news, and downright false reports about the cause and cure of the virus from known and unknown sources has been rampant, leading to assaults, arson and deaths. Politicians opining that it would be "interesting" to see if injecting bleach could cure coronavirus or flagrantly recommending unproven cures, as well as sources claiming similarly outlandish, mythical cures (such as cow's urine, and gargling with disinfectant) have all been equally dangerous.
A recent survey found that 45 per cent of respondents had been exposed to such misleading or incorrect health advice. Although not everybody relies on social media for their news, nearly half (42%) said they do, and these are more likely to believe conspiracy theories - which is troubling.
With much power for good or bad, there must be greater responsibility from the social media tech giants. For many years, governments in the US and EU have been grappling with the problem of formal scrutiny and regulation of these platforms. Their main response is the well-rehearsed argument that they are platform providers, not content creators, and so cannot be responsible for the content on their platforms.
Coronavirus has broadened the spectrum of light and the questions for the platform owners are getting louder and more difficult for them to answer. But answer they must to protect individuals and the public from deadly harm.
(Mei-Na Liao is Head of Engagement and Business Development, and Programme Director, MSc International Business, at University of Birmingham Dubai)