On 11 March, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, also commonly referred to as coronavirus, a global pandemic. And while there are plenty of important facts about the coronavirus we should all be aware of, I will leave the technical information to medical professionals, which I advise you all to keep up with. Looking at social media during these times and more specifically at how it affects us begs the question: is being online making us more panicked?
The world has faced serious epidemics before, be that the 2009 flu pandemic, AIDS, which is still ongoing but somehow dismissed by the masses, Ebola or even the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. All of these have had, or still have, serious impacts on our society. But one significant difference between these and the COVID-19 outbreak is the fact that the coronavirus is happening at a time of mass social media.
The problem with social media being a significant source of our news intake is the fact that it is hard to regulate and not always entirely accurate. In times of crisis, the panic that most people feel makes it especially difficult to regulate. In the case of the coronavirus, it seems that it is all we talk about, and yet everyone appears to have a different opinion. This results, in large part, from people gaining their news from very different sources, some valid and accurate, and others not so much.
Another important thing to point out is the fact that our exposure to and reliance on social media is what causes mass hysteria in the first place. It is crucial for us all to be vigilant, responsible and cautious right now, and anxiety around this outbreak is understandable. However, the many ways in which we deal with this anxiety can be harmful. Take for instance, the current shortage of toilet paper, hand sanitiser, soap and dry pasta happening in grocery stores, with companies such as Tesco in the UK implementing a purchasing limit (5 of the same items maximum) in order to ensure that everyone has a chance to get their hands on what they need. If that doesn’t represent panic buying, then what does?
Social media carries significant responsibility in panic buying, or in this case, panic-hoarding. Scrolling through Facebook, so many posts portray people stockpiling on these items—I’m talking twenty hand sanitizers, mountains of bottled water or copious amounts of toilet paper, either accompanied by a distressed caption, or worse, laughing emojis and some tone-deaf comment about how funny they’re being for over-purchasing loo roll. These types of posts, along with empty shelves, set people off to panic and buy even more, making it harder for others to get their hands on these items.
TikTok is another prime example of social media’s influence on mass hysteria. New gens have a well-known tendency to deal with hardships through humour and memes, and coronavirus-themed TikToks are currently going viral, with the #coronavirus hashtag accumulating over 9.6 billion views on the app. One of the most current TikTok trends involves users posting videos playing the ‘It’s corona time’ tune. In some, teens express their concerns about the virus or joke about having it, while others depict themselves buying pasta en masse and other items we would never think would have become so coveted in 2020.
Don’t get me wrong, memes can be a great way to relax and have been an outlet of laughter at a time of distress. But when it comes to memes that touch on a sensitive subject, people need to be responsible and cautious of their audience and the kind of message they might be promoting. Social media can already be a source of anxiety for many, so adding pandemic content on top of that, be that news or memes, isn’t exactly calming.
Taking precautions such as self-isolating to protect yourself or those vulnerable around you, thus buying enough resources to last you in this period is not adding to the mass hysteria—buying enough to last you a lifetime certainly is.
While some of these platforms are trying their best to stop false information from spreading, the amount of data shared online means regulation is near impossible. That’s why we all have a part to play in downplaying the panic on social media while ensuring we don’t spread any false information. Think twice before you post something, share accurate information from reliable sources (WHO or your country’s health service website is a good call), try to avoid speculation and let’s all try to take it one day at a time.
In the meantime, if you’re stuck at home self-isolating, don’t panic just yet. While having many negatives, social media can also offer some uplifting content. Accounts such as @tanksgoodnews and @upworthy are documenting how strangers are helping each other, whether by giving to those struggling financially or by inspiring other people to check up on the elderly in their communities and do their food shop or walk their dogs.
Wash your hands, try to stay at home and remember, we’re all in this together.