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I examined memes to find out how the coronavirus is impacting social media. Here’s what I found out

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.

It’s all memes and games until we actually storm Area 51

Some memes go viral, and the storming of Area 51 meme is no exception. If you’ve missed the memo while scrolling down your social media feeds, there is currently an event on Facebook trending, inviting people to join together and storm Area 51 collectively. So far, over 1.6 million users have clicked ‘attending’ with 1.2. million ‘interested’—and the number only keeps growing.

‘Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us’ is the name of the event that has now turned into an internet joke, with thousands of memes circulating everywhere. “If we naruto run, we can move faster than their bullets. Lets see them aliens”, says the description of the event. So what is the plan? To meet up at 3 am on 20 September 2019 and jointly storm the heavily patrolled Area 51 (an open training range belonging to the U.S. Air Force), of course. The joke is that, we, as internet users and meme enthusiasts, can barge in on the government and uncover their secrets, all in the name of humour.

Firstly, why is Area 51 so protected? It is a facility within the Nevada Test and Training Range, a detachment of the Edwards Air Force Base (officially going by the name of Homey Airport and Groom Lake). Like many military facilities across the globe, its primary use is hidden from the public. Some conspiracy theorists believe that the U.S. government is hiding information on UFOs and that Area 51 is the biggest base holding captured aliens. 

These theories began circulating when a man named Bob Lazar claimed he worked at Area 51’s ‘Sector Four’, while he was apparently contracted to work on alien spacecrafts. There is no verification to his claims, nor is there proof of his academic qualifications that would enable him to acquire this position in the first place, yet Lazar maintains that all such evidence was erased by the government. He has since appeared in interviews, Joe Rogan’s podcast, and even had a Netflix documentary filmed about him. Popular culture played a role in creating the associations between the military base and aliens, but there is no physical proof of this. It is unlikely that the research base holds any aliens captive, so raiding the premises to “see them aliens” would, quite frankly, be a waste of time.

But why are we taking this joke so far? The answer is simple—because of how meme culture works. Memes have become such a common part of our internet experience that we began incorporating them into our daily lives. Millennials and Gen Zs began forming tight-knit online communities of different demographics, with forums largely consisting of memes. They allow one to connect to others, gain a sense of belonging, and stay relevant within the digital realm. 

Therefore, memes and internet phenomenons have a tendency to blow out of proportion and merge with reality. We’ve seen the bottle cap challenge go viral in recent weeks, criticized for being unsustainable and promoting pollution, the Kylie Jenner lip challenge a few years back, and one that deserves honorary mention—the Tide Pod challenge.

Remember the start of 2018? What began as a meme gone viral soon turned into an online challenge where people would film themselves eating tide pods, daring others to do the same—with some, even cooking elaborate meals using tide pods prior to consumption. The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) reported 37 cases of pod digestion among teens, with half of them intentional. Tide had to urge people to stop eating them, and Facebook and YouTube began deleting videos of people consuming these. Eventually, supermarkets and corner shops began locking up tide pods and other laundry detergent products. 

Why would a human consciously choose to eat a tide pod, you may ask—no one can say for sure, but what is clear is that meme culture has really gotten out of hand. So, are we actually going to storm Area 51? History does tend to repeat itself, and so there is no doubt that at least a small group of people might show up. With many hotels, campsites, and Airbnbs around the area fully booked out for these dates, it seems that some people are taking this joke more seriously than others.

Here is the thing, then. I don’t want to sound like a killjoy, but raiding Area 51 is a bad idea. The U.S. government does not find it funny, with a spokesperson telling the Washington Post the Air Force is “ready to protect America and its assets”. With ‘no trespassing’ signs all around the base warning that “failure to do so can result in the use of deadly force”, the message should be clear to anyone attempting to get in. The title of the event might state “They Can’t Stop All of Us”, well, they very much can.

Even CNN is currently trying to stop people from raiding Area 51 with a collection of memes, which is obviously an effective form of communication. After all, memes are what got us talking about this matter in the first place. Facebook user Jackson Barnes, who jokingly created the initial ‘game plan’ on how to storm Area 51 had to go as far as to write, “Hello US government, this is a joke, and I do not actually intend to go ahead with this plan”, not wanting to take any responsibility for those who plan to go ahead with this idea.

It is evident that the joke is getting a little out of hand. It might die out in a few weeks like most internet phenomenons, or it might keep snowballing—and if it does, then it is uncertain what will happen or who actually has the power to put an end to all this. Until then, ‘Storm Are 51’ merch is available for sale, as a joke or not. That’s the internet for you.