We’re all coping with the coronavirus pandemic in different ways. Baking is certainly a popular option, with plain flour now more scarce than toilet paper and sex toy sales skyrocketing. Unable to meet friends and socialise in ‘normal’ ways, many of us are inevitably spending more time online—and embracing new, alternative, and unusual forms of socialisation and escapism.
In response to this ‘new normal’, peculiar and oddly specific Facebook groups are popping up endlessly, creating communities dedicated to memes and quarantine trends. Several weeks ago, museums like The Getty and the Rijksmuseum asked their followers to recreate famous artworks from their collections; now, a Facebook group dedicated to the same task has almost 45,000 members.
Community networks have been set up to share resources, such as flour, and exchange materials, like books and board games. One group in particular caught my eye and I immediately had to join. Founded last summer, the membership has recently exploded due to the current situation, quickly passing one million and now over 1,500,000.
The group in question—A group where we all pretend to be ants in an ant colony—is quite self-explanatory, really. Posts focus on memes, photos and videos of ants: sourcing and foraging food, fighting off attackers. Comments are capitalised and spaced out, so lift becomes ‘L I F T’. The ants help each other out with exploring, harvesting and construction. Puns abound and A Bug’s Life is practically treated as a sacred text.
Politics are banned, including any mention of COVID-19, which provides perfect escapism. The Queen rules supreme, which does make some posts feel like a strange pro-monarchy cult—until you remember that they’re talking about a hypothetical ant queen and not Elizabeth II.
The group is wholesome and joyful, the perfect antidote to the troubling and anxious times we currently live in. The wholehearted, nearly overwhelming dedication to work and productivity could easily descend to a late-capitalist hellscape, yet the levity of the premise keeps it endlessly positive. And, at a time when it feels difficult to be productive, helping an imaginary ant carry a discarded chip to a hypothetical ant colony feels genuinely useful.
Ultimately, you are connecting ever so slightly to another person somewhere in the world who is also pretending to be an ant—and that makes everything seem a little bit better. A few of my friends also joined, independently; seeing their comments feels like a minor form of socialisation, a connection to the outside world.
And there have even been real world implications. The past week has seen a line of merchandise (“merchANTise”) launched, raising money for The Nature Conservancy, a major American NGO dedicated to “conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends.”
Copycat groups such as anteaters, bees, middle-aged dads, inmates or guards have been endlessly popping up since a tweet about the group went viral. Several similar roleplaying groups have been going for months or even years, pretending it’s 1453 (knights, porridge and plague), 1897 (“A place for confounded tomfoolery, with a dash of beseechery, and a smidgen of haberdashery to boot!”), or 2007-2012 (Club Penguin, emoticons and troll-face memes).
But somehow I keep coming back to these ants. I’ve learned a lot about them in the past week or so. Ants live in colonies, cooperating with one another to protect and sustain the colony as a whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Without wanting to take this metaphor too far, perhaps we should all be a bit more like ants right now, supporting one another, digitally as well as physically.
Social distancing isn’t easy but it is necessary for the time being, in order to protect the population as a whole and the systems that uphold us. In the meantime, little acts of kindness such as helping out a neighbour or a stranger or even lifting a discarded chip can make a world of difference.
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.