Social media has become an essential tool in our lives, especially now that we cannot go round visiting friends and hanging out outside. Social media has managed to keep us sane while keeping us well entertained and informed. In fact, according to Google trends data; Google searchers have increased 8x and the interactions on stories on social media have increased 7x. This just comes to show people are using the internet and social media more than ever, but is it for the right reasons?
Information about COVID-19 has been spreading faster than the actual virus, and while there has been no shortage of the misinformation, social media has always been a good tool to keep the public informed. Many of the stories shared on social media have been both helpful and informative but most posts shared have driven fear.
As we dive into discovering how social media has impacted how people receive and share information on the virus weather factual or false, I want you to think about how you have been using social media since the first case of corona virus was reported in Kenya or in any other country. Have you been spreading fear or facts? Well, don’t answer that right now, you will get to answer it at the end of the article.
World Health organization has dubbed the new corona virus “a massive ‘infodemic,’” meaning there is an overabundance of information – some accurate some false- which makes it hard for people to get accurate and reliable information when they need it. This has actually set the corona virus apart from previous outbreaks like the SARS, MERS, and Zika. The previous pandemic caused global panic but the COVID-19 has been especially amplified by social media.
On Sunday morning, Kenyans online woke up to the news that drinking black tea was the breakthrough cure for the highly infectious virus that causes Covid-19. Shockingly, Kenyans especially from the coastal city of Mombasa believed the rumor and went crazy sharing the news and drinking the tea. While this is not the first instant of individuals believing everything they read online concerning the virus, there are even several theories doing rounds on the internet which are actually false and dangerous.
About two weeks ago, an anti-vaccine Facebook group called ‘We Brought Vaxxed to the UK’ started to spread dangerous misguided information about Covid-19. The posts on the groups championed xenophobia, erroneous medical information and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus. A post on the group claimed that hand sanitizer causes cancer and “a probiotic yogurt suppository” was recommended as a cure. Most of the posts even suggested that billionaires are making people ill for profits, practicing pseudoscientific studies and the vaccines will put children in grave danger. This is just one of the hundreds of groups spreading misinformation on the streets of social media. Luckily, there is a charity organization “The Center For Countering Digital Health” (CCDH), dedicated to shutting down such groups so as to prevent false and divisive lies and myths spreading across the web.
“If you cannot hold your breath without coughing for 10 seconds, you have contracted the corona virus.” This post was hugely popular on WhatsApp and I received the message not once but a couple of times from my mum, relatives and my ‘mucene’ cousin who never wants to miss out on the latest happenings, Mamyla. I received the message so many times that I held my breath severally just to confirm that I didn’t have the virus. Well, this information was entirely false and if you forwarded the message you helped in spreading misinformation on the virus. That is why WhatsApp has introduced the ‘forwarded’ and ‘highly forwarded’ labels to highlight when you should stop and think about whether you should share something that has been shared multiple times.
In as much as social media has perpetuated the spread of misinformation, it has still been an important source of verified information. Especially from verified sources like WHO, local and international news stations. Journalists have also been able to gain in-depth and accurate information on the virus as people are always sharing true stories on what is happening on the ground. This even helped in getting the accurate information on what is happening in china.
In a strange way, social media has also become a space where individuals share hope, kindness and grieve together. On Facebook, Weibo and WeChat, stories of despair and kindness abound. Alongside expressions of fear from people stuck in quarantine and from patients unable to receive treatment are also anecdotes of people donating, volunteering, and helping one another in unexpected and generous ways.
Social media also provides a channel for round the clock continuous communication. Doctors, patients and citizens get to share what is happening on the ground which helps to provide awareness about the flu season and other contagious information. But it is critical to ensure that the source of any health information is from a reputable source.
One of the greatest sources of anxiety has been watching the death toll raise every day and seeing people filling up hospitals to the brim. This has amplified fears for most people but it’s the reality of what is actually happening in the world.
“Have you been spreading fear or facts?” Whatever your answer is, remember that everything you post and share on social media has an impact on someone. At a time when people are fragile to the virus, the best you can do is spread factual information. The global death toll is almost at 1 million, this just shows you the virus has really shaken the world. Report accounts that spread lies and misinformation.