Pamela A. Zeiser By: Pamela A. Zeiser
Associate Professor of Political Science
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06 Jun 2020 : Two Sides of Social Media 3/3

            I started this series of entries with positive ways social media are being used during COVID-19, yet of course know is used for good and ill – intentionally, unintentionally, and all at the same time.

            In my 31 May entry, I noted that one form of public health persuasion visible on social media is “stirring patriotism” and treat it as a positive. It can be. And, at the same time, I am fully aware that contradicts my 9 May entry regarding the hypocrisy of pandemic patriotism. Stirring patriotism can be both positive and negative when advantaged segments of society benefit while disadvantaged segments are, well, further disadvantaged. The same sort of hypocrisy is visible in the UK’s Dominic Cummings scandal, especially given the UK National Health Service/Prime Minister’s 16 May tweet picturing a car loaded with luggage, surrounded by a prohibition sign and the words “Controlling the virus means no visits to friend’s homes.”

            Social media are communications, but not always clear and effective (unintentionally and intentionally). The “save lives” part of the ubiquitous “Stay Home/Save Lives” slogan has variously been interpreted to be our own individual lives, the lives of those in our community, and the lives of health care workers. For our individual lives, naysayers then respond that most who become infected have mild or moderate cases, so if lives aren’t at risk there is no need to stay home. Invoking responsibility to our communities worked for some, but not Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. During a 23 March traditional media interview on Fox News, he turned that around by suggesting he and other elderly should be willing to die from COVID-19 rather than let the economy suffer. In the face of such responses, the meaning shifted again, as photos emerged on all types of media of health care workers bearing “I stayed at work for you, please stay home for me” signs as they were lauded as heroes.

            Responses to public health messaging can be literal replies to social media posts. Included in my 31 May entry, for example, the UN’s 23 May tweet of “Just Stay √Safe àInside +Positive” received numerous negative replies, including calls for the US to leave the UN and all international organizations, negative personal comments about WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros, and assertions that COVID-19 is a hoax. Even before the Dominic Cummings scandal broke, negative responses to the UK government’s tweet advising against visiting friends included questioning government statistics/asserting a hoax and complaints about infringements of freedoms.

            Misinformation and disinformation were/are rampant on social media, intentionally and not. Widely shared Facebook posts of COVID-19 myths included drinking hot water to kill the virus, eating hot peppers, and (worst of all) gargling with bleach. Trump’s suggestion that disinfectants be introduced into the body to kill the virus may have started in a traditional media press conference, but spread exponentially through social media, as noted by increases in calls to poison control centers – and poisonings themselves. Immediate efforts to respond and prevent the dangerous use of disinfectants also spread through social media; for example, Lysol, UK Royal Academy of Arts, government entities such as US Consumer Product Safety Commission, and various state emergency management agencies utilized social and traditional media warn against such uses.

            There are far darker uses of social media, utilizing COVID-19 to propagate white supremacy in the US by, for example, promoting discrimination against Asians, celebrating the spread of the virus in the African continent, recruiting new members, and even (allegedly “humorously”) suggesting infected individuals should purposefully spread the virus to racial and ethnic minorities.  As Time Magazine reported 8 April, one white supremacist channel on the social media platform Telegram saw an 800% increase in membership in the month of March by focusing on the coronavirus as a recruiting tool, including by inflaming attitudes toward potentially “diseased” immigrants.

            Social media platforms are themselves a tool, neither good nor bad but for the uses to which they are put. As with many earlier events, the COVID-19 pandemic proves this as well. For every positive use of social media to educate individuals about the virus, there are posts presenting disinformation, denial, and racism. Without gatekeepers to assess the content, it is up to users to assess the negatives – as well as the positives.


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