The Pandemic of Social Media

Farzana Jahan

Only a couple of months back, life was exquisite, with everything going perfectly smoothly and no pandemic was in sight. The world, however, resounded with a recently discovered risk when the Chinese government cautioned of an infection emitting in one of its regions. Before long, it spread to nations around the world and was proclaimed as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. Looking at the statistics now, Corona Virus has already taken more than a million lives with millions more infected.

It is not new that the world has been tormented by an infection like this.  In fact, infections have been constant throughout the human race. The Black Death that erupted in the 13th century, The American Plague (16th Century), The Great Plague of London ( 1665-1666) and Marseille (1720-1723), Russian Plague ( 1770-1772), Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic (1793), Flu Pandemic (1889-1890), Spanish Flu (1918-1920), Asian Flu (1957-1958), AIDs pandemic and Epidemic (1918 to date), H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic (2009-2010), are the examples of pandemics and epidemics that wiped huge populations and ravaged humanity. Amongst these, what makes Coronavirus so astounding is that it occurred at a time of technological progression and in the age of social media. The nature of social media has brought a pandemic of its mind.

The grey reality that surrounds the functioning of social media during the pandemic is that it is a hotbed for endorsing fake news and inaccurate information. As social media reaches an exponential number of people so does misinformation. In this time of crises where all physical and social gatherings have been called off, it cannot be denied that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other sites have been a constant companion to people. However, where real-time information is crucial, these platforms, without any mechanism of filtering, allow misinformation and myths to disseminate. Initially, it was statistics, diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and individual stories that entertained the masses without any hint of credibility.  Now, as the pandemic has intensified, so has the nature of these fake information. The most terrifying of these is the spread of baseless remedies. In terms of Pakistan, plenty of posts have been flourishing on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube that promise recovery from the disease that science identifies incurable. One, in particular, is advising herbal products like black seeds and Senna leaves. Medical prescriptions with drugs mentioned are also being added from people with no medical and health training. At worse, some individuals are crediting themselves with claiming the pandemic as a hoax and urging people to not fall in the trap of this conspiracy, shredding all hopes of public response to the state’s measures to curtail the disease.

Appalled by the pandemic already, not every user cross-checks the sources and may start using the home remedies risking their lives. A recent example of this emerged in Iran where hundreds of people poisoned themselves to death believing it could cure the COVID infection. Locally, people have been dosing themselves with garlic, ginger, lemons, black seeds, Senna leaves, vitamin D doses, and Chloroquine. When taken without any medical consultation and consideration of their health complexities, such remedies only cause problems than cure.  Apart, when misinformation is regularly fed on these platforms, other important messages which genuinely mean to aware are greatly ignored. It has also been observed that a considerable part of the population is relying on social media remedies even when they are developing symptoms related to the virus without seeking help from medical specialists.

Fear and panic are much-anticipated outcomes of any crisis. It wouldn’t be wrong to state that social media has heightened both. The news of death trolls that mainstream media fuels are already sickening these days and social media sites have added to this by the constant update and share of individual haunting stories, crippling health facilities, and authorities’ inabilities.  Together with this, the constant anticipation of upcoming crises by researchers about the continuity of the pandemic, job loss, recession, and crippling economies is constantly feeding fears into the minds of people. Consequently, this leads to mental health crises.

The new realities that surfaced along the pandemic have profoundly changed our everyday lifestyle. The immediate measure adopted soon after the emergence of the pandemic is the closure of social activities that were previously sought to de-stress, including workplace, educational institutes, outdoor activities, and all kinds of social events and celebrations. This left people caged in their homes with the added fear of quarantine and isolation, at the mercy of social media. Since major activities closed down, social media usage sky-rocketed, meaning that any information, whether accurate or not, that users accessed are greatly savored. Since every individual is not resilient, the amount of information that reaches online has brought psychological effects, like panic, anger, and agitation on those vulnerable.

Apart, politicization, xenophobia, racism, and publicity scams have surfaced where a number of well-known personalities used the pandemic for the sake of attention-seeking. In relation to racism, people blaming Chinese eating habits and President Trump referring to the pandemic as “China Virus” are the manifestations of how a deadly disease could be served to satisfy erroneous wills which were fueled by social media platforms. India too used the pandemic to torment its Muslim population for spreading the virus thought their religious practices. The human rights watch observed that  Asians and people of Asian descent around the world have been subjected to attacks and beatings, violent bullying, threats, racist abuse, and discrimination that appear linked to the pandemic.

The Social Media platform has proved to be phenomenal in creating awareness of this deadly matter. Social activists have utilized various sources to convey educational messages to individuals. Celebrities, sportsmen, bloggers reached out to their fans to give them valuable safety tips and precautionary measures. In doing so, the platform has been instrumental in allowing timely measures to reach people even before the virus reached them. Importantly, where physical isolation has become a necessity today, social media platforms have come as a means of social connection. By staying in touch with our loved ones, social media has been a great emotional support at the moment.

One of the viable contributions that we could count on social media these days is the share of quarantine activities. A number of individuals posted their quarantine rituals to their followers. This included some renowned figures sharing their cooking, gardening, and exercising activities to wade off the stress of sitting idle. This, in a way, encouraged others to utilize their time in a productive way. Some celebrities came up with innovative ideas to engage children with tasks like arts and reading.

Social media has further acted like a mean of creating global response by allowing stories to flow from one part to another. This has also created a unity as there is no single country or person who could claim immunity. Alongside, fundraising and other campaigns related to the pandemic have been easily administered given the nature and reach of social media. On the flip side, the flow of misinformation, rumors, myths, and conspiracies that create confusion and threaten a person’s mental well-being call for serious attention.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a grave issue and calls for responsible behavior from each person. It is necessary that global precautionary measures of washing hands frequently, maintaining social distancing, and practicing healthy habits are ensured. Above all, it is the responsibility of each social media user to not allow panic buying, to share accurate information only, and to check sources of information before making it viral. It is highly recommended that only trustworthy channels of information are followed and each piece of information that one sees and hears is scrutinized. The world is already in crises and it is our collective responsibility to not worsen it. Along with practicing responsible citizenship by following SOPs, we currently need to be responsible online as well.

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